Burning the Planet to Fill Your Fuel Tank

Cellulosic ethanol another chimerical climate "solution" that furthers biological homogenization and ecological collapse

Earth Meanders, by Dr. Glen Barry
June 19, 2007

Humanity's epitaph may well read "Much Potential, but Cut and Burnt Themselves to Death". Nearly every environmental crisis can be traced to burning hydrocarbons for energy, and cutting and clearing vegetation for a variety of reasons. Sadly, even as climate change awareness has grown, an understanding of root causes of environmental crises such as over-consumption remains dreadfully lacking. So now, at this late date in the Earth's decline, it is proposed to cut and burn cellulosic ethanol biofuel produced from biomass including forest and agricultural "waste".

Vain attempts to fuel gluttonous, over-populated humanity -- that is well past the Earth's carrying capacity already -- from biomass may well be the final step in the destruction of Gaia's biosphere and our human habitat.

Everyone is green since the Goracle has spoken. But the fact that half-baked half-measures to try to maintain gluttonous western lifestyles remains the focus means really no one (or very few) truly approach individual ecological sustainability. Our techno-capitalist ideological faith assures us that climate change, forest loss, water scarcity and ocean decline all have technological fixes. We see capitalism's "more is good" ecocidal policy in chimerical promises of untested "clean coal"; the myth that "healthy forests" requires industrial management, and false claims that ancient forests should and can be "certifiably sustainably" logged.

Pie-in-the-sky climate techno-fixes divert attention from reducing individual and societal emissions – the only way to save the climate, the Earth and thus ourselves. Appropriate technologies have a role but their primacy in the discussion diverts attention from the immediate need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions now, yesterday, 10 years ago. Fast, really fast. As climate change becomes a huge fucking business, very little attention is paid to whether a particular product, method or way of addressing the problem will truly be effective. Do something, anything (that does not require real sacrifice), and worry later whether it was the right thing or ultimately caused more problems than it solved.

Burning More Biomass NOT the Climate Answer

Using woody cellulose rich biomass for energy to power industrial societies that have already passed their carrying capacities will spell the death knell for forests, humans and all of life. Cellulosic ethanol fuel is produced from cellulose found naturally in cell walls of plants such as wood, straw and grass. Those that propose producing cellulosic ethanol from these materials state there is a large amount of wasted biomass from agricultural and forestry sources that is currently being discarded and can be drawn upon to fuel our automobile culture in particular. We are about to embark upon fueling our society from woody "waste" that may or may not exist.

Cellulosic ethanol is all the rage these days as a business opportunity to address climate change and surging energy demand. President Bush in his 2006 State of the Union address proposed expanding the use of cellulosic ethanol by some 20 billion gallons per year by 2017. Since cellulose cannot be digested by humans, at least production of cellulose does not compete with the production of food. Biofuels from food sources such as corn, sugar, palm oil and other crops were all the rage just a couple years ago and growth continues apace, but significant problems are emerging and it is unlikely food biofuels have a sustainable and equitable future, are green, or will meaningfully address climate change.

It is illustrative to further review these problems with food biofuels which were heavily sold as green and sustainable. Yet now we find food prices are soaring globally while actual biofuel production has limited if any benefit for climate change, sustainability, equity or justice. Paramilitary groups are taking land in Colombia for biofuels, Indonesia's rainforests are being cleared for Europe's fuel releasing more carbon than saved by oil palm biofuel, the price of food around the world such as corn in Mexico is skyrocketing. Who was the genius that thought of burning food for energy? Must not have been one of the billions that are poor, hungry or landless.

Cellulose Biofuels Will Destroy Forests and Land Productivity

First let's smash the fallacious myth that cellulose as a raw material is plentiful, readily available with little negative residual impact. Energy from non-food organic biomass is only going to increase pressure on land and forests. It is the next step in the biological simplification and destruction of the Earth.

As with other capitalist environmental failings; the push for cellulosic ethanol is oblivious to limits to growth including finite amounts of land, and solar energy to power terrestrial biomass growth. Already humanity uses the majority of the Planet's arable land and net primary production. Increased demand for cellulose will certainly mean fewer natural forests, reduced land productivity, and increased land conflict.

Cellulose based biofuels will lead to more ill-advised forest thinning projects to fight fires while using woody cuttings for fuel, and to genetically modified plantations of fast-growing cellulose rich trees. Most agricultural waste is ultimately returned to the land to fertilize and build soil structure, or fed to livestock; while much forest waste is in fact nutrients for the next generation of forests. There will be even more pressure upon ancient primary forests to be converted to agriculture and fiber plantations.

Ethanol produced from cellulose ultimately represents a mining of soil nutrients and of the Earth's productive capacity. More pressure upon the land to produce ever more agricultural and plantation products will come at the cost of further deterioration of the Earth's terrestrial ecosystems, as natural ecosystems that are already failing are asked to give yet more. We can expect a whole range of follow-on problems including genetic pollution, water diminishment, and toxic chemicals associated with industrial plantations and agriculture.

As if enough forests have not been lost from Europe's bastard child, the industrial revolution, which commoditized everything, including forest ecosystems; and globally from waves of ecological imperialism as Europeans brought their capitalism, religion, cocks and forest destruction to the Americas and the world. The Earth's forests and land do not have the capacity to power human society while maintaining ecosystem services and species, and land productivity. Cellulose biofuels will kill.

Human Society's Downsizing: Starts with Less Cutting and Burning

Global environmental sustainability depends critically upon reducing the extent and scale of human impact upon natural ecosystems. All remaining primary vegetation must be protected, and large scale restoration of ecological systems where they historically occurred commenced. Humanity's overall population; as well as per capita consumption, energy use and greenhouse gas emissions must be dramatically downsized immediately. Any solutions that propose more biomass cutting and perpetuates burning for energy production exacerbates rather than solves the Earth's ecological crises.

Humanity simply can not maintain excessive energy dependent lifestyles through yet another ill-considered and environmentally damaging energy source -- cellulosic ethanol biofuels -- that further draw upon the biosphere and primary production of biomass. It will not work and will doom the Earth, human habitat and all of Gaia's creatures. Who is going to rise up and fight off the flim-flam, charlatans, con artists selling us biofuels, geoengineering, carbon offsets and more consumption and growth as the keys to a climate change solution?

The only solution to global heating and the myriad of other global ecological emergencies is to immediately begin deintensifying human impacts upon the biosphere and her natural ecosystem patterns and processes. In terms of climate, this requires targets for mandatory national emission cuts while meeting our energy, food and other needs for a reduced human population from permaculture systems and renewable, non- polluting and non-destructive energy sources that are truly ecologically sustainable. There are no easy solutions to save the Earth; they all require sacrifice, as well as changed lifestyles and societies.

Earth Meanders is a series of personal essays that places questions of environmental sustainability within the context of other contemporary issues. Comments can be made, and past writings can be found, at: http://earthmeanders.blogspot.com/ . Emailed comments will be posted there as well. Permission is granted to reprint this essay provided it is properly credited.



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