Saturday, July 28, 2007

Fueling a Corny Debate

Americans are joining the green movement in droves nowadays. Some of them because various media sources have brought to their attention that global warming, disputed and ignored by the American administration for a long time, is very much occurring all over the world and the consequences are not remote to the United States. Others have been brought to this awareness through faith groups which have spawned environmental movements asserting that the bible makes them custodians of the earth and all in it. Yet others are following the example of opinion leaders (mostly located in Hollywood) and coming to the conclusion that going green might not only pay but also make them feel better and look good to others.

Of course, as happens with all such movements in a system as highly skewed towards a capitalist mode as this one is, the big industries do their best to cash in. So we have a "green" movement in more ways than one. Rather than curbing expenditure on a simpler greener life, the greening of America takes a uniquely American approach. You buy your way to being more energy conscious. You spend on specialized products (no one has yet addressed what happens to the old energy-non-efficient replaced products in a nation as given to throwing things away as we are). What is even more disturbing is that some of the green replacements are short-sighted and could come back to haunt us. For instance, the new super fuel ethanol.

Ethanol, which is basically alcohol, is a healthier fuel option than petroleum in important ways. It is a renewable resource since ethanol can be man-made unlike petroleum. It burns quite cleanly not releasing as many effluents and pollution as petroleum. Brazil has been at the forefront of developing and using this technology and at the moment almost 50% of all cars there are able to use 100% ethanol or flex-fuel (ethanol-petroleum) as fuel. Combination or hybrid fuels reduce consumption of petroleum and our reliance on petroleum resources.

However, ethanol is produced from organic food sources such as sugar cane, corn and other grains such as sorghum. Ethanol is produced more efficiently using sugar cane than using corn and other grains. Sugar cane doesn't grow everywhere so the source of choice in the US currently is corn. However, it takes a lot of resources that are not energy neutral to grow the quantities of corn required to produce ethanol. Large swathes of land, water, fertilizers (that are generally petroleum based) and pesticides. One may argue that the left over by-product of the process would make feed for cattle and in turn cattle manure could be used as fertilizer thereby reducing some of the energy consumption in producing ethanol. However, this still remains an energy-intensive process.

The problem is twofold. Firstly, as long as petroleum remains expensive and automobile manufacturers focus on short-term fixes that modify current technology only slightly, food grain based ethanol will look attractive in comparison (despite its own high associated costs which are being subsidized by the tax payer, but that's another story). The second problem, which should trouble us even more, is that diverting food crops to other uses and driving their price up when poverty and hunger are still a problem in much of the world is just morally wrong. This solution can come back to bite us.
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