Sunday, November 29, 2009
The business meeting was followed by Harold Kuester's presentation, "The astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone."
Wednesday, October 07, 2009
WATERLOO -- Kenneth (Ken) Marvin Davenport, 66, of Waterloo, died at the University of Iowa Hospitals on Tuesday, September 29, 2009 after a long illness. His body was cremated by the Cremation Society of Eastern, Central and Western Iowa.
Kenneth Marvin Davenport was born February 18, 1943 in Harbor Beach, MI to Angus Marvin and Clarice Elaine (Dollman) Davenport. Ken graduated from high school in Tawas, Michigan. He attended Michigan State University where he earned a B. A. in Geography as well as a Master’s degree in Geography. He attended the University of Minnesota where he did postgraduate work in Library Science. He then attended Kent State University where he earned a Master of Library Science degree.
Ken married Diane Carter in 1966; they were later divorced. He later met Patricia Durfee; they married in 1996, but were together for many years before that.
Ken worked as a library consultant for the North East Iowa Service Area from 1991 until his recent passing; he worked with approximately 85 libraries, many of them smaller libraries located in small towns of Northeast Iowa. Ken became an expert on library governance as well as E-Rate, a federal program that helps schools and libraries get internet access. He was a tireless advocate for libraries in Iowa, and was a regular participant at local Legislative Forums, where his beard, suspenders, and dry sense of humor were all appreciated. He was a great story teller, and even when he became very ill, posted notes on his Facebook page about his most recent exciting ride by helicopter to Iowa City.
He was a long time member of the Iowa Library Association; he served on the Executive Board in the 1990s and was the long time Chair of the Credentials Committee for the annual conference. Ken was also a member of the Cedar Falls Supper Club.
His interests included reading, geography, Renaissance festivals, Celtic culture, fine food, and spending time on his computer, corresponding with friends, blogging, and getting into Web 2.0. Ken was on Facebook and Twitter, and used them not only to socialize but further his causes/passions.
Survived by: his mother, Clarice Davenport of Lansing, MI; brothers: Grant of Salsa, Alaska, Bruce (Rose Mary) of Lansing, MI; and sister, Patricia (Jack) Kirk of Preston, Maryland. He is also survived by his sister-in-law Ann (Frank) Carraro of Ottawa, Illinois; 16 nieces and nephews; and by many dear friends from the Iowa Library system.
Preceded in death by: his wife, Patricia (Pat) Ann (Durfee) Davenport on January 20, 2008 and his father, Marvin Davenport on May 24, 1983.
Ken’s body was cremated, but his spirit lives on. A celebration of his life is planned for Friday, October 16 at the Waverly Public Library. Friends wanting to contribute to a memorial fund are asked to do so in Ken’s name at small public libraries in their area.
Sympathy cards to Ken Davenport's family may be sent to his office, and will be shared with his family.
Northeast Iowa Library Service Area
415 Commercial Street
Waterloo, IA 50701
Condolences may be left at the Cremation Society Website
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Sunday, May 31, 2009
IN DEFENSE OF BIO-FUELS
Fred Hallberg, Janesville, Iowa. June 16, 2009
I. It Began With Nostalgia.
I wish to begin my story with a confession. I tend to be critical of persons whom I perceive as being creatures of mythological beliefs which are devoid of evidential support. But while writing this paper, I have become aware that I too have been a largely helpless creature of just such beliefs.
For example, I have often criticized people who use the idea of “naturalness” as an ideal of authenticity. We should all know the problems with the use of “naturalness” as an ideal. If “nature” encompasses all identifiable things, nothing in nature can be “unnatural.” Everything conforms to the “ideal.” So this so-called “ideal” cannot do any work distinguishing the ideal from the non-ideal.
I am chagrined to have to admit that I have a similar problem. I too have an ideal working in the back of my mind, much the way the ideal of “naturalness” does for its adherents. This idea probably derives for both of us from the vision of the author of Chapter 11 of the Book of Isaiah. That writer’s vision harkened back toward the blissful world which supposedly existed before the fall of Adam, but also looked forward toward a future post-fall paradise, in which the lion would lay down with the lamb and there would be peace in the valley.
I seem to share this vision of a pre-fall paradise which was for some reason lost, and which might be recovered in the future, at least in part. Only in my case I actually experienced something like this blissful state of a pre-fall innocence when I grew up in a farming community near the origin of the Red River Valley, namely, the prairie town of Wheaton, Minnesota.
My earliest memories date from just before Pearl Harbor, when my mother lived (along with my younger sister) at her parent’s house in the town of Wheaton. My father was at the time traveling the Midwest in search of permanent work at one of the burgeoning arms industries. I was being consistently shipped off during this time, to the family’s farm a mile north of the town. I never thought to ask why I lived with my aunt and uncle on the farm, while my mother and sister lived in town. I now realize that the fact my aunt had lost her second son to childhood leukemia a few years before I was born, provided part of the answer. The fact that my mother was the family’s blue-stocking, who cared more about learning than about nurturing, provided another part of the answer. My mother may not have been especially nurturing, but the fact that I was surrounded by four aunts on the farm and in town, for whom I was the boy they never had, ensured that I received all the nurturing a growing boy could possibly stand.
I experienced the town of Wheaton as being every bit as supportive and affirmative as I did my mother’s extended Heggen family. There were much more intense and sustained social interactions in small towns back then in the pre-television age, than is the case now. All the nearby farm families flocked to town on Saturday nights, and created a festival atmosphere in the downtown area along the entire length of the main street and its immediate side streets. Like the mythical Boston bar named “Cheers,” it was a place where everyone knew my name. (Or if they did not know my precise name, they at least knew I was “Olga’s boy,” which was good enough.) Later, during third grade, my father finally found permanent work at the Twin Cities Arsenal making ammunition for the Army and my mother, my sister and I moved to St. Paul where we children attended school. But my sister and I were shipped right back to Wheaton as soon as classes let out in the spring, and we did not return to the Twin Cities again until registration day the next fall. The Heggen family persisted in calling Wheaton our “hometown” through all of this traveling back and forth. When we returned to Wheaton every spring, the local newspaper never failed to carry a news item which announced to the world that we had arrived. There would be another piece which would announce our imminent and apparently lamented departure in the fall.
I left this paradisial world permanently in the fall of 1951, when I was 16 years old. I had by then become too involved first with high school activities, and then with college, and then with military service, and finally with graduate school and married life, to stay in close contact with my Wheaton relatives.
When I finally did return to Wheaton with a wife and family in the fall of 1961, I was shocked to find that my old community no longer existed in anything like the form I had previously known. It was as if Wheaton had been struck by a neutron bomb. The population had dropped from about 2500 to under 2000. The creamery and chicken processing plants were closed. The four implement dealers (they had been Farmall, Massey Ferguson - Oliver, Allis Chalmers, and John Deere) were now reduced to one, namely John Deere alone. The J. C. Penney’s store was gone, as were the other clothing and furniture stores. The train tracks had been torn out. There were still two grocery stores and a franchise hardware store, as well as two taverns frequented mainly by older men. When I tried to locate my childhood friends, I found most had relocated elsewhere, mainly to the Twin Cities, either to find work or to pursue an education. How had this near-total destruction of the Wheaton of my memories come about?
In retrospect, I realize I should have seen this coming. During my last summer at Wheaton I had worked at the Allis Chalmers implement dealership as a young go-fer and clean-up boy. Allis Chalmers had just begun manufacturing small combines for wheat and oats which ran off the tractor’s power-takeoff. We sold them as fast as we could unload and assemble them off the railway flat cars. Once a farmer had a combine, he had no need to participate in a cooperative organization with other farmers in order to own and operate a threshing machine. The multi-dimensioned family farms like the one I had lived on for a decade of summers, always had a wide range of live stock including milk cows, hogs, draft horses, and the ubiquitous, free-ranging chickens. Now the much smaller number of surviving family farms had become either one dimensional agricultural operations devoted exclusively to grain production, or else had become two dimensional operations involving grain production plus an animal confinement facility. Before 1950 a single family would have been hard pressed to farm more than 250 acres. But after 1960, family farms of 750 and then of 1,000 acres became commonplace. Right now in my church in Janesville, there is only one family which still farms full time. It is a nuclear family of two adults and two children, plus two grandparents living across the road. They together farm a thousand acres of corn and soy beans. They have no live stock. All six family members seem to have time to participate fully in both church and school activities. A family farm operation which was that large, operated by such a small labor base, would have been inconceivable prior to 1950.
II. The Dystopia of the “Buffalo Commons.”
How should we view this sort of collapse of small town Midwestern economics and culture? One response is nicely represented by a pro-urban and anti-small town article written in 1987 by Deborah and Frank Popper of Rutgers University in New Jersey. The title of their article was The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust. They viewed the near collapse of small towns like Wheaton Minnesota with equanimity. They suggested that such places be allowed to die a natural death and blow away in the prairie wind. The great expanse of prairie-land stretching from the Minnesota border west to the Rocky Mountains should be allowed to revert to what they called “the Buffalo Commons.” The more trafficked east-west highways could then be fenced off with periodic animal crossing points. The larger cities like Wichita or Tulsa which are large enough to sustain manufacturing industries, could also be fenced off from the surrounding expanse of grasslands. Tourists might continue to visit the areas in between to view, and to be awed by, the giant herds of animals. But citizens on the east or west coasts could fly over this so-called “heart land,” confident that they were not missing anything of significance below.
III. David Morris and “The Carbohydrate Economy.”
Needless to say, I have no sympathy for the Poppers’ proposals. I felt a frisson of hope for my nostalgic memories of a lost homeland, when I first read David Morris’s analysis of the economic problems of small towns, and his proposals for a solution based on what he called a “carbohydrate economy.” Morris was a founder, and is now still vice president, of the Institute for Local Self Reliance, a public interest group which maintains offices in St. Paul, Minnesota, and in Washington, D.C. Morris first announced his ideas back in 1992, when he published a monograph entitled The Carbohydrate Economy.
Morris apparently invented the term “Carbohydrate Economy.” His monograph was republished in 2002, and I came to know his ideas through a very witty article he published in the March 19, 2006 issue of The American Prospect. (The article is also available on his Web page.) Morris argued that the depopulation of Midwestern small towns was caused by the advent of really cheap oil after World War II. There had been a “Carbohydrate Economy” developing prior to World War II. Cellulose is composed of strings of sugars held in place by a kind of biological glue called “lignin.” Sugars and starches are together called “carbohydrates,” because their chemical formula looks as if they were hydrocarbons to which water molecules had been added. This terminology is terribly misleading, since the oxygen in a carbohydrate molecule does not function at all as it does in a water molecule. None the less sugars and starches were initially called “hydrated carbon,” or “carbohydrates,” and the name has stuck ever since.
Prior to World War II, carbohydrate feed stocks made mainly from wood chips were used to produce a wide range of chemical products. One such product was called “celluloid” which was used to make movie films. The name is still applied although films are longer made from cellulose. Rayon was the first commercially successful synthetic fiber. It was produced from pulped wood chips. Many types of smokeless gunpowder were also made from cellulose, especially “gun cotton” which was used as a propellant in cannons through both World Wars. Notice that in all these cases the materials were made directly from the cellulose in the plant cells themselves, and not just from starch in the seeds. This cellulose constitutes the bulk of the plant, whereas the starch or sugar in the seed constitutes only a small remnant. There are carbohydrates in cellulose too, but they are hidden away within protective layers of lignin. So if the lignin can be dissolved, the interior sugars will be released and can make high value chemical products. This innovation vastly increases the useful carbohydrates being generated per acre of farm land. That is what Morris hopes will sustain his carbohydrate economy.
As Morris told the story, all the potentially high value uses of carbohydrate feed stocks were rendered obsolete after World War II by the advent of very cheap oil. At the end of the war oil cost about $2.00 a barrel. No bio-mass feedstock could compete with oil at that price. Cheap oil also enabled farmers to increase their productivity by using ever larger machines, and to sell their produce at ever greater distances from their farms. Food processing companies like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland were able to concentrate their manufacturing facilities in a few large urban centers like Minneapolis or Cedar Rapids. They were often located hundreds of miles from where the relevant produce had been grown.
David Morris was aware of the projections the Shell Oil geologist and statistician M. King Hubbert had made back in the 1950's. Hubbert had projected in 1956's that peak oil production in the continental United States would occur in the early 1970's, and would decline thereafter. His projection proved to be accurate. Hubbert then used the same statistical methods in 1969, to project that world oil production would peak around the year 2001. Another oil statistician named Ken Deffeyes published a book in 2005 about Hubbert’s earlier work. (Deffeyes book was entitled Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert’s Peak.) Deffeyes found Hubbert had made some errors in his calculations. The corrected projection of world-wide peak oil should have been 2006 rather than 2001. Lo and behold, that was just a couple of years off from when world oil prices began their rapid march upward from $70 per barrel to $145 per barrel last summer. That was the sort of exponential rise in price which Hubbert had said oil prices would exhibit as peak production was approached. So he would have viewed the behavior of oil markets in 2007-2008 as evidence confirming his earlier projections (using Deffeyes corrected figures). The price of oil did ball back to $50 per barrel in 2009, but that was due to the collapse in demand due to the world-wide recession, not due to any increase in production. The price has now marched back up to $65 per barrel as the recession shows signs of easing. All of this is exactly what Hubbert predicted would occur as the world approached peak oil.
Morris saw all of this not as a disaster, but as an opportunity. High oil prices would open the way for small agricultural communities to escape the fate of being consigned to a buffalo commons. Every fertile Midwestern acre could become a profitable energy and chemical feedstock producer. Demand for its agricultural products could become as limitless as is the demand for oil.
What about large food producers like Cargill or ADM? Could not they control all the value-added processing in their small number of giant food factories located in large cities? That danger would be blocked, Morris argued, by the high volume and low density of most cellulosic feed stocks, such as wheat straw, switch grass, or corn stover. Their high volume and low density would make it prohibitively expensive to transport them very far from their point of origin to a processing plant. A distance of thirty to forty miles might be the outer limit of how far it would be economical to transport this raw material. That would imply that cellulosic “bio-refineries” would have to be located at least as close together as are Iowa county seats. In other words, there would have to be about one bio-refinery for each Iowa county. Given all the supporting services required to maintain such an economic infrastructure, this system could provide an enduring economic basis for a large number of small rural Midwestern towns. Places like Wheaton, Minnesota really might be saved from becoming part of the Buffalo Commons.
That is what I find attractive about Morris’s proposal that we support the transition to a future carbohydrate economy. But are we not there already? Is not the recently completed and functioning ethanol plant in Shell Rock proof that we are already making such a transition?
IV. Current Ethanol Practice: Old as the Whiskey Rebellion. Only Replaces MTBE.
Unfortunately not. Counting the Shell Rock plant, there are now 32 corn ethanol plants operating in Iowa. But none of them use the new technology which can produce what is called cellulosic ethanol. They all use technology as old as the 18th Century American Whiskey Rebellion. Corn grain is ground and fermented into sour mash, which is allowed to ferment until it produces a slurry with the alcohol content of a strong wine. This mixture is then distilled to drive off the alcohol from the water and from the unused waste products, such as fiber, protein, and vegetable oil. This first cut of alcohol is further distilled until it is “neat” or 200 proof; that is, until it has no water in it at all. It is then shipped off to be added to gasoline to make gasohol. The remaining material is pressed and dried, and is sold as high-value animal feed. Only this last process of making animal feed out of the waste products of fermentation distinguishes what is done at the new Shell Rock bio-refinery to manufacture ethanol, from the procedures used by the participants in the 18th Century Whiskey Rebellion.
The alcohol which is mixed with gasoline is not even intended to be used as a primary fuel. It is intended instead to be used as a replacement for the gasoline additive MTBE, or methyl tert-butyl ether, which helps the gasoline burn more completely and also raises its octane rating.
You may remember the terrible smog problem endured by the citizens of Los Angeles back in the 1950's. Smog was caused by unburned hydrocarbons from automobile exhausts. The city of Los Angeles was threatened with becoming uninhabitable during certain times of the day, so a campaign was waged to clean up the air. Catalytic converters were developed to ensure that the hydrocarbons in automobile exhausts would be burned more completely. But automobile engines at that time featured high compression ratios, so the fuel had to have octane levels high enough to prevent engine-damaging knock. The favorite method of raising octane levels was to add cheap tetraethyl-lead to the gasoline. This lead-based “ethyl” additive prevented engine-damaging knock, but lead in the air also threatened the health of city-dwellers, and would quickly foul the catalytic converters and cause them to cease working. What was to be done?
The oil companies finally produced a solution. They found that methyl tert-butyl ether, or MTBE, could be made from natural gas and a few other petroleum products. It aided complete burning of the fuel, and also prevented knock about as well as the alternatives. The oil companies sold the nation on this additive as the way to produce affordable, clean burning, and high octane gasoline. There was some concern that MTBE was a known carcinogen, but the oil companies argued no one would eat it or drink it, so that would not be a problem.
After it had been in use for a few years, MTBE was found to be polluting California’s drinking water. That was when corn-based ethanol was proposed as a replacement for MTBE. It was about as good as MTBE as a fuel oxygenator, which aided clean burning. It also raised octane levels to acceptable levels when mixed at a 5% - 10% ratio with straight gasoline. There was a titanic fight in Congress between oil company lobbyists and farm lobbyists over whether ethanol should be used as a substitute for MTBE, but in the end the ethanol supporters won out. That is why all the corn ethanol plants have been built around the nation. They are not expected to provide a primary transportation fuel. But they are expected to provide a fuel additive which will prevent smog and engine knock. To get an idea of the problems of scale faced by those who hope to use alcohol as a primary transportation fuel, all the corn ethanol plants nation wide cannot to this day provide enough product to completely replace MTBE.
V. Going Beyond Grain-Based Ethanol.
To go beyond the apparent ceiling effect we are encountering in corn ethanol production, we are going to have to transition from grain-based ethanol to cellulosic ethanol. There is not, unfortunately, a single commercial-size cellulosic ethanol plant currently operating anywhere in the United States (or in the world for that matter). A number of such plants are being constructed. Some are being tested and are promised to be coming online “soon.” These promises have been being made for about a year now. But for some reason none have actually begun commercial production.
There is one exception to this generalization. The POET ethanol company has been deriving some of its alcohol output from cellulose, in addition to corn starch. Or more precisely, it has been producing alcohol from a close cousin to cellulose called “hemi-cellulose.” Regular cellulose has a very uniform interior structure, much like a metallic crystal. The result is very hard and strong substances like oak or walnut. But there are also much less strong plant materials like corn cobs or the interior pithy region of corn stalks. These materials have much less regular interior chains of sugars, and are thus much easier to break down to get at the fermentable sugars inside. The POET company’s hybrid plant is located near Emmetsburg Iowa, in the northwest part of the state about 30 miles west of Algona. They are using enzymes to break down the hemi-cellulose in corn cobs, and they then ferment the sugars within. They claim this innovation raises the alcohol production of the materials farmers sell to them by about 30% per acre. This is an example of the sorts of innovation which will eventually permit bio-fuel production to rise to the point where it can begin making a serious dent in our use of fossil fuels in the transportation sector of our economy.
VI. The “Two Platforms” For Making Cellulosic Ethanol.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden Colorado (or “NREL,” as it is called) lists two main “platforms,” or ways, to make bio-fuels from cellulose. These are the “Bio-Chemical,” and the “Thermo-chemical,” platforms respectively.
A. The Bio-Chemical Platform.
The first of these, the bio-chemical platform, is similar to the model of the POET company’s use of corncobs to make ethanol. We all know that pieces of wood left on the moist ground will eventually soften and fall apart. How does this happen? There are enzymes, which are sort of catalysts provided by nature, which hasten the process by means of which wood is broken down into soft humus. Such enzymes also exist in concentrated form in the guts of termites and of cattle. These enzymes enable the termite to break down wood chips, and the cow to break down hay, so as to utilize the interior sugars for energy. The bio-chemical platform aims to duplicate this achievement of nature by breaking down wood chips or corn cobs into sugar and lignin so the sugar can be separated out and fermented. Then the process goes to completion just as it does when making beverage alcohol. This is an attractive technology because it operates equally well at all scales, from small to large. It is also attractive because it supports the hope that all 31 existing corn-alcohol plants can be converted to cellulosic refineries, or to dual-purpose refineries like the one at Emmetsburg, Iowa, which can produce alcohol from both cellulose and corn starch. All that would be required is the addition of a pre-treatment facility to break down the cellulose so the sugar can be separated out and fermented.
B. The Thermo-Chemical Platform.
The second of these platforms, the thermo-chemical one, is actually much more highly developed and ready for deployment than is the first. But it does not use enzymes or sugars at all. What it does is first “gasify” bio-mass by heating it to a high temperature in an oxygen-poor environment. This produces “synthesis gas” or “syngas” as it is called, which is mainly composed of carbon-monoxide and hydrogen. The syngas is then cooled as it is run over a catalyst. Depending on the catalyst, this process can be made to produce any one of several different kinds of alcohol. Methanol, or what is often called wood-alcohol, used to be made in this way by heating wood chips. But coal has often been used as the original feed stock, rather than bio-mass. You have probably used methanol in a jelly matrix called “Sterno” packed into a flat tin can. When lit, Sterno produces a clean-burning blue flame which can be used to heat a fondue pot right on the dinner table, without worrying about having to vent the exhaust outside.
Methanol is the easiest product to make out of syngas, since the copper in the condenser pipe of the distiller is all the catalyst one needs. But other fuels can be made as well. At least three research groups have come up with catalysts which yield ethanol from syngas, just like the ethanol we create by fermenting grain, rather than wood alcohol. Two German chemists named Fischer and Tropsch, working in the 1920's, discovered they could make diesel fuel from syngas by using appropriate catalysts. The German war machine during World War II operated mainly on such synthetic fuel derived from syngas made from coal. The South African company Sasol (from the Dutch words for “South African Coal Oil”) used this technology to make their country energy independent during the apartheid era, and Sasol has continued to develop this technology over the past quarter century. One start-up company, named Frontline BioEnergy of Ames, Iowa, manufactures gasifiers which use corn stover and other bio-mass as feedstock. At least one such gasifier has been installed with a corn ethanol plant in Benson, Minnesota, where it provides process heat for fermentation and distillation. (Since it does not use natural gas as its source of process heat, as do most other ethanol plants, its operation is completely carbon neutral.) These gasifiers can digest almost anything as feedstock, so they are favored for making ethanol out of hardwood, out of old tires, and out of municipal solid wastes. These gasifiers can be made in small sizes, as is the case with the Frontline BioEnergy gasifier installed at Benson, Minnesota. But unlike the bio-chemical platforms, these devices tend to be more efficient the larger they are. So their use threatens to reestablish the concentration of processing facilities in a few areas which are far apart, as is the case with food processing plants today.
I believe that we are standing right on the cusp of a significant expansion of cellulosic ethanol producing facilities, and like David Morris, I believe they will continue to undergird the economy of Iowa and other Midwestern states. The economy of Iowa seems to have already benefitted significantly from the corn-ethanol industry. The current recession has hit the two coasts earlier and harder than it has the rural Midwest. I believe at least some of this difference can be attributed to the capital invested in building and in utilizing our current network of corn-ethanol plants. But my optimistic judgments have come under heavy fire from many directions.
VII. The Skeptic’s Complaints.
A. Bio-Fuels Cause Food Inflation.
One classic example of a growing disillusionment with the carbohydrate economy was Michael Grunwald’s article in the April 7, 2008 issue of Time Magazine. Grunwald claimed the use of ethanol increases global warming, destroys forests, and inflates food prices. So he asked, why are we developing it? My own judgment of Grunwald’s writing is that it is a terrible example of yellow journalism, comparable to “Swift Boating” a political opponent. Let’s look at his charges.
First of all, let us look at the claim that the ethanol industry is primarily responsible for this last summer’s inflation in food prices. The claim is usually supported by bare assertions. I have looked for evidence to support the claim but I have so far found it to be very weak. The biggest reason for my skepticism here is that there has been no shortage of corn anywhere in the U.S. over the past several years. All orders in the commodity pits at the Chicago Board of Trade have been covered by available supplies. There were local shortages of corn in Mexico City last summer, and of wheat in Cairo, Egypt. But both these cases seem to have been caused by panic-driven hoarding rather than by real physical shortages. A second reason for my skepticism is that while corn plays an important role in our food supply, it does not play so large a role that the sort of rise in corn prices which did occur, could by itself have plausibly accounted for the magnitude of the inflation in food prices which did occur last summer.
What might have caused the food inflation of last summer? We need look no further than the rapid rise in oil prices from $60 to $145 per barrel, which occurred during that same period of time. I had personally believed such an extreme rise in energy prices would have caused run-away inflation followed by general economic collapse. But I seem to have been somewhat over pessimistic on that score. The data I have seen suggests the use of ethanol as a fuel additive has helped rather than hurt last summer’s problem of inflation by putting a slight downward pressure on fuel prices. The rise in oil prices is all the cause we need to explain the general inflation in commodity prices which occurred last summer, including inflation in the price of food.
B. Bio-Fuels Cause Starvation in Poor Countries.
The claim that the development of bio-fuels in the First World has caused starvation in the Third World is simply ludicrous. I have heard American farmers accused of two correlative sins by agricultural officials at the U.N. On the one hand American farmers have been accused of using modern technology to produce so much grain so cheaply, that third world farmers have been forced out of agriculture and into a terrible life in large city slums. On the other hand, bio-fuel technology used by American farmers has raised the world-wide value of farm commodities so high that the Third World poor cannot afford sufficient food to avoid starvation. I heard one U.N. agricultural official accuse American farmers of both of these crimes against the poor in a speech broadcast on N.P.R. Of course since these claims are mutually contradictory, they cannot both be true. My own view is that the promise of bio-fuel technology has raised the value of farm commodities in both the First and Third Worlds. I believe this rise in prices has had, or will have, a salutary effect on agricultural communities in both contexts, by making it more profitable to be a farmer. But I see no evidence whatever that this shift in favor of the economic status of farmers will cause either run-away inflation or general starvation.
C. Bio-Fuels Pollute the Atmosphere.
Now for the most unfair accusation of all. The great hope of bio-fuels is that they will be carbon-neutral, at least over several years of use. That is, since the carbon in the fuel was derived from atmospheric carbon dioxide by the process of photosynthesis, when the fuel is burned it simply re-emits the carbon it has already drawn from the air. Since carbon dioxide is the main “greenhouse gas” supposedly causing global warming, this cycle of fixing, releasing by burning, and re-fixing atmospheric carbon dioxide would be completed every growing season in the case of crops, or over several decades in the case of trees, with no net increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide.
This claim has been challenged by a collection of articles written by five authors which appeared in the February 29, 2008 issue of Science Magazine. The authors argued any expanded use of bio- fuels will require cultivating more land, and whenever a plow disturbs the earth it releases the carbon dioxide which is stored in roots and in the soil itself. It takes many years of cultivating virgins lands before the carbon cycle can come back into balance. In the short run, they say, less carbon dioxide may be released by using gasoline for fuel, than is released by using bio-fuels. I wish to make a couple of comments about this argument.
First of all, while bio-fuels may not be carbon-neutral for several years, gasoline or any other fossil fuel can only be carbon-neutral on a scale which stretches over hundreds of millions of years. This is a time scale which is effectively infinite in comparison to the normal time horizon of human actions. Even if a human act releases carbon dioxide which does not get recycled for many decades, it will still beat out the time required to re-cycle the carbon in fossil fuels. Second, the five authors in that issue of Science did not all agree on the feasibility or desirability of our making a rapid transition toward a carbohydrate economy. Some argued that bio-fuels made from waste products or from perennials grown on degraded or abandoned farmland could be carbon-neutral almost immediately. It all depends on the details of the execution of the process. That is not an argument for abandoning the effort to transition to a carbohydrate economy here in the Midwest, or for not encouraging such a transition on a global scale.
VIII. Conclusion: Bio-Fuels Contribute to a Sustainable Future.
My support for a carbohydrate economy may have originally derived from a nostalgic ideal concerning life in a small, Midwestern town before and during W.W. II. That is not a sufficient reason for dismissing my proposals, however, since many positive innovations have been derived from such motives of nostalgia. I am impressed by the range of options which developing a carbohydrate economy would open to us. It would allow the production and use of many sorts of fuels, not just ethanol, and for a variety of plastics and fibers, the use of which need not cause an increase in greenhouse gases. The nation of Brazil has used bio-fuels derived from sugar cane to run their transportation sector, and they managed to achieve energy independence in this way starting in 2006. The rocket scientist Robert Zubrin has argued (in his 2007 book, Energy Victory), that we should follow Brazil’s example and develop bio-fuels, not just to save small town agricultural economies, but to help make us less dependent on those in oil-rich nations who wish us ill. My hopes are more modest than Zubrin’s. If the development and deployment of bio-fuels really can save the economies and culture of our smaller Midwestern communities, while reducing the carbon footprint of the transportation sector of our economy, that is for me reason enough to pursue this energy path.