Save the Dinosaurs

The environmentalists keep insisting that we must curb our ever-growing demand for more energy. The problem is, in the world in which we live, all forms of progress are dependent on energy. The rate of industrial and technological progress has increased exponentially over the last century. So has the demand for energy. It’s not a coincidence.

We could reduce our energy demands by renouncing progress and going back to doing things the way people did them in the “good old days.” We could give up cars and airplanes and electricity, central heat and air conditioning, computers, etc., slowing any future progress to a the same plodding pace it was a century ago. But in what way would that be a good thing? — Except in that we would use less energy. But is using less energy really intrinsically good? And is it so good that it’s worth giving up all kinds of benefits man has striven to achieve over the last couple of centuries?

Of course, that isn’t what the environmentalists have in mind. They don’t want to completely curtail the use of energy. They just want to control it to make sure it’s only used in acceptable ways for acceptable purposes. The question is, who defines what’s acceptable? — The answer is them, of course.

On a personal level, they want people to use less electricity, less gasoline, less toilet paper, etc. And it’s true that some people do waste a lot of energy. Personally, I abhor waste. I admire efficiency. I would love to see more efficient forms of energy, and I certainly would love to see less gratuitous waste. However, different people define waste differently.

I enjoy driving. I do it for pleasure. If I were confined to my home, or wherever I could propel myself by foot or by bicycle, I wouldn’t be a very happy camper. Sure, I could sit at my desk all day and cruise the Internet, but that uses energy, too. Is there anything truly wrong with driving out into the country, up in the mountains, to enjoy the natural beauty? It isn’t necessary to my survival. So here I am, wasting a limited natural resource for my own selfish gratification. But, somehow, it doesn’t seem to me like an intrinsic evil. I realize I could significantly reduce my carbon footprint by never leaving my house. I could reduce it even more by never getting out of bed. I could reduce it even more by dying. But what exactly is the point?

There’s a lot of research going on in the field of alternative energy. By the time fossil fuels actually do start to run out, I expect at least some of these “new” forms of energy will be viable. Today, they’re even more expensive than fossil fuels. That’s why so few people use them. If they were less expensive, and more practical to use, everybody would be using them already. But there’s still a ways to go before they’re competitive in the marketplace. I’m all for alternative energy. The sooner it becomes viable, the better. But, in the meantime, I’m not going to stop living my life to save the dead dinosaurs for future generations.

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Alternative Energy and the Law of Unintended Consequences

The environmentalist lobby has been haranguing us for years about alternative energy sources. Fossil fuels = Bad. Alternative energy = Good. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for alternative energy. However, every alternative energy source comes with its own set of issues. Once it’s implemented (always at great expense), the environmentalists turn to attack the new energy source with the same fervor with which they previously promoted it.

  • Wind farms have been roundly attacked by environmental groups for slicing and dicing migratory birds and decimating local bat populations.
  • Hydroelectric plants have been taken to task for their impact on fish habitats, and environmentalists have successfully litigated for the removal of dams (at great public expense) in salmon spawning areas.
  • Nuclear power is anathema to environmentalists because of the potential for leakage and questions about adequate waste disposal.

But biofuels were supposed to be the ultimate panacea that solved everything from global warming to war in the Middle East. After all, they’re natural, renewable, and, best of all, green! Yet, from both a social and environmental perspective, biofuel production is turning out to be one of the biggest disasters of all.

The environmentalist lobby finally succeeded in getting federal legislation passed to subsidize ethanol production and provide tax incentives to fuel companies to dilute gasoline with it. Some states, like Oregon, have even mandated that all gasoline sold in the state must consist of 10% ethanol. According to an article on Hidden Costs of Corn-Based Ethanol, in the Christian Science Monitor, “ethanol yields about 30% less energy per gallon than gasoline, so mileage drops off significantly.”  (That’s OK, though, because gas is taxed by the gallon, and fewer miles per gallon means more revenue for the state.) Diluting gasoline with ethanol won’t reduce the price per gallon, either, and may even make it higher, due to of the high cost of production and handling. But the negative impact on consumers is acceptable to the environmentalists because, if consumers were environmentally conscious, they wouldn’t be driving cars in the first place…

On the other hand, there are problems with biofuel production that hit a lot closer to home for the politically correct. Our national “investment” in subsidizing bio-fuel production has been so overwhelmingly successful that it’s had the effect of repurposing the majority of our corn crops to ethanol production. It has also motivated farmers to divert production from other crops to crops that can be used for biofuels.

Unfortunately, the unintended consequences of this noble effort have been to raise food prices, not only here in the U.S., but around the world. Rising food prices hit the poor the hardest, and accelerate the spread of poverty. In an article in Foreign Affairs, titled How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor, authors Runge and Senauer said “Filling the 25-gallon tank of an SUV with pure ethanol requires more than 450 pounds of corn – which contains enough calories to feed one person for a year.” Even as food shortages increase in countries where people are already starving, the U.S. is being forced to reduce its international food aid due to rising food costs at home, largely due to the diversion of crops to biofuel production.

The high demand for biofuels is also having an unintended impact on some of the environmentalists’ own pet causes. Palm oil and sugar cane are some of the more efficient biofuel crops. The surge in demand for these crops has been a boon to certain third world economies but has, by the same token, led to the clearing of rainforests to create palm and sugar plantations. The environmentalists don’t like that at all! And here in the U.S., some farmers who previously rotated corn crops with soybean crops are now growing only corn. Not rotating crops strips the topsoil of nutrients, requiring the farmers to use more fertilizers and pesticides, which eventually end up in the water supply.

And, in the end, it turns out that the fossil fuel energy required to produce and process the enormous quantities of corn it takes to convert into biofuel ends up costing almost as much energy as it produces. According to a PBS Science Report, “Producing ethanol yields about 25 percent more energy than is used in growing and harvesting the corn and converting it to fuel.” Given that the ethanol produced is 30% less efficient than gasoline, the whole process results in a net reduction in energy, along with all the social and environmental negatives it engenders. But, once you get the government to latch onto something, it’s awfully hard to reverse, no matter what the unintended consequences.

But, hey, it sure sounded like a good idea, didn’t it? And, after all, it’s the thought that counts…

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