Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Energy crisis? Let them burn cake.

Another day, another food riot. Today, the Economist is reporting on food riots in Haiti, which could lead to the collapse of government in the western hemisphere's poorest nation. The Guardian has plotted a map of recent global food riots, from last fall's "pasta riots" in Milan to the cluster of recent violence over food prices in western Africa.

The Wall Street Journal reports that global food prices have increased 83% in the past three years. Until recently, worldwide economic growth kept incomes rising fast enough to keep pace with rising food prices. But that's not the case anymore, as even first-world residents are discovering.

I've written before about agflation and its relationship to Congress's decision to use a fifth of the country's corn for biofuels instead of for food. Global food prices were already on the rise before the Energy Bill passed in Washington, but new subsidies for ethanol caused farmers to convert more land to biofuels production and constrain the supply of other food crops further, just as an economic downturn, a weak dollar, and rising energy prices conspired to increase demand for food relative to other goods.

To add insult to injury, since the energy bill passed, several new studies on the topic have shown that biofuels production could actually be worse for the climate than simply using fossil fuels. Corn production and distribution consumes a tremendous amount of transportation fuels, typically oil. If we're going to swear off foreign oil by embracing biofuels, we'd need to refine and burn a whole lot of our national corn production just to continue producing corn, to say nothing of feeding or fueling the rest of the nation. It's as though our lawmakers are trying to repeal the laws of thermodynamics.

Biofuels were innocent enough when it was just hippies raiding fryolators to power their VW buses. But telling a nation that we can keep on truckin' by burning our next meal is a particularly harrowing example of jackass environmentalism. People in the global south are starving, and entire governments are tottering, just so we can keep on joyriding our pickups down the steepening back slope of Hubbert's Peak.

All this bears an uncomfortable similarity to old frontier stories of desperate subsistence farmers eating their seed crops to survive for the winter. Except this time, we're not even feeding ourselves - we're feeding our motor vehicles.

1 comment:

Andrew Riely said...

check out the nest for an alternative view, c neal. interesting posts...