The current food crisis
was terribly predictable, and has been anticipated for several years now.
Starting about seven years ago, the world started using more food than it was
producing, steadily eating into stored supplies. As grain stores have shrunk
year by year, the biofuel movement has taken off like a virus. Rapid biofuel
expansion has been propelled by a concern over American dependence on imported
oil, as well as concerns about "sustainable" energy supplies and
environmentalists concerned about our future food supply were sounding the
alarm, and being ignored. For some, it was terribly obvious that a disaster was
brewing. While there has been considerable debate about the energy returns from
various biofuels, no one debates the basic math. It takes about 10 acres to
feed a car on ethanol for a year.
The world supply of grainland is about three-tenths of an acre per person, and
is expected to shrink to less than a quarter acre by 2020.
Clearly direct market competition between rich and poor for land to feed cars
or people could be disastrous. Given the relentless fall in holdover stocks –
grain in storage – over the last few years, price spikes were inevitable.
As an environmental
activist, I was wary when my friends started enthusiastically grabbing used
cooking oil from behind restaurants. I did not think they were aware of the
political Frankenstein they were creating. American consumers are both
enormously powerful and very disconnected from the natural world or any
consideration of the limits of the Earth on which we all reside. Now that a
movement has been created to expand biofuel production rapidly, with support
from everyone from President Bush to large fraction of the environmental
movement, it will be difficult to stop.
The growth of the
biofuel craze has been very rapid. For those that would argue that biofuel does
not compete with food supplies, the actual behavior of the market, even at this
early stage, belies such contentions. Radical increases in food prices caused
in large part by biofuel expansion have triggered food riots in Haiti, Guinea,
Mauritania, Morocco, Senegal, Uzbekistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Mexico. (That
list is likely to be longer by the time you read this.) Even in Italy consumers
have caused public disturbances over the rising price of food. Biodiesel plants
built in Malaysia now lie idle, never having been put into production, because
those odd Malaysian peasants are demanding the right to eat their palm oil. Meanwhile, in Swaziland, a small impoverished
nation in South Africa where forty percent of its people are facing food
shortages, the government decided last year to start exporting biofuel.
The World Bank has stated that 33 countries may be at risk from destabilization
because of skyrocketing food prices. 
When I first started
writing about this issue several years ago, global grain stocks were at their
lowest point in over 30 years. Grain stocks have continued to fall. We are
perched on a precipice where a drought or other disruption of production in
grain-producing regions could cause severe instability in both food and energy
prices. Such instability could trigger widespread famine. Such concerns are not
restricted to fringe critics. Goldman Sachs is predicting that "vulnerable
regions of the world face the risk of famine over the next three years as
rising energy costs spill over into a food crunch…" The number of
people in the world suffering severe undernourishment was declining until the
late 1990s. Now it is rising.
Currently, 5% of the
global food supply is going into biofuels, and that fraction is growing very
rapidly – some would say virally. If
the current rate of expansion of biofuel continues, ethanol plants will be
using almost all of the U.S. corn crop within 5-7 years. In response to this
growth rate and the dangerous potential outcomes it implies, the United Nations
Rapporteur on Food has called for a moratorium on biofuels expansion. The European
Union is drafting legislation so that they will only import biofuels that are
produced "sustainably," but the definition of that term is still up for debate.
The carbon-saving aspect
of biofuels has turned out to be an illusion as well. Millions of acres of
forest, including enormous areas of tropical rainforests in Malaysia and
Brazil, are being destroyed to produce biofuels. On average, biofuels add more carbon to the atmosphere than
And how is the U.S.
responding? In the fall of 2004, congress passed a tax relief bill supporting
biodiesel, and the new energy bill passed by Congress in 2007 supports a rapid
expansion of ethanol production.
President Bush has spoken openly in favor of biofuel, and has visited biofuel
plants to show his support.
Liberal campaigner, musician and activist Willie Nelson has been advocating the
use of biofuel. Conservative governor
Arnold Schwarzenegger has been promoting biofuel hummers in California. At the
2007 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, General Motors released
their new ethanol Hummer. Virgin Atlantic, one of the world's major airlines,
announced in January 2008 that it is going to conduct the first commercial
flight using biofuels on board a Boeing 747 (one of the world's largest
It is no surprise that
conservatives are in favor of biofuel given their traditional nationalistic
focus. The number of liberally minded, educated environmentalists who favor
biofuels expansion is more surprising. I have had many arguments trying to
decipher how so many smart people could fail to see the obvious connections.
Cars are very hungry, consuming the grain that would feed 25-30 people. The
global market is highly integrated, one big pond where commodities move fluidly
and markets ratchet upwards any time the supply tightens relative to demand.
Are these facts not painfully obvious?
They are, and the
solution to the question of why so many people would be so foolish is sobering.
American environmentalism has become increasingly nationalistic. If one takes a
step back from biofuels and looks at the broader environmental movement, the
dominant trends are towards "green capitalism," or "Natural
Capitalism" to use the title of a book by Paul Hawkens and Amory Lovins.
According to this theory, the new green technologies are going to create
"green" jobs, the economy will continue to prosper as workers
construct windmills and insulate sophisticated energy-sipping homes and
offices. Consumers will buy compact fluorescent bulbs and efficient cars, and
we will steadily reduce our energy use. This "green capitalism" is by
far the dominant trend in environmentalism today, with luminary conservatives
like George Shultz being among its more prominent advocates.
It sounds great. But
there is a side to this movement, of which biofuel is emblematic, which is far
darker than any of its current advocates dare recognize. Everyone, save a few
winguts, acknowledges that oil is a finite resource. A few years ago, some oil
geologists started suggesting that the peak of global oil production might be
very soon, now or in the next few years, rather than decades away as has been
assumed. At first they were ridiculed. But global oil production has remained
nearly flat for several years, demand pressures have continued to increase, and
prices have spiked.
It now seems very likely
that we are at or near a peak in global oil production. The global industrial
economy is facing limits and depletions of many other resources as well,
prompting the prominent peak oil theorist Richard Heinberg to title his most
recent book Peak Everything. (The idea that industrialism could face
multiple limits of resource availability has been around since at least the
1972 publication of The Limits to Growth. Though that book sold millions
of copies, enormous efforts were subsequently expended in suppressing the
distressing conclusions reached therein. That in itself an instructive story. )
Some of the advocates of
green capitalism — of which there are many at this point — are aware of the
likely pending limits of oil and other resources. They paint a scenario of the
continued growth and prosperity even as we downscale our energy use and
pollution using more efficient technologies and design. Some are more
optimistic than others about exactly how much oil we might have left, and how
resource limitations might impact future economic growth. The green capitalist
model, as espoused by a number of its most prominent adherents, suggests that
we can feed 9 to 12 billion people in the coming decades even with falling oil
supplies and significant biofuel development by applying green technologies.
So why are we facing a "risk of famine," to use Goldman Sachs' words,
over forty years early and with 3 to 6 billion too few people?
Because numbers on paper
do not equal reality on the ground, and because nationalistic environmentalism
focuses almost entirely on the well-being of the global upper class. It is
probably true that it is possible for a limited number of people to transition
to a highly efficient, consumer society, but only if a couple billion of our
fellow humans suffer deprivation, or perhaps even outright destruction, to make
The industrial economy
is intimately, terribly dependent on oil. So much so that we can hardly conceive
how much of it we use. Richard Heinberg maintains that a single teaspoon of oil
contains as much energy as eight hours of human labor. In practical
application, that is probably a slight exaggeration. Nonetheless, we have
gotten accustomed to using extraordinary energy. We have god-like powers at our
fingertips when we turn the key to drive down to the corner store for a pack of
Under conditions of
expansion, the market economy appears benign, even progressive. It is no
coincidence that the peak of democratic development in the archaic Greek and
Roman civilization occurred at the peak of the colonial development and
prosperity. As the traders gained power in these societies, the market
expanded, and it was economically important for civil liberty to expand as
well. So too in modern times. The expansion of democracy and civil liberty has
followed on the heels of the expansion of colonialism and the growth of
markets. There is not a simple linear relationship between the economy and
democracy, but over time there are powerful forces that make certain kinds of
social change more likely at particular times. Ecology sets the stage for
economy, and economy favors different social movements at different times.
Nearly every academic,
political and religious leader tries to make their own ideas sound more
important than the supply of oil, topsoil, or the health of the forest. The end
result is that while there is a direct relationship between ecology and
democracy, knowledge of that connection is suppressed by leftist and rightist
alike as they strive to make their ideas and policies seem more important than
nasty things like dirt and oil.
As a result of this odd
historical conspiracy, we are suffering a terrible illusion. We imagine that we
have constructed our democracy, expanded our civil liberty, and built an industrial economy in defiance of gravity,
without regard for topsoil, clean water, or the part of the world that we label
as natural "resources." The truth is that fossil fuels have financed
a breakneck expansion of industrial development and trade that has powerfully
favored social movements that seek to expand our civil liberties. Just as the
democracy of Greek and Roman civilizations collapsed as their colonialism
became more embattled and their economies struggled, so will ours.
As much as we may sing the praises of the
open, democratic society, that kind of society is very well suited to the
position of the winner in the competition for growth and dominion. What is the
relative strength of authoritarian governments? They command effectively and
efficiently. They bring people together to undertake more aggressive foreign
policy, be it military or economic warfare, that would otherwise divide a more
civil society. We may demonize particular individuals in the current American
leadership that seek to stuff our civil liberties into the closet with the Patriot Act and other related
legislation even while they engage in ever-escalating oil warfare, but the
underlying transition is not about personal evil. There is no way the United
States and the global consumer class can maintain its dominion without powerful
military pressure, and that martial stance will favor authoritarian political
development. Biofuel is environmental nationalism, and it is the cutting
edge of this process.
As radical as it may
sound to suggest that democracy as we know it will soon fall at the feet of a
nationalistic environmentalism, a movement that may include the destruction of
the global poor among its methods of achieving "sustainability," it
seems fairly obvious if one simply examines current trends. The facts are
plain, if we choose to see them:
1) Oil is a finite resource. We are very likely near or at peak
2) The Earth itself is finite. Economic growth as we currently define
it cannot continue forever.
3) Ecological limits have impacts on our economy, and our economy has
powerful impacts on our politics.
4) The constricting of global economic growth will not favor a
continued expansion of democracy and civil liberty, and will likely favor the
growth of more powerful centralized authority among the dominant powers.
5) The wealthy and powerful classes of the world are going to try to
maintain their position of privilege in consumer societies into the future. The
attempt to do so while the energy pie was expanding appeared benign. As the
energy pie shrinks, the only way the consumer society can continue to grow,
regardless of the development of more efficient technologies, is by taking an
ever greater fraction of a shrinking supply of energy and other resources. If
the pie is getting smaller, we can continue to eat gluttonously only if we take
a larger share of what's left.
6) The consumer society will be sustained only at the cost of a very
aggressive foreign policy on the part of the industrial powers. The people
whose resources we are taking will fight
back, albeit haltingly and uncertainly. The resulting tensions will favor
authoritarian rule in the poorer nations as well.
As a result of the aforementioned,
conservatives will embrace nationalistic environmentalism, and will do so in
the coming years with a greater fervor than liberals ever could have imagined.
We will see the rise of a passionate, chest-thumping environmentalism, built on
the foundation of green capitalism, that dwarfs the current movement.
The nationalism of the
future will not be like the nationalism of the past. Past fascistic movements
were often highly populists, espousing the highest ideals and employing
glorious symbolism of a brighter future. The modern nationalistic
environmentalists will not paint bloody pictures of death and destruction.
Rather, we will, as in Swaziland, be bringing development at last to the poor,
even as we drive them off of their land and replace their
"inefficient" farming methods with modern "sustainable"
biofuel production. On April 29, 2008, President Bush made a speech in which he
ardently declared that biofuel expansion is not related to the rise in food
prices, regardless of all the evidence to the contrary.
This is the new face of environmental nationalism. It is endorsed by a broad
spectrum of the body politic. It denies the plainly obvious, hides behind the
moral neutrality of the market, and it is likely sowing the seeds of
authoritarian rule and global-scale mass starvation of the poor.
The power of the market
economy is not ultimately efficiency, it is rather the hiding of the oppressor.
If one race takes land and energy from another, then there is a target against
which the poor can focus their organizing energy. But who is to blame for
hunger in a global market economy? That is the real power of the market. It utterly defeats
revolutionary impulses before they can bloom. The global economy has become a
maze of non-racial, non-national, nominally non-class based commerce with no
one in particular to blame for any evil that should befall any particular
individual or group.
In this case,
"nationalism" as we have known it in the past becomes something of a
misnomer. The global elite, however loosely defined, bear more in common with
each other than with their fellow national citizens. Civil liberty has always
been largely defined by class. We developed a very black-and-white mythology of
fascism as we exited World War II that does not well define our future.
The elite of the archaic
empires possessed no shortage of civil liberty, nor the elite of any of the
modern authoritarian movements. Powerful institutions adapt, and the global
corporate economy is not going to lie down and die. Rather, we will see the
distress creeping up from the bottom, as we are now. Those at the top will more
aggressively label anyone who challenges their privilege, or their right to
turn food into fuel via the holy market economy, as a "terrorist,"
the modern day "barbarians at the gate."
At what point one
chooses to use such loaded words as fascism, authoritarianism, imperialism or
the like will depend largely on where one finds oneself in the grand hierarchy
of the market. The noteworthy point here and now is that western liberalism, in
as much as it may have once held pan-human ideals, is quickly being drawn into
the conceptual framework of environmental nationalism. This in turn will leave
liberalism absolutely toothless to oppose more aggressive nationalists in the
future. Are any current prominent democrats opposed to biofuel? What does that
tell us about the future?
There is already an
unholy alliance brewing between some radical ecologists, anti-immigration
organizations, and those who see limiting population as a very high priority.
(I put myself in this latter category.) The history of fascistic movements
scapegoating minorities and immigrants need not be elaborated upon. As we face
ever increasing oil prices, it is highly likely that the far right will wed the
tools of old (racist scapegoating) with a version of "ecology" that
seeks to "Save the Earth" at the expense of the global poor. We see
the lace of this wedding being spun in the global warming debate, wherein the
right is already trying to hold the global poor accountable for climate change.
Biofuel is more urgent, a much sharper sword cutting down the hungry of the
world in the name of green capitalism even as you read these words.
environmental movement is taking the easy road, telling people what they want
to hear. They are telling the public that we can continue the current consumer
society if only we do it with more efficient cars, "sustainable"
biofuels, and compact fluorescent light bulbs. By taking the easy road today,
we may gain a few points of efficiency of energy use. But because we are
failing to speak the truth, we are delivering the future to a potentially
murderous ecofascist movement. Were it not for the current state of the
biofuels movement, that would sound absurd. Given that many of the global poor
are facing famine in 2008, when oil is still quite plentiful, is it not clear
the foundation we are building? The truth is that we have a choice between a
substantial changes in our lifestyle or a global war between rich and poor of
monumental scale. Anyone who believes we can fight such a war in a nice civil,
democratic society knows little about history.
It is humiliating, it is
offensive, and we do not want to see it; we do not want to admit that our
democratic consumer society is not the glorious invention of great minds
impervious to the pressures of history. We have no more conscious awareness of
the greater processes of cultural change than did the members of archaic
civilizations. This is the real problem that we face. Simply repairing the
problem of ecological sustainability, from a technological standpoint, has been
solved many times over.
It would be simple
indeed to feed and house our citizens with a tenth of the resources that we are
currently using in the wealthy nations if that were our goal. That is more than
literary grandstanding. I have built houses heated and powered with sunshine. I
have studied the results, seen the failures and successes. Nationalistic
environmentalism says we can create a solar suburbia, the green consumer
society. That will come only at the price of murder on a global scale to
finance our consumption.
The reality is that if
we undertake to choose how we live, to purposefully change the structure of our
society so that we are not living alone in large houses, not commuting to work,
then the technological side of sustainability is very simple indeed. I have
built houses that use 90% less energy per inhabitant than the American average,
and done so at very low expense. But they are not suburban tract homes. Far
from it. They are urban and rural cooperatives. Cooperatively based societies,
the kind in which most of humanity has always lived, can achieve high standards
of living with a tenth of the resources that Americans currently use without
any new technologies. If we are talking about global solutions, is it even
possibly to apply expensive alternative energy systems on an individual or
single-family basis on a global scale? The answer, very clearly, is no. Social
design – how and where we choose to live – and cooperative use are far more
important the new technological gadgets
The truth is
that fossil fuel machines are well suited, from an economic perspective, to
individual use. They are cheap up front, though their long-term running costs
are high. Machines used by individuals are not used intensively, so the cheap
up-front cost dominates consumers' concern. But for machines that are used more
intensively, as when they are used cooperatively, the higher up-front costs of
efficiency and alternative energy are more than offset by the savings resulting
from intensity of use. What if each city block had a community laundry instead
of every individual or small American family living in a large house with their
own washer and dryer? You would not need to persuade people to do the right
thing. The people who ran the community laundry would take the obvious path.
They would install solar water heaters, and possibly other energy-saving
technologies, because it was economically rewarding to do so. Regardless of law
or ideology, simple economics would favor efficiency and alternative energy.
Solar water heating in a community laundry does not relate
to biofuels directly, but the same logic applies. The real solution to the
liquid fuel issue is not efficient cars or biofuel. It's design. The real
solution is to live close enough to where you work and play so you do not have
to drive. That kind of logic on a global scale will work. Biofuels will not,
not without mass market murder as its companion.
The problem is that no
one has an answer to the end of growth. The expansion of civil liberty has been
built on economic growth. Every movement from Aryan Nationalist to Marxist has
built movements based on telling their constituents they can face an
ever-brighter future of industrial wealth. And now nationalistic
environmentalism is assuming growth is unstoppable and making deals with the
The problem with
nationalistic environmentalism, even beyond the potential for some very ugly
political outcomes, and that is that it will not work even from an ecological
perspective. Long after the current wave of industrial growth has come to an
end, whatever the fallout may be, there will still be humans living on the
Earth. Those humans will still face the problem of organizing themselves in a
manner that does not serve to suppress social awareness. Biofuels and other
"sustainable" technologies seek only to
put a thin layer of green paint over a consumer society that is by the day
growing more economically polarized. That polarized society will never be
sustainable. A polarized society actively seeks to repress the social awareness
of its citizens, to engage in endless witch hunts against communists, drug
dealers, and terrorists of all sorts. It is a blind social system that cannot
wisely adapt to the future.
The ecological problems
we are facing seem so enormous that we feel compelled to look for shortcuts.
Every thread of our political fabric is woven from expectations of growth. The
end of growth is so inconceivable, we have no answer to it. The truth is that
the answers are both nearly impossible and terribly easy.
The first solution is
simply truth-telling. When people educated about the issues consistently hide
the truth and tell people what they want to hear, we enter a never-never land
where compromises get compromised and mass-marketed ecological niceties become
the building blocks of ecofascism and biofueled mass murder. The truth is that
our lifestyle is going to change, whether we like it or not. The only choice we
get to make is whether we lead the curve or are led by it, whether we create
history or are forced by history into circumstances we never would have chosen.
The changes we need to
make are difficult because getting large groups of people to do anything is
difficult, and industrial civilization as a whole is in a state of collective
psychosis currently in regards to growth. Almost every word uttered on the
evening news assumes continued growth for years and decades to come. It is no
wonder that so many people have so little understanding of the scale of change
we need to undertake. The very fabric of our cultural reality has become
divorced from the basic fact that the world on which we live is finite.
The changes we need to undertake
are easy because they do not demand a mass movement at first. Movements always
start at the fringes. Wise policy at the top would be helpful. But it is not
likely, and we do not need it. The process of economic localization, of
building a sustainable and democratic society from the ground up is already
being undertaken in many corners of the world, among the least privileged of
It is a near certainty
that the dominant powers in the U.S. and Europe will move right in the coming
years as the oil belt tightens. That is the only way these privileged nations
will be able to maintain their privilege. The same is true for the eastern
powers as well. The struggles of the next few decades will be top to bottom,
not east to west.
Instead of lying about
the outcomes of the green capitalist economy, instead of putting the food of
the world into the gas tanks of American SUVs, instead of telling American consumers they can rest easy
on organic cotton linens for decades to come, should we not speak the truth? We
are going to have to downscale our consumption and our economy drastically, or
face a global war over resources, with all the political fallout that portends.
We as citizens can
localize our economies, develop more cooperative means of living and using
resources, and live more rewarding lives in greater connection to the people
around us. We do not need the president or congress to give us permission. Our
children are going to live cooperatively in a hundred years whether we like it
or not. The choices we make now will determine whether they do so under
conditions of peace and freedom, or under an ecofascist boot inciting unending
war. The current trend of nationalistic environmentalism, with biofuel as its
cutting edge, is leading us very much in the wrong direction.
 Pimentel, David, Energy and Dollar Costs of Ethanol
Production With Corn, M. King Hubbert Center, Petroleum Engineering
Department, Colorado School of Mines, Golden CO 80401-1887 at
Gary, Shrinking Fields, Cropland Loss in a World of Eight Billion,
Worldwatch Paper 131, Worldwatch Institute, Washington D.C., 1996, and Brown,
Lester, World Watch Institute, The State of the World 1997, A Worldwatch
Report on Progress Toward a Sustainable Society, W.W. Norton, New York,
Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels
Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions from Land-Use Change, Timothy
Searchinger, Ralph Heimlich, R. A. Houghton, Fengxia Dong, Amani Elobeid,
Jacinto Fabiosa, Simla Tokgoz, Dermot Hayes, and Tun-Hsiang Yu, Science 29
February 2008: 1238-1240. See also Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt,
Joseph Fargione, Jason Hill, David Tilman, Stephen Polasky, and Peter
Hawthorne, Science 29 February 2008: 1235-1238. Published online 7 February
2008 [DOI: 10.1126/science.1152747] (in Science Express Reports)
 Hawken, Paul, and Lovins, Amory,
and Lovins, Hunter L., Natural
Capitalism, Creating the Next Industrial Revolution,Little Brown and Co.,
Boston, 1999, p.2. See also http://www.theoildrum.com/node/3702
Image by swruler9284, courtesy of Creative Commons license.