Energizing the Debate:
People as Fuel; Food as Fuel
By Gar Smith / The-Edge
November 20, 2007
The 20,000 delegates to the 2007 Gas and Oil Expo (GO-EXPO), Canada's premiere oil conference, were looking for some bold new solutions. And, at a widely publicized keynote speech at Stampede Park in Calgary, two officials from Exxon Mobil and the National Petroleum Council (NPC) presented 300 top oil honchos and their dates with a doozy.
|Lighting the way to a bright new future, Exxon Mobil's Florian Osenberg (aka YesMen prankster Mike Bonnano), invites petroleum industry delegates to light candles supposedly made from the rendered flesh of a company employee. www.theyesmen.org|
"Without oil, at least four billion people would starve," warned NPC's Shepard Wolf. "This spiral of trouble would make the oil infrastructure utterly useless." In order to "keep the oil flowing," Wolf declared, "we need something infinitely more abundant than whales." Wolf's solution: It's time to consider transforming billions of dying humans into biofuel.
"150,000 people already die from climate-change-related effects every year," Wolf continued. "That's only going to go up -- maybe way, way up. Will it all go to waste? That would be cruel."
Exxon Mobil's Florian Osenberg drove home the point. While some many deaths would be a tragedy, he asked the delegates to think about the bigger picture. "At least all those bodies could be turned into fuel for the rest of us." Wolf and Osenberg used a PowerPoint presentation to announce that progress had already been made on a new Exxon product called Vivoleum.
Osenberg informed the enraptured audience that the first experimental vat of Vivleum had already been successfully produced from the mortal remains of an ExxonMobil janitor named Reggie, who had been poisoned while mopping up a toxic spill. Osenberg held up a Vivoleum candle ostensibly made from the janitor's flesh and invited the crowd to light up the commemorative Vivoleum candles that had been thoughtfully placed on their luncheon tables. The attentive crowd of Big Oil Fat Cats happily snapped their Bics to the light candles as girlfriends and smiling trophy wives beamed approval.
Yes, Men, You've Been Conned
About halfway through the presentation, some of GO-EXPO officials caught on that they were being conned. Wolf and Osenberg were actually two anti-corporate tricksters named Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonnano, ringleaders of The Yes Men, team of satirists who are out to "save the world, one prank at a time." Bichlbaum and Bonnano were roughly hustled from the stage and handed over to the local police.
As he was being dragged from the conference hall, Bichlbaum continued to deliver the remainder of his address: "We're not talking about killing anyone!" he protested, "We're talking about using them after nature has done the hard work. After all, 150,000 people already die from climate-change-related effects every year. That's only going to go up -- maybe way, way up. Will it all go to waste? That would be cruel!"
Of course, successful satire works best when it cleaves closest to presumed realities. In this case, the premise of Soylent Green fuels assumes that there are no moral impediments to harvesting one of the nation's greatest untapped assets -- the tons of excess fat being toted around by masses of chunky, chubby and morbidly obese Americans. Instead of bloodbank drives, one could envision Patriotic Americans trudging to collection points to make donations to Federal Liposuction Administration.
It would be a fitting symbiosis. In a world where Federal corn subsidies and corporate fastfoods have combined to turn Americans into fat-bearing animals, harvesting human lard would close-the-loop, as it were-- producing an infinitely renewable resource to fuel America's economic engine.
Pouring Fuel on a World on Fire?
The world running out of coal, oil, and gas and -- with the climate going kerflooey -- we're fast running out of time. When Earth Island Institute first opened shop in San Francisco's North Beach, our concern was that we humans were "fouling our own nest." Twenty-five years later, we face a worse situation: We've put the torch to our nest.
Ethanol won't save us (despite those yellow pro-ethanol T-shirts handed out during Al Gore's mid-summer Live Earth concert). John Muir noted that when you try to pull on something, you find it's hitched to everything else in the Universe. Now we are discovering that Toyotas are hitched to tortillas. Turning corn into ethanol means turning farms into fueling stations. At the end of this road sits a signpost bearing the stark question: "Do you want to feed your Hummer or feed your family?" Even switchgrass has its problems. So what's the solution?
Despite the drumbeat of nuclear-power advocates, reactors are neither clean nor green. The nuclear fuel cycle generates tons of greenhouse gases, reactors routinely leak radioactive particulates, the spent-fuel disposal problem has never been solved and a nuclear core's potential for causing the deaths of tens of thousands of neighbors make ever reactor a magnet for terrorists.
"The future is renewable energy!" That's the cry of a hyperactive tyke who stars in a Pacific Gas & Electric TV ad. Clearly, the Gospel of the Soft Path points the way towards redemption (if not salvation). Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has vowed to bring a Million Solar Roofs to California and recently followed up with a plan to install millions of solar hot-water tanks in the Golden State. A real revolution also would bring cheap and efficient vertical axis wind-chargers to city roofs, bridges and transmission towers. Tidal turbines turned by underwater rotors could power coastal cities. Energy Kites (wind-generators held aloft by hydrogen balloons to catch high-flying breezes) could bring cheap power to Africa. And there are geothermal heat exchangers, solar box cookers and the promise of zero-point energy.
But none of this will come to pass without a fundamental reform of our Consumer/Corporate economy. Let's return to the case of ethanol.
The Food-for-Fuel Controversy
The American Dream, long fueled by cheap fuel and low-cost food, is drawing to a close as millions of acres of wheat, soybeans and cotton are replaced by fuel-corn plantations. America has become a net food importer with food costs rising nearly 10 percent per year and the cost of milk headed toward $4 a gallon.
With one in four US acres now devoted to fuel-corn, Big Ag's appetite for biofuel has been driven offshore. Indonesia's endangered forests now are being cleared for palm oil plantations, driven by the growing market for biodiesel. Forests in the Amazon are being cleared for biofuel crops to feed US gas tanks.
We have literally started consuming the planet to feed our cars. When you consider that only 8% of the planet's people own cars, this means that we, in the car-owning minority, are prepared to starve billions to keep our vehicles on the road.
Jean Ziegler, UN Special rapporteur on the right to food, has condemned the practice of burning food crops for fuel as "a crime against humanity." Ziegler has asked for a five-year ban on the practice and has called for research into using agricultural waste -- such as corncobs and banana leaves -- to create biofuel.
"If you start to fuel cars with corps," says Friends of the Earth's Ed Matthew, "you are instantly putting the world's one billion starving people in competition with the world's one billion motorists." The reverberations are already being seen in the "tortilla riots" that rocked Mexico early in the year. (Of course, the cost of Mexico's tortillas might not have soared had not the North America Free Trade Agreement flooded the country with cheap US corn, which drove Mexican farmers off their fields and undermined the country's food self-sufficiency.)
Linking the tortilla riots to ethanol may be misleading, cautions David Morris, of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. "Tortillas are made from white corn. Ethanol is derived from yellow corn.," Morris notes. "The rise in tortilla prices in Mexico is due more to the monopoly on the markets than in increased ethanol use in the US."
If biofuels are to be grown, the World Fund for Nature (WWF) proposes they be grown on land that is not currently under cultivation. The UN estimates that there are 15 billion acres of degraded land around the planet, equally divided between Africa, Asia and the Americas.
The Economic Hammerlock of Greedlock
There is a simple reason why the Ethanol Revolution has morphed into the latest/greatest environmental threat: The decision to promote ethanol was made by a powerful lobby of profit-driven corporations. (And did we mention that ethanol gets fewer mpg than gasoline and still pollutes the air?) It is the same dynamic that put the brakes on General Motors' EV 1. When GE's legendary electric vehicle proved too popular and too profitless (no oil to buy; no costly garage repairs required) Big Oil and Detroit conspired to destroy it.
Dave Brower's wife Anne once coined a name for this problem. She said we'd never find a way to save the Earth until we found a cure for "greedlock." A "New World Is Possible" but it won't happen if the Old Corporate World continues to hold the global economy in its death-grip.
Too many large corporations serve their stockholders by promoting two leading profit centers -- death and disease. If Americans were healthy, they wouldn't become critical-care cash cows for the Medical and Insurance industries. If US foreign policy promoted equality instead of Empire, there would be fewer markets for the US Arms Industry.
Isn't it a conflict of interest when Washington's most powerful lobbyists represent corporations that profit off global instability? And how did a so-called democracy allow its major TV newscasts to be taken over by corporate interests? GE, which owns the mouths that report world news on ABC, also owns factories that produce some of the deadliest weapons of mass destruction the world has ever known.
Beyond the Live Earth Concert
With the media largely in the hands of corporate interests, even an event like Gore's Live Earth eco-hootenany winds up more a gesture than a solution. Focussing the attention of 2 billion people in 130 countries on seven continents was a monumental accomplishment but Gore's "call to action" played second fiddle to the amplified guitars of aging celebrity performers.
The sight of millions of white arms swaying overhead and clapping in unison had little to do with the Precautionary Principle: it looked more like a sign of mass surrender to the Party Principle. The brief "action alerts" that garnished the global broadcast were little more than a rehash of John Javna's "50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth" -- first published 25 years ago. And. Of course, the event's biggest sponsors were car companies.
Will more people adopt Live Earth's prescriptions because they come wrapped in the trappings of a rock concert? Well, one despairs when a Live Earth alert nailing the environmental damage of bottled water is followed by a shot of a plastic bottle of designer water being swigged by Genesis' drummer.
A real Call to Action might have challenged the audience to all switch to energy-efficient lightbulbs on exactly the same day. This would have caused a measurable drop in global energy use -- and it would have served to demonstrate the palpable power of mass action. Or the Gore Corps could have called on the residents of the Industrialized World to institute an Energy Sabbath -- pledging not to use any fossil fuel or electrons on Sundays. Such a sacrifice would drop global energy use by more than 14% -- literally overnight! And it would bring people closer to the glow of nighttime stars, the sounds of birds and local mammals, and the aroma of trees and flowers.
A small group of visionaries in San Francisco undertook the first bold step in this direction when they organized a one-night "energy fast" that darkened the city's restaurants, buildings and bridges on October 20. Residents were encouraged to replace incandescent lightbulbs with energy-saving compact fluorescents. Unfortunately, Lights Out San Francisco (www.lightsoutsf.org) shared the same shortcoming as Al Gore's Live Earth -- it wasn't ambitious enough. The "lights out" only lasted one hour, when it could have lasted all night. Instead of kick-starting a weekly event that would have really made a difference, LightsOffSF was satisfied with a well-meant but tepid gesture. The organization has not scheduled another energy-saving event until March 29, 2008.
In the book, "Time for Progressives to Grow Up," Frances Fox Piven writes: "The changes needed for human society simply to survive... are so profound that the only way we will move toward them is if we ourselves, regular citizens, feel meaningful ownership of solutions through direct engagement. Our problems are too big, interrelated, and pervasive to yield to directives from on high."
Absolutely, it's important to reduce your environmental footprint to the point you're standing on tippy-toe. The real question is not "What can you do to save the Earth?" It's really a question of "What comforts and conveniences are you willing to sacrifice to stop destroying the planet?"
And beyond that the question is: How do we break the grip of profiteering multinationals that depend on Greedlock to place roadblocks on the paths to change?
Gar Smith is Editor Emeritus of Earth Island Journal and editor of The-Edge.
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