Ethanol - Biofuel? Pfft - not even close

It appears that we are not making much progress regarding the trend for increased dissent and partisanship with respect to energy policies. Political division has run rampant in the United States Congress for several years now. This is causing a major loss of ground for the environmental movement. Highlighting this loss of ground are two important factors. One is the trend toward the perpetuation of extreme partisan views through social media. The other is the fact that our political system is structured in terms of “winners and losers.” These factors are elaborated below.

High-level polarization in the nation’s capital may be indicative of greater polarization amongst the citizens of the country. The continual flow of information for all people provides citizens with on-demand content that fits their personal perceptions. Individuals have a tendency to belong to homogenous groupings of people similar to themselves on websites like Facebook. As a result if a political topic were to be discussed on Facebook it may result in an array of comments, however it is likely that the homogenous members of the group will outnumber those not in the group. Not only is it more likely that the number of homogeneous comments will be larger but also the attention paid to homogenous messages will also be higher. The end result is an unintended consequence of behavioral entrenchment as our minds look for answers to deal with the vast amount of stimulation available to us, we only focus on the ideas that make sense and are easier to understand. It is much easier to develop perspective on a variety of issues when one is not working 60 hours a week, using mental prowess to figure out how to get a promotion or manage getting the kids to gymnastics. Each step we take within a limited social network further entrenches us closer to our current norms and worldview, and makes those of different perspectives more foreign, and difficult to understand. Eventually individuals who speak their mind may learn behaviors of conflict avoidance when interacting with entrenched persons, and if they don’t, the entrenched person may learn behaviors of ignoring posts made by a perceived attention grabber. All of this leads to continued polarization, as homogenous groups grow further apart ideologically. Polarization will override meaningful conversations, or inspire debates where no such debate should exist. In the case of climate change inaction is squarely tied to the fact that debate on its existence perpetuates. Social phenomena such as these have actually increased the rate of climate change denial.

Another important factor holding us back and actually making us lose ground is the system’s acceptance of “choosing winners and losers”. By accepting these behaviors we accept an opportunity cost that political forces can select winners and losers better than industry and academia. If legislative action chooses a winner and in so doing creates a number of losers, a poor technology can become embedded and continually drain resources from actual solutions. By applying resources smartly and strategically, beneficial technologies may be developed, and scaled for more rapid application of benefits. This can only occur by depoliticizing the distribution of resources to entrepreneurial efforts.

The act of propping up a failing solution causes an array of damage. This perpetuates the status quo, and essential time is lost that is needed to feasibly address the world’s energy crisis. In many respects the world has passed the threshold of easy solutions and has entered a time period where only painful solutions will have the ability to make the progress needed. The United States had great opportunity in the 1970’s during the OPEC oil embargo to make the necessary change. Society had forward thinkers like Rachel Carson, and Dr. Hubbert, as well as books like “Limits to Growth” published in collaboration with MIT. Unfortunately the scientific community rejected these visionaries as pariahs.

Fifty years later prominent magazines are still attacking Rachel Carson, “it simply dawned on me that that Rachel Carson was not interested in the truth about [pesticides] and that I was being duped along with millions of other Americans.”[1] Ironically, just a few sentences later the author attempts to further demonize Carson while espousing the core focus of her book – the judicious and intellectual application of insecticides:Although the use of DDT is not risk-free, there is a vast difference between applying large amounts of it in the environment — as farmers sometimes did before it was banned in the United States — and using it carefully and sparingly to fight mosquitoes and other disease-carrying insects, as it is used in a handful of African and Asian countries even today”

Regarding Hubbert’s work on Peak Oil, “Almost everyone inside and outside the oil industry rejected Hubbert’s analysis” [2]. On Limits to Growth it is incredibly easy to locate sources that will tear it down with emotional attack language as we see here: “The Limits to Growth was neither the first nor the last publication to claim that the end was nigh due to the disease of modern development, but in many ways, it was the most successful. Although mostly forgotten these days, in its own time, it was a mass phenomenon…” [3] Contrarians have grown rapidly in power due to the democratization of news transmitted through blogs. If one is to question something they come across, the topic may be Googled and consistently yield pro and con blogs on the Internet. This inevitably disrupts the perceived balance of individuals trying to go through a worldly sense-making process. This process also exists in media with climate change, when Climate deniers are given equal time as a scientist. To an audience member this may be perceived as two experts having a debate and the jury is still out. In this respect the mainstream media has greatly failed the American people.

Thought leaders like Rachel Carson and Hubbert had the ability, had they not been degraded by their communities, to lead visionary action 40 years ago. Had society embraced these thoughts and explored them, instead of doing battle against them, the world would be on a much more sustainable trajectory than we are on today. While it is good that energy and environmental actions have focused on making energy cleaner and more efficient, these actions have also led to the preservation and entrenchment of consumer society. A better response to the OPEC oil embargo would have been greater propagation of population density and anti-sprawl measures. However, in the past 40 years land usage and sprawl has been a growing force of spreading financial resources far and wide. For example, at the University at Buffalo Regional Institute Community Congress, in support of the One Region Forward Movement, the Dean of the School of Architecture – Bob Shibley – described the continual and rapid growth of land use in Western New York despite the region experiencing population loss. The acceptance of this trend is rooted in the region’s failure to accept and understand sustainable urban development principles.

To understand the politics of energy, the case of Ethanol is clearer than almost any other. As the most wasteful, consumptive fuel source with an EROI certainly less than 2, the fuel appears to create GDP but in actuality does not. This fuel has been turned into a primary electoral question in the state of Iowa. Commentators have noted [4] that Obama is considering increasing the blend requirement of ethanol with the clearly political goal of retaining an Iowa democratic senate seat. In addition to this we can see that the majority of republican candidates must, in the author of this article’s words “bend a knee to king corn.” [5]

As a result of trying to retain political power in this battleground state, Iowa is able to virtually demand that the rest of the country pay to subsidize its product. With a 10% ethanol blend requirement this is exactly what is happening.

I feel that things are not getting better; I think they are getting worse. My support for this assertion is best described using a pie metaphor. The economy is a single pie where all programs must compete for their bite of resources. While economic growth is rampant the pie continually grows. The pie’s ability to provide bites of pie to new programs is growing just like the economy. As long as the pie is growing, then in general all the previous pie eaters get to keep their portion of the pie, and the fight for resources can be located on new slices of the pie that have just grown. This means that new programs can always use a future view in an attempt to locate government resources. However, with slow to no economic growth the amount of new slices available for new projects is reduced or completely gone. Compromise and concessions have to be made if any new projects are to be funded, but these come at the sacrifice of those used to retaining their piece of the pie. Our current situation has reached a level where compromise for resources has come to an end. Pie consumers refuse to compromise further and this is related to the extreme polarization of the American congress. Those who received a slice of the pie every year for decades must now manage with a few bites, placing the entire structure in jeopardy. Perhaps where this is most felt is on the impact of retirement funds. Regardless of retirement plans through a company or a 401k the structure is equally volatile. We have a society that now seeks to support its citizens for 20 years after they have concluded active contribution to economic production. The way this was perceived as sustainable in the past was factoring in a 7% annual growth rate on retirement accounts. However, mutual funds and retirement accounts haven’t been performing at that level for years now. If we consider 2007 to be the year of “Peak Cheap Oil” then we realize that rising energy costs are truly limiting economic growth and the ability of mutual funds to meet their payout needs through financial growth investment profits. “Among people older than 55, the rate of insolvency — the inability of a debtor to pay his or her debts — climbed from 4.6 per cent to 20.6 per cent from 1989 to 2009” 6]While increased lifespan is certainly one cause of this insolvency, the inflating cost of energy, and low rates of investment growths are contributing factors. As seniors exert tremendous influence over the political system we can expect the battle for resources to continually heat up.









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