A Philosopher's Blog

Middle East Uprisings: Fueled by Biofuel?

Posted in Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on March 30, 2011
In some countries, filling stations sell bio-d...

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While rebellions and uprisings are caused by a variety of factors, one factor that often appears is the high cost (or unavailability) of food items-especially staple items like wheat (and bread), rice and sugar. The latest uprisings in the Middle East are no exception and food (or lack thereof) has clearly been a motivating factor in getting people into the streets. While Napoleon said “an army marches on its stomach”, it can also be said that much of the stability of a society rests on its stomach. A hungry population is often a rebellious population. While the world produces an abundant amount of food, food prices have been steadily increasing.

While some of the increases in food prices has been attributed to food speculators, some of it has come from what might strike some as an unlikely source: biofuel.

While the United States has long subsidized agriculture, this really picked up in regards to biofuel, which is fuel created from organic material (primarily plants). In the United States, corn based biofuel has enjoyed considerable government support and this has contributed to rising food prices in at least two ways. First, converting corn (and other food crops) to biofuel reduces the amount of corn available. This will, naturally enough, increase the cost of the remaining corn. Second, switching cropland over to growing for biofuel rather than food means that there will be less food available and the remaining food will be more expensive. Throw in some food speculation, an increase in oil prices (which impacts growing and transportation costs), and some crop failures and the result is the high cost of food.

The reduced supply and greater cost means that people who are less wealthy will have a harder time getting the food they need. Not surprisingly, the people of the Middle East were hit fairly hard by this due to the relative poor economic conditions (which have certainly not been helped by the selfishness and avarice of various dictators and their cronies).

In a nice bit of irony, the unrest in the Middle East has been used to justify raising the price of oil. This makes biofuel even more attractive and hence could spur on increased production of biofuel at the expense of food production, thus leading to even higher food prices. This, in turn, could lead to even more social unrest and social ills. Of course, this can also mean amazing profits for those with the foresight and resources to cash in on this situation. For others, of course, this can mean a time of hardship, suffering and even death.

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8 Responses

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  1. frk said, on March 30, 2011 at 8:48 am

    “. . .a nice bit of irony”
    Or a sad bit of irony depending on whether one is among those who prosper from the situation or among those who suffer from it.

  2. FRE said, on March 30, 2011 at 3:41 pm

    It should have been realized from the very beginning that using agricultural land to provide fuel would make no sense. As was entirely predictable, it increased the cost of food products. Even from the environmental problem, it makes no sense.

    Now Brazil wants to export sugar cane ethanol to us. Whether that makes sense I am less certain. It would depend in part on where they are growing the sugar cane, i.e., whether it is grown on agricultural land thereby increasing the cost of food, or whether rain forests are being cut down to grow it (not good either), or whatever.

    Even if ethanol were free, it would be problematic. Because it is somewhat corrosive, it is shipped by rail tanks or trucks so as not to damage pipelines; that requires more energy than shipping by pipelines. Also, it reduces fuel mileage to some degree, depending on how much is mixed with the gasoline. Because it absorbs moisture from the air, the fuel containing ethanol is less stable and cannot be stored as long without risking damaging fuel systems. Even when the fuel is fresh, it can damage elastometric seals, especially on older vehicles, thereby causing leaks and other malfunctions.

    There may be places where using ethanol for fuel makes sense, but it doesn’t seem to make sense in the U.S.

    We should be making a greater effort to reduce our dependency on private automobiles. That would include better city planning, better public transportation, and more fuel-efficient cars. It would help to shift a significant portion of the tax burden to an energy tax, but that would have to be phased in gradually so as to avoid undue disruptions.

    With improved nuclear technology, which should be safer and more economical, cheaper energy could perhaps be used to manufacture an artificial fuel for use in vehicles. We could also shift, to some degree, from fuel-burning cars to electric cars.

    • frk said, on March 30, 2011 at 5:43 pm

      1/ I believe the ship has already sailed on “city planning.” Streets, sewers, waste facilities, railroad tracks,power stations, etc. are where they are. Without a mighty infusion of money from local, state, and federal taxpayers little can be done but move the deck chairs around a little. Even dealing with the existing infrastructure seems impossible at times. If the ship hasn’t already sailed, it has pulled up anchors.

      Fuel-efficient cars face several roadblocks, including market forces that impede quick development and introduction of more efficient vehicles. And with market forces come lobbyists, politicians,and everyday economic realities faced by the consumer. If electric cars are to succeed, they must be much less expensive (both for purchase and battery replacement) . MR(S) Invisible Hand apparently is not a fan of fuel-efficient cars. Public transportation:Many minds have to change. People like their cars. Public transportation, depending on where you live can be so inconvenient that it becomes a very contentious issue. For example, locally, there have been heated debates over bus route changes because those changes inevitably make commuting times longer for some than some are accustomed to. Many major cities already have subways. Subways are expensive to build.
      Taxes? Not for a while, I’m afraid. It would seem that any addition to the “tax burden”, whether it’s introduced gradually or not, unjustly disrupts the tranquility of more than a few people.

      I definitely agree with you about what we should do. I’m just not too sanguine about the prospects for success.

      Nuclear technology in its present state has taken a blow since the Fukushima Daiichi plant disaster. But the blow is hardly fatal. Each incident is an opportunity to learn and adjust. For those who would scrap our nuclear energy program I say this:

      I do not a believe that the world is immutable. We live in a world in flux. We need only walk outside our door to observe that nothing is exactly as it was seconds, minutes, months years ago. For example, if the Framers had wanted the Constitution set is stone, they wouldn’t have created and ratified a constitution with an amendment process.

      And I don’t believe in the ” toss the baby out with the bathwater” approach. If the Constitution functioned on that basis, long before March 30, 2011 there would have been a successful move by some powerful disgruntled mass to chuck the entire thing and start all over. That’s idiocy.

      2/As Mike notes briefly “corn based biofuel has enjoyed considerable government support.” The phrase “considerable government support” translates to a/ lobbyists and b/congressmen from states where, even before ethanol, corn was their most important product. Now their most important product is more lucrative than ever. Likely, citizens of the corn Belt states would argue that ethanol does indeed make sense in the U.S. They ‘know’ this deep down in their ever-fatter wallets .

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 31, 2011 at 6:02 pm

      Bio diesel from agricultural “waste” might be viable. But, of course, the soil would have to be fertilized more to replace what was taken away. Bicycles seem to be a better option.

  3. T. J. Babson said, on March 30, 2011 at 4:21 pm

    A really dumb policy.

  4. frk said, on March 30, 2011 at 7:32 pm

    Progress. . . the miracle of stem-cell research keeps Clevon( Jr.) alive and f****n’em al.
    Progress. . . frozen eggs and artificial insemination keep Trevor and Carol’s tree flourishing.
    So the randy poor continue reproducing and the cooler, more ‘intelligent’, more affluent, continue reproducing.

    And so it goes. What should our stance on progress be? Is it all good, all bad, or somewhere in between? How do we deal with it? Are we actually dumber, or have the standards changed? Are we really dumbing down, or was it always thus, and we failed to see it? Surely in Ancient Greece some observant critic mumbled a few profound words about a ‘lost generation” of Greek youths. . .

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 31, 2011 at 6:09 pm

      Progress is neutral-it depends on what we do with what we have wrought.

      Socrates did note the problems with the youth-as has every generation regarding the next one. No progress there.

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