A Living EthanHell

May 19, 2008, 2:00 pm; posted by
Filed under Articles, Featured, Job  | 5 Comments

A story is told — one you are probably familiar with — about a trap in China, with a hole just big enough for a monkey’s paw. Inside is a morsel of food; when the animal grabs it, his paw is too big to remove from the trap. Whether due to pure instinct, stupidity, or simply primal greed, the creature is easily captured — or so the story goes — caught because it refused to surrender its prize, because it failed to grasp how simple escape could be.

In the middle part of this decade, the drums of ethanol began to be beaten, along the river of rising energy costs. The President, along with our vast and intertwined agricultural and industrial lobbies, greedily stuck their proverbial paws inside the trap and grabbed fistfuls of corn, wheat, and even switchgrass.

The idea was, and is, a seductive one. A sprawling American breadbasket (you know the one, laid out in neat little squares 30,000 feet below our airplane seat) that can suddenly Abracadabra! fuel into our Fords, the dark shades of Big Oil and Sheikdoms plotting and profiting half a world away replaced by the light hues of soft-spoken Iowan farmers talking baseball at the Agway. The government seemed unusally bipartisan, aggressive, and strangely on board. There was an energy and a drive: incentives, programs, plans, timelines. It was the magic bullet to free us from the burden of dependence.

Silly little monkey.

Ethanol was not a necessary step towards energy independence, but rather a poorly timed distraction from it. In a time of obvious instability in global markets, a devalued dollar, and a two-front war in Oil’s own backyard, ethanol has served to make food scarcer and more expensive. It has demanded more attention for superficial environmental restrictions that push the dream of more refineries and nuclear facilities further into exile, and it has yoked oil companies, agriculture, and the government into an unseemly, uneasy, and overwhelmingly unproductive union.

In other words — not only do I spend nearly $4 for a gallon of gas, but I will soon spend that same amount for a bag of broccoli, while the few continue to profit immensely at the cost of the many, and the government comes to look more and more silly. When we expend more energy than we get in making the energy, the math is not hard to compute.

And it says, “Let go, remove your paw, and run like Jehu, little fella!”


5 Comments to “A Living EthanHell”

  1. Djere on May 21st, 2008 11:46 am

    I disagree. While naturally, taking food out of supermarkets and into gas tanks would drive up the price of your Wheaties, Job, this is simply not happening. New land is being planted or reclaimed for ethanol (and idiotically so – it takes more than a gallon of gas to grow one gallon of ethanol. Furthermore, ethanol gives you fewer mpg than gasoline).

    Rising food costs can be traced to the burgeoning middle classes in India, China, and other developing nations. They’re hungrier and can afford more food than they used to. For the most part, the agricultural sectors in India and China have not kept up with growing demand, leading to more imported food, and higher quality food at that.

    Take Japan, for example. Japan allowed most of its dairy farms to go under, relying on imported dairy goods. Unfortunately international demand has now completely limited the supply of butter in the world’s second largest economy.

    If we were to remove agricultural subsidies and tariffs on ethanol, we could instead rely upon a friendlier country (Brazil instead of Venezuela or Arabia) and allow our citizens to more efficiently produce food on unused arable land.

    It ain’t just your gas tank, buster. It’s 2 billion hungry foreigners driving up demand.

  2. Steve on May 21st, 2008 11:57 am

    Djere, it’s silly to say that’s “simply not happening.” There are many sources to this problem, and ethanol is one of them. We can’t ignore that 25 to 33% of our corn is being turned into fuel, just like it’s relevant that other countries are eating more, and Zimbabwe and Kazakhstan are no longer exporting food.

    It’s never one thing or the other; it’s all of the above. And it’s incredibly stupid to set fire to our food rather than (as you say) removing prohibitive tariffs on Brazilian sugar ethanol, drilling for more oil, and eliminating unnecessary subsidies to corn farmers.

    Can you guess which of the three major presidential candidates opposed the pork-laden, subsidy-ridden farm bill? Hint — he’s old.

  3. Djere on May 21st, 2008 12:07 pm

    Steve, I didn’t mean to say it’s not happening at all. Rather, it’s not happening to the extent that it’s the sole reason food is so expensive, and I am so hungry.

  4. Job on May 21st, 2008 2:00 pm

    I don’t mean to imply that ethanol is like the Nothing from the Neverending Story that consumes any and all foodstuffs, like Broccoli or Big Macs, in the pursuit of making itself. But it is a domino effect that has, without a doubt, added to both the shortage of food and the abundance of cost.

    My ultimate point is that it costs more energy to make ehtanol energy and the poetry involved in it’s creation needs the rhyme of a distracted agriculture infrastructure.

    Ethanol is not TOTALly to blame for the cost of my Wheaties but it is part of this poorly-balanced breakfast…

  5. Djere on May 22nd, 2008 10:55 pm

    And that’s what’s so ridiculous about it all. American, corn-based ethanol is good, old-fashioned American stupidity.

    Uses more than a gallon of gas to make a gallon of ethanol, gives you fewer miles to the gallon, and is not a sustainable development.

    Brazilian sugar-based ethanol works and using less than 5% of their arable land keeps them OPEC free.

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