Biofuel Solves the Wrong Problem (and Creates Others)

Today is “Earth Day.” In honor of that, I am posting the following exposé on biofuels. I originally wrote this last year, before the looming global food shortages threw the whole biofuels question into the spotlight. I didn’t post it, however, as I wanted to do more research. But perhaps today is a fitting day to expose my thoughts on the biofuel fraud. My only regret is that I didn’t post this earlier, when fewer people were talking about it. It would have given me serious “told ya so” points. But I’ve been saying this privately for more than five years, so it’s time to get it out there.


Years ago, when people first started talking about “biofuel” as a “green” fuel source for cars, I responded with skepticism. My basic idea at the time was that food should be used to feed people, not cars (biofuel is made from plants, usually grains such as corn). Now, with biofuel being pumped from many gas stations across North America, my position has changed – I am no longer skeptical; I’m flat out against it.

Biofuel is popular among a lot of ecologically minded people because it is touted as “green” due to its being renewable. Every year, with every harvest, a new batch of biofuel is cooked up to drive our cars, which is supposedly much better than pulling oil – a limited and rapidly depleting resource – out of the ground to do the job. The fact that biofuel comes from plants makes it seem highly ecological.

Not so. Ecology is a complicated science, and one that is interwoven with other sciences. Just because something is “green” (read: comes from plants) doesn’t mean it is a desirable solution to our complicated ecological problems.

What it comes down to is this: biofuel addresses one problem, does nothing for another problem, and makes a third problem even worse. That’s not a very impressive resumé, especially since the one problem it does address (but does not even solve) is a political problem not an ecological one.

Biofuel Addresses One Problem

The only real problem than biofuel addresses is the problem of depleting oil reserves and the associated problem of U.S. dependence on oil from the Middle East. It’s no coincidence that ethanol production gets more attention – and financial backing – from the U.S. Government and oil companies than any other ecological initiatives. The corn-based biofuel business is really just a home-grown replacement for oil from abroad, and by painting it green the government(s) can do it with full buy-in from the public.

Biofuel Does Nothing for Another Problem

From an ecological point of view, the primary reason for using alternative fuel methods is to cut down on pollution and greenhouse gases. Pumping biofuel into your Hummer’s gas tank does nothing to address this concern. Burning fuel is burning fuel, whether it comes from a Saudi oil field or a Nebraska corn farmer. Combustion of oil creates polluting smoke and gasses. Full stop. (More on this below, under “Further Reading.”)

Biofuel Makes a Third Problem Worse

Above, I mentioned that my early concerns about biofuel were based on the idea that food should feel people, not cars. My worries were not groundless. Due to the huge amount of corn that is being diverted into biofuel production, the cost of corn for food on the market has risen significantly. People in Mexico, in particular, are feeling this, as corn-based products are a staple of the Mexican diet. In the past two years, the price of corn-based food products in Mexico has shot up dramatically at the supermarkets. According to this Washington Post article, the price of tortillas has tripled or even quadrupled in some areas. (According to Marginal Revolution, tortillas provide about half of the calories and protein for poor people in Mexico.)

Then there is the matter of food aid for the developing world. It used to be that surplus grain from Canada and the U.S. was sold to their respective governments and used as food aid for poor people around the world. But the rise of biofuel has corresponded to higher food costs and less food for developing world food aid. It’s a classic supply-and-demand thing – supply is up, but demand is even “upper.” As a result, prices go up and the grain goes to the highest bidder – the biofuel producers. In other words, food aid is taking second place to biofuel production.

So there you have it. The business of biofuel production is ecological tricksterism that causes hardship among the poor people of the world. That doesn’t mean we should just keep on driving our cars and fueling them with petroleum-based fuels. Rather, we should address the real problem: the heavy and prolific use of the internal combustion engine. Specifically, the dwindling resource and the pollution its consumption creates.

Dwindling Oil Reserves

Personally, I think the fact that we’re running out of oil is a good thing. It means we’ll finally stop burning that oil and clogging up our atmosphere with greenhouse gases. We’re being forced to consider other energy sources, but we should focus on sustainable and non-polluting ones.


The solution is to move towards engines that do not rely on internal combustion. Basically, that means electric. Partnered with this is the need to generate electricity via methods other than coal- and oil-fired generating plants. Wind, tides, water; there are many renewable and sustainable resources that can be exploited.

Short Term

In the short term, pumping biofuel into your car does nothing other than maintain the status quo of our reliance; not so much on oil as on internal combustion. Instead, the short term solutions are to (a) drive more fuel efficient cars, and (b) drive them less, (c) encourage investment in alternative, non-combustion based transportation.

Further Reading

The American Coalition for Ethanol claims that ethanol (a commonly used biofuel for cars) creates 29% fewer greenhouse emissions than does regular gas, but according to this CBC report, scientists at Environment Canada say the difference is insignificant. Quoted in the article is Bill Rees, a professor of ecology at the University of British Columbia:

“People are being conned into believing in a product and paying for it through their tax monies when there’s no justifiable benefit and indeed many negative costs.”

Rolling Stone magazine did a big exposé on the issue last year: “The Ethanol Scam: One of America’s Biggest Political Boondoggles.” really tears the cover off ethanol with this article: “Corn-to-Ethanol: US Agribusiness Magic Path To A World Food Monopoly.” To quote the opening paragraph:

“Eight years of Biofuels policy and legislation has cemented in place the first world wide food cabal, which promises a humanitarian disaster, a famine more serious than those caused by any tsunami, earthquake or drought. This crisis is not in the dim future, it is here.”

The article is somewhat bombastic in some of its claims, but it lists some of its sources at the end. There’s a lot of talk about costs, subsidies, and other numerical stuff, but it’s a worthwhile slog.

Regarding the question of food aid, the New York Times has a good story; “As Prices Soar, U.S. Food Aid Buys Less.” has similar news in this awkwardly titled story: “Africa: Food Prices Buoyed By Biofuel Affect Aid.” The Cherry Creek News takes a kick a the story here: “More Ethanol, Higher Food Prices.”


Bolivia’s President Evo Morales says biofuels are a serious problem for poor people (Reuters).

Oxfam and Greenpeace say that biofuels cause more harm than good (Bloomberg).

GreenEcoFriend says “Biofuel Production Starves the Poor.

Market Research Analytics: “Biofuel Production Affecting the Price of Food.”

Happy Earth Day!

Rome at Night

The New York Times has a nice article about Rome at night in yesterday’s Travel section. The Web version includes a slide show and a multimedia walking guide.

It brings me back. Rome is one of my three favorite cities in the world (I haven’t yet decided what the other two are), and as the article suggests, it is particularly magical at night. When Martine and I were there about two years ago, we spent a lot of time walking the various streets and neighbourhoods under the cool white light of the full moon and the ochre-yellow glow of the street lamps.

Piazza Navona, via Giulia, via dei Coronari, Piazza di Spagna, Campo dei Fiori, via del Governo Vecchio … I can’t imagine I’ll never go back, yet there are so many other places to see.

Thank goodness for well written travel pieces, as well as Flickr, my blog, and the Monday Morning Photo Blog. It keeps the memories alive.

Via dei Coronari, under a full moon.

On Self Esteem

A while ago, the Ririan Project posed an article on 22 tips for high self esteem. It’s a pretty good read and is generally free of feel-good hokum. Most of it is stuff that seems to come naturally to those lucky people who have “natural” high self esteem, but the rest of us could use a few tips.

Unfortunately, it’s also the kind of thing that can turn some people into excruciating bores. Tip to those who want to improve their self esteem: keep it to yourself. You don’t need to advertise it or draw other people into it. It’s an internal dialog; keep it that way.

Frankly, anyone who takes a Web article and turns it into a personal program for self actualization is missing more than self esteem. Building confidence, self esteem, and reaching a state of self actualization is not something you get from a Web site; it’s a life-long project that, again, some people do naturally, and others need to apply themselves to deliberately. Articles like this are really just boosters, not the thing in itself.

For those starting out, a good place to begin is to make a pledge to (a) not be an ass, and (b) be sincere about things. If everyone embraced those two things, the world would be a much better place and we’d all be a lot happier.

Previous – Next: Standardize Please!

When I’m making my various trips through the Web it drives me crazy that there are no standards for how to represent the “previous” and “next” page (or message) links on Web sites. For example, in Yahoo Mail (classic view), when you get to the bottom of a page of messages and want to go to farther back, you click the “Next” link. Similarly, if you want to see more recent messages you click the “Previous” link.

Yahoo Classic: “Next” means “older” and “Previous” means newer. Confusing!

I find that confusing. Most of us are used to chronologically based Web pages like blogs, so for us, going to older items corresponds to “previous,” not “next.” Unfortunately, a lot of blog templates employ the same logic as Yahoo, including this new one I’m using now. Out of the box, the code that came with the template would put the following at the bottom of a page of posts:

Original design: “Previous” means “forward” (newer) and “Next” means “backward” (older). Confusing!

The logic seems to be based on stacked pages, like in a book, with the most recent items on the top page, and the older ones on subsequent pages. Thus, you go to the “next” page to read older items and “previous” to read newer ones. But on the Web, the ordering is based on time, not position in a stack.

Then there’s the direction of the arrows in the above examples; they’re pointing the wrong way.

The visualization model that Web users have gotten used to is that of a scroll, usually going from right to left, with items getting older as they go farther left. For example, look at most photo blogs, where the most frequently used navigation involves clicking on the left side of an image to go to the older image and clicking on the right side to go to the newer one. There might also be arrows or chevrons involved, in which case <- or << almost universally means “older” and -> or >> means “newer.”

You also see this preferred visualization in the icons on your Web browser; the arrow pointing to the left means “Back” (i.e., older stuff) and the arrow pointing right means “Forward” (newer stuff). That’s a standard we’re pretty used to. So when an email site or a blog comes along and points right for older and left for newer, it is highly dissonant.

Some sites get it almost right. If you use Twitter via your Web browser, you’ll see pretty intuitive navigational links at the bottom of the page. The arrows point in the wrong direction, but the words “Newer” and “Older” trump any discordance from the arrow direction. (The text has more resonance than the graphical element.)

Twitter gets it half right; and it’s the important half.

Flickr also gets it half right. Or more precisely, it gets two halves wrong and the third half right, but it’s a big third half, so it overrides the others. (Are you following…?) In Flickr’s case, it uses the dreaded “Previous” and “Next” (bad!) and the chevrons point the wrong way (double bad!), but none of that matters because it uses the big in your face heuristic of numbers, with your current position clearly indicated. In an ideal world, it would get all three right.

(Top) Flickr as it is. (Bottom) Flickr as I want it to be. No biggie though, because those numbers make it so clear that the other problems are almost irrelevant.

When it comes to my blog, I know just enough about PHP that I was able to re-jig the new template so the links not only point in what I consider the correct direction, but they use words that are more properly descriptive. Namely:

Revised version of this template; clear and easy!

I hereby put out a call to standardize the navigation on Web sites that have linear, chronological pages. Namely:

  • Point left for older,
  • point right for newer,
  • Use descriptive text like “older” and “newer” instead of ambiguous text like “previous” and “next.”