2007-02:Full Tanks, Empty Stomachs - Ethanol and Eco-Colonialism (USA)

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Full Tanks, Empty Stomachs - Ethanol and Eco-Colonialism

Bild- Artikel Full Tanks, Empty Stomachs.jpg Artwork by Michelle Cook

By Skyler Simmons The buzz about ethanol has grown tremendously in the past few years as oil prices skyrocket, racist right-wingers look for a way to be independent of the Middle East, and lefties look for a quick fix to global warming that doesn’t require them to reduce their level of consumption. This January, President Bush announced a plan to produce 35 billion gallons of biofuels (mostly ethanol) per year by 2017. Yet there has been little attention paid to the real social and environmental impacts of ethanol production.

In early March, Bush traveled to Brazil to secure massive imports of ethanol to the US. Bush’s visit was met not with praise for supporting Brazilian agriculture but with militant protests decrying the environmental devastation and neo-colonialism perpetrated by Brazil’s ethanol industry. In the region of Ribeirão Preto, 900 women took over an ethanol plant owned by the agribusiness cartel Cargill. They also decried the increased land consolidation that is occurring as wealthy landowners grab more and more land for monoculture sugarcane farms.

In São Paulo, demonstrators responded to Bush’s visit by marching through the streets, carrying stalks of sugarcane and clashing with police. Protesters noted that increasing amounts of the Amazon rainforest are being cleared for monoculture farms to produce ethanol. Suzanne Pereira dos Santos of Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement, who helped organize the march, remarked, “Bush and the US go to war to control oil reserves, and now Bush and his pals are trying to control the production of ethanol in Brazil, and that has to be stopped.”

In February, massive protests broke out in Mexico over the price of corn, a major staple in that country. More than 75,000 people marched through the streets of Mexico City to demand an immediate reduction of corn prices. Why are corn prices so high? Because ever-increasing amounts of corn are going towards ethanol production, and this increased demand has caused corn prices to skyrocket. Corn is now going toward feeding the US’s auto addiction rather than the world’s poor.

The environmental impacts of ethanol production are also troubling. Growing the corn is incredibly energy intensive, in terms of fuel consumption by farm equipment and the large amounts of fossil-fuel-based fertilizers used. In addition, large quantities of toxic pesticides must be used.

Ethanol distillation also burns large amounts of fossil fuels. Most distilleries burn natural gas, though more and more are relying on coal. One plant in Goldfield, Iowa, burns 300 tons of coal every day! Overall, ethanol is incredibly inefficient, taking three units of energy to make four. Some argue that it actually takes more energy to produce ethanol than you get from burning it.

Many proponents of ethanol claim that it is “carbon neutral”; since the carbon in the ethanol was originally sucked out of the atmosphere by the plant, they say it is a closed cycle. This ludicrous claim completely ignores the massive amounts of fossil fuels used in the growth, transportation and refinement of corn ethanol. In fact, when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, the production and burning of ethanol is only slightly better than burning gasoline!

The ethanol boom is one of many last-ditch attempts by industrial capitalism to continue its existence in a rapidly approaching post-oil world. The pursuit of ethanol is simply the continuation of an exploitative, colonial system that steals resources from the world’s poor communities to maintain the consumer lifestyles of the First World.

Large-scale ethanol production can only lead to greater devastation of the Earth, as diverse ecosystems are converted to monoculture farms. Dispossession will increase as subsistence farmers and hunter-gatherers are forced off their land to make way for the US’s new energy colonies.

A turn to ethanol as a fuel source also means shifting a considerable portion of farmable land from food production to energy production. As demand for ethanol grows, we will see increasing tension between First World people choosing to fuel their “green” cars and the rest of the world simply struggling to eat. The events in Mexico have no doubt foreshadowed what is to come.

There is no quick techno-fix to climate change or peak oil. We cannot accept a new wave of colonialism that offsets the problems created by our exorbitant First World lifestyles onto the Global South. The only answer to these problems is a dramatic reduction in our energy and resource consumption.

Skyler Simmons enjoys seeing liberals go into convulsions as they realize that biofuels aren't going to save the world.

Dieser Artikel erschien erstmals im amerikanischen Earth First! Journal (http://www.earthfirstjournal.org/) in der Ausgabe "Beltane 2007".