By Elaine Meinel Supkis
Biofuels is a totally insane idea. Unless we are planning on never eating any meat and eliminating about 70% of the world's people through starvation or slavery, it won't fuel a zillion SUVs driving aimlessly around this planet and don't even think about the mess this will make, creating desertfication from overharvesting, soil depletion, salinization of the topsoil from irrigation and burning the stuff, creating more global warming!From the BBC:
President Bush has said alternative fuels to compete with petrol could be produced within six years.
Speaking in Nashville, Mr Bush said that scientists were close to a breakthrough on making ethanol from materials such as grasses.
Technology, he hoped, would help the US "reduce if not end" reliance on Middle Eastern oil in his lifetime.
Time to talk reality here. I own pasturelands. I graze large mammals on my fields. The horse, the oxen, they are superbly efficient consumers of the frail amount of energy grass represents. Any other use of grass is increasingly inefficient. For example, my ox team, after grazing for much the night, could be yoked up and set to work all day, pulling logs of immense girth, pulling wagons with quite big loads, as big as any tractor could pull, only slower. My patient, loving boys, once set in motion, stolidly would march forwards, chewing their cuds since they store their energy supply in a fore-stomach. The horse, more nervous, much faster moving, pulled much less weight but speed is Sparky's forte. Descendant of the mighty warhorses of Austria, mountain bred, he can tool along in deep snow, happy as a lark, snow spraying up from his chest as he charges through tall snowbanks.
The energy stored in grass is miniscule. The energy stored in trees is tremendously higher per square inch because the trees soak up many years of solar energy and compact it into a tough fiber called "wood". And oil, coal, gas are all super-compressed solar energy with millions of years of solar energy in a very small, very efficient package.
The sun continues to pour energy upon our planet and various living things store it in various ways and in death, enrich the planet further but for one element: humans. On every level, we are consuming the solar resources 1,000,000 times faster than the ecosystem is replentishing it. The renewable systems that represent a true steady-state can sustain us but now within a giant bubble wherebe we can live like emperors. This is the fatal flaw to all the "solutions."
Chris, Danny and I lived without modern systems for many years. Our refrigerator turned on when the cold north wind blew and in summer, I stored everything that needed cooling in a deep hole in the ground, lined with steel. People used to laugh when I would kneel on the ground in the center of our tent complex and open a heavy lid and pull out of the ground our ingredients for dinner.
The energy used to pump water, once we got a well and didn't have to carry it in containers from much further away with Duke, our sled dog pulling them up the hill in winter or melting snow on the woodstove, the pump's name was "Danny" and using his muscles, he would patiently sit on an overturned bucket twice a week and pump 100 gallons into the big holding tank, using the Victorian handpump we installed. Baths were communal affairs, everyone taking it in turn, in between these, hand washing was done.
I burned many personal calories, doing chores. Like 80% of humanity, I had to do the labor if I wanted something. Things most Americans take for granted since energy does it for them, invisibly.
People imagining we will burn grass for oil don't bother to think things through. Grass growing regions are, nearly universally, located in places where the grass grows only 1/2 the year! Here, on the farm, any hay harvested goes into the barn to be doled out during the winter. With Chip and Dale, my huge ox team, they ate 250 bales a winter. This is a lot of hay, I assure you, as the person who moved the bales around for the boys.
The places that can grow hay year round don't get rain year round. They nearly universally have a rainy season then a dry season! Even if the grass grows, it is universally at a much slower rate per month than the winter/summer regions. Usually, in a good year, up here we get three hay harvests but this is getting harder to achieve since the average is two t in bad years, and with global warming, they are getting worse and worse, only one harvest of any note will end up being the norm.
Namely, we are seeing increasingly dire droughts up here in the north! For the last year, Illinois and Indiana, for example, had a terrible drought. Last summer, the rains failed us from end of July to hurricane Katrina in September. Then, just in time for harvesting the hay, it rained like crazy in October, one week, 10" of rain, in one day, 7" of rain that washed away our road in the mountains and did a lot of damage to many villages.
To harvest hay, you need sunshine because the hay has to lay out in the sun to dry before packaging or it rots. All the farmers harvest their hay in unison. This is universal. In old Europe, the hay harvests were festivals as extra hands traveled from village to village, assisting in the harvest. They walked, of course, with the hay rakes on the shoulder. So the hay harvest would start in the valley and move up the higher elevations. When done, the hay harvesters would walk back into the valleys and by then, the next wave of hay harvesting was beginning down by the riversides.
Reeds in the swamplands were harvested heavily for roofing material. None of these cultures burned hay for energy. It was much too precious to waste in this fashion. Ever burn hay? It generates very little heat. A pile of twigs are superior. My big pieces of ancient oak create tremendous energy. Grass barely qualifies as tinder!
Imagine great machines rolling across the plains, slicing off the slender leaves of grass, compressing it and then spitting it out as heavy bales to be moved by huge machines to places where it is compressed further, each stage using tremendous amounts of energy. When it finally is pumped into a tank to be burned, it has consumed more energy than it will produce when the SUV lurches forwards and turns its wheels.
Why aren't we doing this now?
Well, those rolling fields of grain or grass are already being consumed! By humans, horses, cows, sheep, you name it. We do produce excess corn which does store tremendous energy but this is because modern corn growing techniques hinge on using tremendous amounts of ancient energy--natural gas--in farming, especially in fertilizing the soil. Remove the natural gas being wasted on fertilization and corn can be grown only sporatically, once every four years, maximum, in between, one must grow nitrogen-fixing plants like alfalfa. Our medieval ancestors figured this out.
Chinese peasants fertilized their fields using ducks and chickens, released to finish off the crop, the birds would happily fertilize everything using their very effient vegetable burning tools called stomachs. My chicken's fertilizer is very potent, once I let it sit for two years! My duck's water tank, I would flush into the garden every few weeks and the vegetables were very prolific for it. In winter, the sheep were penned in the gardens and their piss would fertilize the soil so the cabbages the next summer would be gigantic.
In mediveal times, many lawsuits heard by the King's Court were over who got the right to pen the community sheep in winter! It was considered tremendously valuable and as an experiment, I tried it and discovered why!
I believe we can build a culture that is sustainable, comfortable and reasonable, but it won't look anything like our present system, not even slightly. I want precious energy reserved for processes like glass production, a very important thing indeed, for steel smelting, for example. I do hope we remain in the Iron Age! But all the other excesses will end up being curbed. We need modern medicine but we don't need cars. Cars are killing us. I used to bike in Manhattan and it was a daily battle with the belching behemoths. Subways are good, cars are evil. My son got asthma from car fumes in NYC.
Desertfication: overharvesting, and you know, this will inevitably happen, means the grass grows less and less and as we cut the trees and grasses, they can't provide us with that sponge/blanket of moisture and it gets drier and drier and they grow less and less, we see this very clearly in Brazil and Indonesia, just for example. I see pictures of Cambodia or Burma, for example, and am shocked at the increasing level of desert there where once jungles flourished.
The people who domesticated corn, for example, built up suddenly some tremendous societies that built huge, elaborate temples. But the cutting of the jungles increased year after year and the land got less and less fertile as the farming expanded and they made ritual human sacrifices hoping this would fix things but instead, desertfication set in, the rains failed, the harvest failed, the society failed. And over time, the jungle too over again.
This happened to Cambodia, to all jungle civilizations. None lasted more than 300 years thanks to this desertfication process.
Seemingly, we plan to try this out, yet again, on an epic scale.
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