As the price of gasoline hovers around the three dollar a gallon mark, people and companies search for solutions to the high cost of fuel. Of nearly equal import is the dawning acceptance that global warming is not, as some wing-nuts would have us believe, another of Al Gore's scurrilous lies designed to bring socialism to our shores. The truth , inconvenient as it is, moves us to search for a more benign fuel to sustain our mode of transportation. Or, does it?
We've got a lot of money tied up in our idea of the right way to get from point A to point B. We shop from cars. We eat from cars. We learn to deal with the opposite sex in cars. We have movies about talking cars, flying cars, racing cars and crashing cars. Look to your right, I'm pictured in a sport coat I traded to a used car salesman for a satellite radio upgrade. In short, we live in a car culture. If you don't think so, you're a crank, a kook, a limousine liberal. Just ask the proponents of the downtown bridge what they think of the 8664 crowd.
So, we can all breathe easier now that we can fuel our cars with corn. Ethanol can pull our car culture out of the swerve caused by the reliance on 300 million year old oil that some say may be peaking. Careful. That language suggests limits.
There are still a few bugs to work out with ethanol it seems. Farm acreage is being shifted from soybeans into corn. Soy prices rise. Brazilian rainforests and other sensitive ecosystems are being taken down to provide more growing space for a good cash crop.
Corn is higher on a per bushel basis than it's been in years. According to the Earth Policy Institute's Lester Brown, the amount of corn to fill a 25 gallon gas tank would feed a person for a full year. The demand effect on the price of corn causes more acreage to shift toward corn production.
Some studies suggest that corn-based ethanol uses more petroleum in its production than it yields as fuel, partly because conventional fertilizer and pesticides are made from oil.
But what could be better than growing our way to energy independence? We can enjoy ourselves with a trip south for some fun in the sun. At least now that we're growing our own fuel we won't be wasting the precious resource of oil. Wouldn't a visit to the Gulf of Mexico be nice right now?
Although we don't see it from the beach, the Gulf of Mexico contains a 6,000-7,000 square mile "dead zone"; that's in the range of four and a half million acres. The dead zone is partially attributed to excessive runoff of fertilizer and manure from farms along the Mississippi River caused by farmers mobilizing acreage to join the fight for energy independence. The fertilizer runoff causes eutrophication, a condition where the water is so nutrient-rich it causes algae to overproduce thus robbing the waters of the oxygen needed to support diverse aquatic life.
We must take heed of this interconnectedness which is the organizing law of nature. Until we, figuratively speaking, learn to refuse seconds at life's buffet we are part of the problem. We must recognize that OUR choices affect OUR world. In the case of ethanol fuel, we are heading toward accepting THEIR view of our nation's energy future. I ,just this morning, saw a commercial for a Chevrolet car or truck which runs on E-85, an ethanol blend. This car was referred to as a "vegetarian". That's got to be better than a carnivorous automobile. The Carnivore. It's what's for driving?
When we, as a society, recognize a problem it needs to be dealt with as a problem, not as a marketing opportunity. I humbly submit, the ways to decrease the ill-effects of gasoline consumption are to use mass transit, develop cities inward toward the core rather than sprawling outward, orient commerce toward locally-based businesses, slow down the routine, push away from the consumer buffet and recognize that the problem we face presents a fork in the road.
While a clean energy future is surely on the horizon, it's my bet we can't drive there.