Food Or Fuel?

Last week My Conservative Friend™ was railing on about how they use sugar cane for fuel in South America and by God why isn’t America running its cars on American corn? I had to explain to him that actually we are, we do, and we have: and some of us don’t think it’s a good thing to turn our food into fuel. Not when people are going hungry, not when food prices are going up, not when Wall Street speculation on corn prices causes price spikes, and most of all not when corn fuels are so energy-intensive to produce that they don’t really solve our energy problems or the climate change problem.

He was completely unaware of the whole ethanol thing, how we now mix ethanol with gasoline. I couldn’t remember how much, but I did remember that it was a couple years ago that Congress mandated higher ethanol content in gasoline, and I remembered some people raising a big stink about it because ethanol can tear up some engines, especially things like lawnmowers. And I remember gas pumps have a big sticker on them indicating the percent of ethanol content in all gasoline. So how someone like My Conservative Friend™ can fill up his big gas-guzzling SUV with gas every week but not be aware that it’s mixed with ethanol is a little mind-boggling to me.

Over at Grist I saw this article which says 40% of all U.S. corn produced goes into our gas tanks. That’s a lot of corn, and I have to say, even I didn’t realize it was that high.

One of the things that frustrates me about our world today is that people are being increasingly asked to engage in the public discourse, yet they are not given the information they need to do so with any level of accuracy. It’s like the Powers That Be want people to be uninformed, but they also want people to be engaged. I guess it’s easier to manipulate an uninformed populace, and giving people politics instead of news and opinion instead of information is the modern-day “bread and circuses” which makes us feel like we are involved in our democracy without actually having control over anything.

I mean, seriously. How can we have a discussion about national energy policy when people don’t even know that American gasoline is mixed with corn ethanol? How can our opinions be valid when we aren’t even informed about what our government is currently doing?

Anyway, Grist calls corn ethanol “the boondoggle that won’t die,” and it’s hard to disagree:

What’s frustrating isn’t that the government is investing in alternative liquid fuels. It’s that, national security be damned, we’re barking up the wrong energy tree: All the data point to ethanol being a climate dead end. And it’s a dead end that’s eating our food. Yet the government finds ways to keep the money flowing towards ethanol. It’s truly the boondoggle that just won’t die.

There is an education gap that makes debating public policy issues so difficult. All the Republicans have to do is come up with some amygdala-triggering slogan: “Nuke The Ragheads!”, “Drill Here, Drill Now!” and “America Fuck Yeah!” None of these things educate people about the world as it is, policies that are currently in place, or the issues that these policies raise. But they do provide an emotional release.

The Left operates on the assumption that people already know what policies are in place, what issues they present, and let’s talk about what we need to do. And we get nowhere.


Filed under energy future, energy production, Energy Solutions, environment, gas prices

16 responses to “Food Or Fuel?

  1. Modern vehicle engines can handle 10% ethanol with no difficulty. I don’t know about lawn mowers, etc. Another thing about corn-ethanol is that it has disrupted the balance of agriculture, and driven other crops – soy beans most prominently, I think – to So. America, where rain forests are plowed under to provide more arable land.

    Nothing happens in a vaccuum. Oxygenated fuels burn cleaner, but there are many costs that go unrecognized.

    I guess it’s easier to manipulate an uninformed populace. Hence the Tea Party.

  2. ThresherK

    “Nothing happens in a vaccuum.”

    Especially Intake, Compression, Power and Exhaust. 🙂

    Seriously, I don’t want to share the road with someone who goes to a gas pump every week and hasn’t noticed the sign saying “10% Ethanol” at least once on every pump. At seated or standing eye level. For about twenty years.

    Someone that oblivious, driving a Conservamobile, is a threat to my life and limb. Put him in a Dodge Dart, stat.

  3. Years ago my grandmother was laughing at people who seriously thought we didn’t need farmers because food could be acquired quite easily at the store. Our ignorance is not a new thing; think about the old Helmsley quote about taxes.. Many of our people live in a world where reality is not important.

    Many of our “green” solutions are not really all that green, and yet, we continue to believe in those solutions.

  4. We have a Sunoco ethanol plant up here in Fulton, NY. I know a chemist who works there and I asked him about switchgrass. His reply was that the enymes necessary to allow switchgrass to be used instead of corn were “too expensive”. I thought it was bullshit when he said it, but it wasn’t worth starting an argument with him over a cocktail. Next time I see him I’ll have to ask him if I understood him correctly.

    Considering the billions invested in Ethanol subsidies you would think a couple of hundred million to find a way to make the enzyme for switchgrass being economical to produce a “no brainer”.

    • Considering the billions invested in Ethanol subsidies ….

      This is where I agree with the Tea Party. Kill the ethanol subsidies. Kill the farm subsidies. Gummint waste, blahbbedy blah.

      • ThresherK

        I think you have posted that the Tea Party is just a friendly new label for the Republicans (seeing as how their brand favorability is bouncing between “New Coke” and “Yugo”). I know other DFH bloggers like yourself have made that argument, just don’t want to assume you have.

        If that is the case, does the Tea Party really believe it when they say to stop supporting ethanol with our tax $, or is it something they can say bravely because it’ll never come down to getting the 46th through 51st votes for it?

      • Yeah I’ve posted on how the Tea Party is just a new name for the Twenty-Seven-Percenters. You know, every national survey ends up with 27% thinking something crazy. 27% thought Bush was doing a great job, 27% thought Obama was a Muslim, 27% don’t believe in evolution, 27% self-identify as Tea Party. The Tea Party is the Republican base, plain and simple. Repackaged with funny hats but the same base that we’ve always had.

        The Tea Party is a group who will come out against something like farm subsidies until their own state is affected, and then it’s all “Why does Obama hate American farmers?”

  5. Proud Socialist

    And the majority of the rest of the corn is used as feed for cattle, not humans. Sweet corn is a miniscule percentage compared to the other ‘uses’ for corn. All subsidized of course.

    • M. Neal

      What do you think cattle are used for? Feeding humans? Yes, corn on the plate is a small percent of the use of corn for human consumption, but many of the uses for corn are eventually for human consumption.

      • Yes but this is why eating meat is so bad for the planet. Unless you eat grass-fed beef, which is a hoity-toity specialty only yuppified folks can get at stores like Whole Foods.

      • Proud Socialist

        Cattle are a plague on the planet, destroying water resources, chewing up the land, stuffed full of drugs, using up unbelievable amounts of energy to produce very little in return, getting kickbacks and subsidies from every gov’t agency with a buck in its wallet and then farting the planet into a climate sweat-box.

        Walk a high meadow in the Sierra in the middle of fucking nowhere sometime and often you’ll find a dozen cow patties on government land all around your campsite and throughout the water sources.

        Or better, get inside a slaughterhouse sometime — alone — without a guide and see what really goes on.

        Subsidized, irradiated, chemically treated corn goes into these beasts.

        Your money comes out the other end.

  6. Ethanol laced gasoline is damaging to small engines. It slowly eats away many of the softer metals used in two-stroke engines. You can buy additives that counter the alcohol effect, but for now I still have sources for 100% gasoline.

    We also flood the Mexican market with our heavily subsidized corn, running Mexican farmers out of business. Guess what they in turn begin to grow? I’ll wait.

    As to why we keep pursuing this policy? Three words: Iowa is first.

  7. ExpatJK

    Hi, first time poster here. I do agree that we can’t assume that people know the issues surrounding certain policies, let alone the existence of said policies. I wonder how to address this without coming across as a ‘liberal elitist’ since that meme is so prevalent in our political culture now.

    Plus, if people are ill-informed about policies, it makes it look like simple solutions to these complex problems are just right there (e.g. run cars on corn, no problems!) and then the next thought is why can’t the stupid government just do it because it’s so easy, see that is why government is dumb and we should get rid of it. I share your frustration…

  8. Chris V

    The problem is not that people aren’t given the information. I knew every fact you listed years before you wrote post. And I get all my information through publicly available channels.

    No, the problem is that a certain percentage of our population couldn’t be bothered to read the publicly available information. Typically from my own experience, it’s this percentage of the population who tends to be the most conservative.

    In any discussions with them, they have an rock-solid opinion which was formed with a complete lack of knowledge. You can’t have a rational discussion with them since they don’t know the basic facts of the case and refuse to accept any information which they don’t already know.

    • Well, I agree somewhat. The problem is that we’re in information overload. People have managed to become educated about things like fillibusters and debt ceilings and the 10th Amendment and other things, some of which can be rather arcane. They do so when the national conversation turns in a particular direction and understanding what a filibuster is becomes necessary to participate in the debate.

      What I don’t get is why certain things float to the top of the national conversation and others don’t. There is SO much information out there, our world is increasingly complicated, and unless a person has a personal interest in a topic, like farm policy or energy policy, then they will remain blissfully unaware of certain things unless and until the national conversation turns to the topic for some reason. Like the Deepwater Horizon spill, when all of a sudden we all became experts on deepwater oil drilling.

      It’s almost like the world is too complicated for us to participate in the conversation with any authority. But we’re given little snippets of information so we can pretend we’re understanding and participating in these things, we can tell ourselves we have control of our world because on this one tiny thing we pretend we understand it. But really we have no fucking clue what we’re doing, who’s in charge, and we have zero control. I think it’s what Walter Kirn meant when he talked about “procedural voyeurism.”

  9. Mack in his usual Socrates of the Succotash Set sortaway has given me a great idea. I’m gonna hector and harass my congresscritters until I can get them to lobby for making NY the FIRST state in the union to have a primarycaucusstrawpollorotherbeautycontestforpols kinda event. Then the hopefuls will be pushig for more funds for Head Start, rent and fuel assistance, Brownfields remediation, AIDS research and a wholebuncha good stuff!