Did Environmentalists Cause the World Food Crisis?

A couple years ago, when you could buy a bushel of corn for about $2.00, I saw adds for corn-burning stoves. It didn’t seem right, burning food to keep warm.

Now we are burning corn in our automobiles, in the form of ethanol. The ditto heads are blaming it on the environmentalists. Those crazy tree-huggers have convinced us to fill our SUV’s with ethanol rather than good 100% pure gasoline.

Now that the prices of grain crops have skyrocketed, it is easy to blame ethanol.

Responsible environmentalists have been saying some of the following things for a long time:

1) We need to walk, bike, car-pool, use public transportation more–and drive less.

2) We need to develop sustainable sources of energy from a variety of sources.

3) Converting corn to ethanol is terribly inefficient.

The best thing you can say about corn-derived ethanol is that maybe, in the big picture, it could help facilitate a transition to ethanol derived from algae or switch-grass.

But is ethanol really to blame for the high price of wheat? Consider these other factors:

1) Investors have to put their money somewhere. The real estate bubble has burst, the stock market is in the doldrums–so what’s left? The commodities markets. It’s not just corn, wheat, and soybeans–it’s copper, gold, steal and –um, did I forget to mention oil?

2) There have been rumors for a couple years now that oil companies have been buying up corn (here). It would be odd if they were they only investors who didn’t invest their profits in grain.

3) The subsidies for ethanol have been promoted by the president, not by Greenpeace or the Siera club (here).

4) The continuing instability in the Persian Gulf (i.e., Iraq and Iran) has been a major factor in the runaway inflation of oil and all other commodities prices.

My travels in Europe have convinced me that we love our cars and won’t give them up. Europeans are paying from $8.00 to $10.00 per gallon for gasoline, and they still love their cars. They drive more efficient cars, and avoid unnecessary trips–but they love to get out on the highway.

By the way, when I saw the gas sign above, I thought “that doesn’t look too bad.” Then I remembered, that’s the price per liter, so you have to multiply by about four; then it’s in pounds, so you have to double it. And that was when oil was only $100.00 per barrel. Ouch!

Fossil Fuel is Dead

windfarm-shrunk.jpgSome of my best friends are unbelievers or skeptics. They point out that there are scientists who are unconvinced; they believe the jury is still out; or they say there is just not enough evidence. They don’t believe in global warming.

Well, some of my friends are now reluctantly admitting that it is warming up–they’ve seen pictures of the poor polar bears’ homes melting right underneath their feet. So now they say, “alright, it’s warming; but it’s not our fault; it’s just a normal cycle.”

My daughter convinced me over a year ago. She reviewed a review of 1000 scientific studies that say global warming is a fact, and we are responsible (click here to see her review).

I do understand that the science of climate study is incredibly complex. In fact that’s where the expression “the butterfly effect” comes from. It’s not that anyone literally believes that a butterfly flapping its wings could cause a tsunami; it’s just that the mathematical calculations are so complex that a tiny variation early in the equations could have tremendous ramifications later on.

So what is a non-scientist to do? I look at it two ways: first, I have a basic trust that, if there is no other hidden motive, we should probably trust the scientists. Or to put it another way, all I can do is trust the majority of scientists, after ruling out those who may have a vested interest.

That’s why (apart from a couple of experiments in junior high) I never took up smoking. For over thirty years the tobacco companies had their experts who said, “the jury is still out, there is no evidence to prove that smoking causes cancer.” I thought it best to rule out the scientists who worked for the tobacco companies and follow the findings of the majority of other scientists. I’m glad I did, because as my brother recently told me, “Most men our age who smoke are having breathing problems.”

The other way I look at it is in terms of Pascal’s wager. The global warming version of it is this: If those who are warning about global warning are right–and if we don’t listen, we are (to quote some of my old friends) in deep frijoles, up that well-known creek without a paddle, in a world of hurt.

But what if we do take action to forfend the danger that brother Al is warning us about, and it turns out he was wrong? In that case we will have done the following:

We will have eliminated our dependence on oil from unstable countries ruled by the world’s worst despots. We will have stopped funding terrorists. We will have developed new technologies and new industries. We will have revitalized our economy and improved our quality of life.

Maybe we will drive less and walk more. In that case we will improve our health. If we do these things, and it turns out that Al Gore’s Nobel prize was undeserved; that he was wrong, or hypocritical (living in a big house and driving an SUV), well we will still owe him a debt of gratitude.

Last week the health and environment department in my state ruled against two new big coal burning electrical plants. Some of the friends of big coal are hopping mad. They are setting their hopes on the dead industry of the past; not on the new opportunities of the future.