Letting Go of Ethanol

I’ve been wanting to write a piece arguing that just because ethanol isn’t a complete solution to global warming and oil prices, it is still an alternative to oil and therefore good. Unfortunately, I can’t honestly say that because ethanol isn’t even a partial solution; it’s just a bigger problem.

I really wanted to like ethanol because corn is good.  And I really wanted to quote Hardin from his 1968 article in Science magazine where he said: “. . .we can make a rational decision which will not involve the unworkable assumption that only perfect systems are tolerable.” I love the quotation, however, I sadly cannot honestly say that it applies to ethanol. In my mind I hear that blind Native American in the Oliver Stone film U-turn.

I’m generally wary of arguments purely rooted in economics, so I wanted to address some of those. But it turns out there’s pretty much no good argument in favor of ethanol and if there were one, I wouldn’t want to make it.  Turns out, according to Nobel prize winners and writers for Science and world news sources, ethanol has a pretty big carbon footprint when you take into account the carbon emissions released from burning forests to plant crops for use as diesel fuel. Turns out the amount of nitrogen needed to grow corn or switchgrass for fuel emits atmospheric nitrous oxide in levels that are worse for the planet than ozone. Turns out that the production of corn-based ethanol results in “dead zones” in our water sources, like a huge swath of the Mississippi. Turns out that people starve in-part because selling the crops for fuel rather than food reaps more profit. Turns out that hungry people are rioting around the world. Turns out that the nitrogen reaction used to grow the corn is produced using natural gas, which is not only a non-renewable carbon-based resource but which, in Texas, dictates prices on the energy markets. Yes, ethanol from sugarcane works for Brazil, but who knows what the lasting effects of massive deforestation will be and should we encourage the potential loss of more?

I asked a friend of mine why U.S. and E.U. legislators aren’t doing less to prop up the crop-fuel industry, like halting the subsidies and mandates, and doing more to find real solutions to global problems in the face of the evidence. He said, “They don’t want to find solutions. They want to sell corn for high prices.”

I just want to add to the greed notion another (and I think more common) one: resistance to change. You know, you take what seems like a big and calculated risk by jumping on board an idea like ethanol, and the wheels get set into motion because the idea receives the stamp of approval afforded to things that render a powerful group with lobbyists the opportunity to make money, and the legislators, after thorough lobbying, set it all into motion, and then the next thing you realize is that what seemed like a good idea for everyone turns out to be not such a good idea.

Maybe in the past the negative effects of crop-fuel would have been experienced and realized less rapidly, and therefore the next wave of lawmakers could deal with the problem. But today, for lawmakers, it’s just like everything else. What do the Mastercard commercial’s say—“Life comes at you fast. . .”? That would be so cool if we could buy our way out of this one. (Or charge it or whatever.)

I can’t definitively say at this point what I believe to be the underlying source of an overwhelming sentiment I’ve experienced in the last few years—the feeling that we are through the looking glass. But I tend toward believing in the concept of time accelaration as described by the Mayans. And I think I see the topsy-turvy experience as being the result of personal and collective resistance to the current rate of change. Fortunately for this planet, anyone born within the last decade will consider a near-tangible exponential rate of change to be normal.

My specific point is that we should stop propping up the ethanol industry. We should applaud the GM VOLT concept car. We should start investing in solar development. Solar panels are made from silicon, which is made from sand and is the second most abundant resource in the earth’s crust. Risking sounding even more flaky to the standard set, I’ll add that we should be investing a lot more in the space program, too.

My more general point is that things are moving faster. Loser ideas have to be let go of quickly despite the discomfort. Pride has to take a back seat. Change must be embraced—today’s battles are about prevailing in the face of change. Now I hear my husband’s grandmother saying, “I hate change, don’t you?” I never know what to say in response. It’s hard to even imagine something like the Cold War today. We must start finding solutions and re-working them instead of trying to get comfortable—there’s no time for that. It’s a different game now. This isn’t the 80s where leaders could spend most time feathering their beds and satisfying the public in their spare time. Politics is now a full-time job.

As Emerson said in Self-Reliance: “Suppose you should contradict yourself; what then? A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.”