Skinny But Still Driving

by Jason Peters on January 17, 2010 · 9 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Economics & Empire,Short

Rock Island, IL

“Perhaps by devoting more and more of our already abused cropland to fuel production,” said Wendell Berry in “Faustian Economics” (Harper’s, May 2008), “we will at last cure ourselves of obesity and become fashionably skeletal, hungry but–thank God!–still driving.”

And now from the Earth Policy Institute:

“The 107 million tons of grain that went to U.S. ethanol distilleries in 2009 was enough to feed 330 million people for one year at average world consumption levels. More than a quarter of the total U.S. grain crop was turned into ethanol to fuel cars last year. With 200 ethanol distilleries in the country set up to transform food into fuel, the amount of grain processed has tripled since 2004.”

Et alibi: “The amount of grain needed to fill the tank of an SUV with ethanol just once can feed one person for an entire year.”

Read more here.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Nathan P. Origer January 21, 2010 at 7:12 pm

But everyone wins!

Farmers sell their crops at artificially high prices, representatives who push for ethanol subsidies and the like win the support of their agriculturally inclined constituents, and we use “cleaner” fuels.


avatar polistra January 21, 2010 at 10:24 pm

Archer Daniels Midland.
Bush family.

Nuff said.

avatar Nathan P. Origer January 21, 2010 at 11:05 pm

Polistra, you don’t mean to suggest that the Bush family has an interest in anything other than what’s best for the American people, do you?

avatar D.W. Sabin January 22, 2010 at 11:33 am

Hmmmmm Neo Mayan-Aztec Empire or Neo Rome?…which shall it be? Both have their picturesque elements and human sacrifices. I vote Aztec, the corn frenzy and their artistic output makes for swell tattoos.

I jest caint wait for the Grand Quetzalcoatl to fly in from the East so this Shamanic Culture can finally plunge its witless body wholly through the Big Sphincter in the Sky. Why should only the head enjoy the warmth. But I mean this in only the nicest way.

avatar JP January 22, 2010 at 4:36 pm

Ethanol. I cannot understand how we, as a nation, fell for this scam. Not only is all that grain going to those distilleries, but diversity of crop is dwindling as people abandon less profitable crop for corn in hopes of riding artificially high prices induced by the ethanol craze.

We reap what we sow.

avatar Peter B. Nelson January 26, 2010 at 2:02 pm

From Jim Kunstler: One of the farmers who organized the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture’s annual meeting put it nicely:

“The ethanol craze means that we’re going to burn up the Midwest’s last six inches of topsoil in our gas-tanks.”

avatar Steve Berg January 26, 2010 at 3:10 pm

In my checkered past, I helped get two ethanol plants started up out near Professor Peters’ domicile in Henry County, Illinois. So, I am flirting with persona non grata-hood here on the Porch. But, I maintain that there is a relevant side to the ethanol controversy.

If you look at the vast majority of ethanol plants, they are built and funded by local farmer cooperatives. ADM does have a massive plant in Peoria, but that is something of an exception. Why do local farmers get into this business? What I was told by some of the first people in the industry was that it was seen as a way to keep more of the value of their corn crops locally. The corn market is largely controlled by a few large firms, which constitute an oligopoly. As Adam Smith predicted, these firms collude quietly to keep the price of corn low, and their profits high. Making corn into ethanol, would give farmers access to another market, and allow them to make an end run around this oligopoly. The initial idea was that ethanol would be used as an additive to gasoline as a replacement for MTBE, which has some serious environmental and public health problems. The profits from the smaller co-op ethanol plants would help keep the smaller rural towns viable. I know this is why we wanted them in Henry County. Certainly this is a goal congruent with the policy ideals here on this site.

What happened was that with the massive credit created out of thin air by the Federal Reserve and other high flying sources, a bubble in ethanol formed. Instead of merely being an additive to gasoline in order to reduce air pollution, ethanol was going to be the secret weapon in the Global War On Terror, so that we could all give them there A-Rabs the finger. No longer would Our Great Nation be held hostage to a bunch of filthy foreigners who just happened to have most of the world’s petroleum reserves. The original idea of helping keep small rural towns viable got trampled in the financial stampede.

I suspect that peak oil is going to dampen the enthusiasm for folly like E-85 and other boondoggles. The production process for making ethanol, even from sugar cane, is not efficient enough to keep what James Kunstler derides as “Happy Motoring” going for long. The ethanol bubble is going to have to deflate long before we run out of topsoil. I doubt that industrial agriculture is going to survive peak oil also, and that will likely force a return to more sustainable agricultural methods. But rather than simply attack the ethanol industry, it would behoove us to look deeper into the problem, and realize that much of what we seek to accomplish, especially a revitalization of our rural towns and hamlets, would be better served by some vigorous anti-trust actions against the agricultural oligopoly firms.

avatar John Willson January 29, 2010 at 6:24 pm

Peter b. Nelson: How long has it been since Mr. Kunstler has been in the midwest and stuck a stick in the ground to see how much topsoil there is?
Steve Berg: As my friend Stan Evans used to say, “right arm!” The problem with all these intellekchulls talking about farmers is that they think that Cheerios come out the back of a combine.

avatar Peter B. Nelson January 29, 2010 at 8:12 pm

To be clear, Mr. Kunstler was quoting “One of the farmers who organized the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture”. I have tried, and failed, to find the name of that farmer. On the other hand, Mr. Wendell Berry, a favorite around here, most definitely is a hands-on farmer. He has quite a lot to say about topsoil depletion. But not so pithy.

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