The Ornery American     Print   |   Back  

WorldWatch - April 20, 2008 - Cars and Starvation? - The Ornery American

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
By Orson Scott Card April 20, 2008

Cars and Starvation?

As long as we can keep driving our cars and living in our remote suburban islands, what do we care if the rest of the world starves?

It's not our fault those people weren't born Americans. And as long as we seal our border tight so they can't sneak in here and eat our food, those people can starve to their hearts' content. We aren't taking any food out of their mouths.

We'll just donate a few bucks to Idol Gives Back and then we're shut of the problem.

Ha ha. Joke's on us.

We are causing starvation in other countries. Yep, us. And you know why?

The story starts a good while back. We have government-subsidized agriculture. Through tax incentives and other programs, we make sure it's safe and relatively profitable to grow lots and lots of food on that rich soil of the American grain-growing Midwest, California vegetable farms, and Sunbelt citrus groves.

But when we have a surplus of cheap food, how do we unload it so the price doesn't fall so far that our farmers go out of business?

We sell it below value in foreign countries.

That practice of ours has been putting small farmers out of business all over Africa and many other countries. Foreigners can buy American food for less, even after all the shipping costs, than they can get it from farms fifteen miles away in their own countries.

The result has been a flood of small farmers in many countries to urban centers that don't have jobs for them. I've seen poverty like that firsthand in Brazil in the 1970s -- though there it wasn't the fault of American farm policy. Highways lined with poor families walking from their abandoned farmsteads or farming jobs to go live in favelas on the fringes of the big city and beg on the street to survive.

In some places, famines are artificial and caused by wars or vicious government policies -- one thinks of Ethiopia twenty years ago and Darfur right now.

But at this moment, millions of people have been plunged suddenly into serious malnutrition because the cost of food in their countries has doubled -- or tripled. Why? Because of another American agricultural policy.

Now that we've made people in many other countries dependent on cheap American food, all of a sudden we started paying farmers to stop growing food and start growing ethanol.

That's right. Using the rising price of gasoline and our need for energy independence as an excuse, midwestern farmers are now being paid to grow corn and soybeans solely so that it can be converted into something our cars can burn.

And guess what that did to those food surpluses we used to sell overseas? After destroying the agricultural base of many countries, we have suddenly pulled the rug out from under them. They can still get food, but it costs three times as much.

In other words, we have done to them just what the oil-exporting countries (led by Russia, with its deliberately slowed-down production) have done to us. We complain about the evil conspiracy that drove up our oil prices and want to punish Exxon, even though they don't control the price. We whine and cry about it even though we still pay less than most countries for our fuel.

But we have carelessly done the same thing to the poorest people in the world, and we've done it, not with gas, but with the food they feed their children.

Ethanol Solves Nothing

The irony is that our ethanol program is not helpful in any way toward solving the coming petroleum crisis. It's not just that you have to burn a lot of fuel running the heavy equipment we use to plow, plant, and harvest the crops that we turn into fuel.

The real problem is that the soil of the Midwest is not all that rich. We've been overfarming it for years, and the only reason we get the huge crops we get is because of fertilizer. And guess what it takes to make the fertilizers that are most widely used?

Natural gas.

I hadn't known that before I started doing a little research. I always thought fertilizer had manure and compost in it -- that it was all made from waste products. But no, a huge proportion of the fertilizer we use comes from petrochemicals.

If we run out of natural gas (and there's no reason to think we won't), we won't be able to fertilize our fields so we can grow the crops that we turn into ethanol.

This is why ethanol solves nothing. It is part of the problem.

So we're starving people in other countries because we have fooled ourselves into thinking that we can farm our way out of our oil-and-gas problem -- though it takes oil and gas to do the kind of farming that lets us grow enough crops to burn large quantities of them as ethanol.

Even if the margin still allows us to save some petroleum and gas by using ethanol, is it enough that it's worth starving foreigners so we can drive our cars cheaply, as much as we want?

Let Them Grow Rice

Naturally, some will think that people in those other countries can just leave the city and go back to farming.

First, even if that's possible in the long run, it won't help them this year. If you have a shortage of, say, toasters, you can run the toaster factories day and night, putting on extra shifts and hiring extra workers, and in only a few days, extra toasters are on the market.

But you can't do that with food. No matter how hungry you are, you still have to wait for planting season and then wait longer for the plants to grow and produce the fruit or roots or seeds or leaves or stems that we need to eat.

A year, folks, at least with most plants.

It's even more complicated than that. Some of these people left the land twenty years ago. The ones who farmed are now old. The young people have never lived on the farm. They don't know how to do it anymore.

My ancestors were very good farmers. That doesn't mean I know anything at all about growing plants. Especially not in North Carolina, where exactly none of my ancestors lived.

Even worse is the land problem. Right now in rice-growing countries, every square inch of rice-able land is already under cultivation. And land that used to be farmed is now covered with cities and roads or inundated by dams. In other words, there's less and less land, so taking up the slack when America lowers its production is impossible in the short term, and pretty hard in the long term.

Do We Have a Duty to Feed the World?



Because we can.

If we can feed the world, and have made them dependent on our agriculture for their survival, and then choose not to produce enough food to feed them at affordable prices, then we don't have any moral right to continue to live our high life with our much-vaunted freedom -- we cannot build our prosperity on the hunger and starvation of millions of people abroad.

What About Our Need for Fuel?

Ethanol is about as sensible as fuel cells as a "solution" to the looming oil crisis. It's true that many of the world's richest oil fields are well past peak production, and new finds are not keeping pace with the fields that will soon be going off line.

But ethanol is not a "solution," just a slight augmentation, a momentary slowdown in the exhaustion of oil and natural gas.

And fuel cells aren't even that: They're just an energy storage system. They consume more energy than simply burning gas.

Even shale oil and new oil field finds are mere postponements. No geologist seriously suggests that we are not nearing the end of economically extractable oil and gas. In a mere century and a half, we will have burnt nearly all the petroleum and natural gas that can be reached by any known method.

Not that it wasn't a wonderful ride -- look at our population! Billions and billions, in large part because cheap fuel made it possible for every corner of the world to trade with every other, and to transport foodstuffs across vast distances.

And we Americans have ridden the crest of the wave. We never had a shortage of food in our own country -- but now we import fresh fruits and vegetables, at huge expense in fuel costs, from southern-hemisphere countries so that everything is always in season.

What we must have, and quickly, are sources of energy that don't involve any consumption of oil.

Whenever anyone suggests that we use wind, waves, tides, rivers, solar collectors, photovoltaic cells, or geothermal energy, people always trot out stats showing that these sources can only meet "5%" or "2%" of our national energy needs.

But what if we do all of them? How long before they're meeting, in combination 20% or more of our power needs?

Another objection: We have too many furnaces that depend on heating oil or natural gas, and electricity doesn't always work as well.

My answer is: So what? When we run out of heating oil and natural gas, then the efficiency of appliances powered by those fuels will be zero.

Twenty percent of our current energy needs is not trivial -- it's worth subsidizing.

Nuclear Power

I'm fed up with people complaining about the dangers of nuclear power. It's true that a nuclear meltdown can have devastating effects. Compare it with global starvation and then see what you think. The effects of nuclear meltdown can be prevented by rigorous maintenance and oversight. But when there's not enough food, there's just flat-out not enough food.

We have better designs for nuclear power than ever. We need to treat this as a national emergency and start bringing more nuclear power online -- the way France already has -- with the same kind of national effort that we put into building the interstate highway system or getting to the moon.

All these power sources impose costs, and all of them result in electricity, which is useless to an internal combustion engine. We'll have to convert over completely to electric cars and other electrical transportation systems.

So ... we'll drive slower and have to stop and recharge more often. Or we'll have to use more public transportation.

Boo hoo. We'll get used to it in no time.

It's better than the disaster that will strike if we don't act now to get the infrastructure in place to deal with our inevitable, and fast-coming, post-oil future.

The Free Market Likes Devastation

I hear conservatives who hate the idea of the government taking action trumpeting the idea that the free market will deal with the end of oil.

This is such hogwash. The free market doesn't do anything -- it just decides how much it will cost. If there's nothing to sell that will do the job, then the price of it will be very high and making it will be very profitable -- except that there isn't any to sell so the free market will be helpless.

The free market didn't build the interstate highway system -- or the intercontinental railway before it. Government did. The free market will burn every ounce of oil and then collapse. Careful but rapid government-subsidized work on new infrastructure can make it so there's no collapse at all.

If we do it soon enough, we might even be able to stop using petrochemicals for fuel and fertilizer soon enough that we'll still have plenty left for airplane and spacecraft fuel, where electricity just doesn't do the job.

Back to Food

Which brings us back to food. Because it's not just about our cars. When oil is nearly gone, where do you think we'll spend the last dregs of it? It won't be in our cars -- we'll be walking to the supermarket by then.

We'll be spending it on trucks carrying food from distant farmlands to the big city.

That's why we need an agricultural revolution just as badly as we need a fuel revolution. And for precisely the same reason, and on exactly the same schedule.

Cuba, of all places, has been doing interesting work. When their subsidy from the USSR ended (along with the USSR), they had to reinvent agriculture. It had to be moved closer to the city.

So, horrible as their form of government is, they were able to adapt quickly. They encouraged urban and near-urban agriculture and allowed it to be private rather than collective. As a result, some urban space was reclaimed for agriculture and a notable percentage of the need for vegetables is being met by, yes, the free market -- instead of the black market.

Meanwhile, they have been working with non-petrochemical fertilizing systems. We don't use those chemical fertilizers because they're necessarily the best -- we use them because they're the cheapest to make and transport. That won't be true for much longer, so the government needs to subsidize or incentivize alternate fertilization methods.

There are, for instance, plants -- no, let's admit they're weeds -- that can be safely grown along with cash crops. Or cash crops that can be grown together and benefit each other. The "weeds" help protect the soil from erosion; they help replenish the soil without additional fertilizer.

Organic farmers have also developed methods that work quite well. Work with genetics is creating crops that resist pests without using petrochemical-based insecticides.

Right now government incentives are everywhere in agriculture and transportation. It's not like I'm proposing that we introduce a lot of government regulation or fiddling in a pristine field that is right now a free-market paradise.

I'm saying it's time to stop incentivizing destructive programs like ethanol and start shaping our system so it rewards foresight and preparation for the future.

The future has no burnable petroleum or methane in it. Period. That's a fact -- the only disagreement is about the schedule.

People are already starving around the world in part because of wrong-headed government intervention in the U.S. agriculture and transportation system.

Why not do the compassionate, smart, foresighted thing and solve the problem now? It doesn't even take serious sacrifice. It only takes brains.

Earmarks and Pork Barrel

Why are we subsidizing the useless ethanol system? Politics. Congresswights from the ethanol-growing states are behind the program because it means immediate cash to farmers and voters in their states. Shame on them for starving people in other countries just for the sake of fat-cat contributions and votes. Do they really think their continuation in office is worth the death of a single child in Bangladesh?

Why aren't we moving ahead lickety-split with incentives for non-petrochemical agriculture and with nuclear and renewable energy sources?

Why aren't we mandating efficient electricity-based long- and short-distance transportation systems at the expense of automobiles? Right now the electricity comes largely from coal, which does not solve the non-existent carbon-emissions problem -- but even if you believe in Al Gore's sad little god called Global Warming, you must surely see that all the non-carbon-based fuel systems will service only electric-powered vehicles.

Therefore, converting completely to electricity is one of the steps along the way to non-carbon-based transportation, even if we don't yet have enough non-carbon electricity to supply it.

Why do we continue to build more interstates instead of working as fast as we can to get every single truck off the highway and onto the backs of trains? Part of our national salvation is going to be rebuilding our railroads with brand-new high-efficiency rails and many, many more miles of parallel tracks.

We would never have become dependent on trucks and cars to the degree we have today if government had not created the interstate highway system.

Our goal now should be -- must be -- to make it useless and unused as quickly as possible, and replace it with faster passenger trains and vastly more freight trains, all of them powered by electricity alone. Electricity that will eventually be generated by non-carbon-based systems.

You want pork barrel, Mr. Congressman? Then get government to subsidize or give tax breaks to the companies building and installing photovoltaic roofs, or at least plant-growing self-air-conditioning roofs, on every house and building in your district or state -- and then make sure you have companies in your state carrying out this business.

Are We the Stupidest Civilization in History?

You've got to give Rome some credit here -- they really couldn't see their fall coming.

But the fall of Western Civilization is so absolutely predictable and obvious, and its causes are so visible and imminent, that history will surely record ours as being the stupidest civilization that ever existed. We have the money, right now, to convert to systems of transportation and agriculture that do not require any burnable fuel (beyond infinitely renewable hydrogen as a storage and transportation device).

Instead, we go on mainlining petroleum and methane and then gibber on about how our "free market" or "democracy" will triumph over everything.

The free market creates nothing and does not care. And democracy lasts only while stomachs are full -- and armies have the fuel to move.

Global Warming -- or, I should say, Climate Change? A phony, a bugbear exploited by cynical liars like Al Gore for their personal benefit.

The coming collapse in oil? This is one that is visible, obvious, provable.

Our presidential candidates are all claiming that they'll adopt genuinely harmful, stupid, unfair, and ineffective treaties like Kyoto to solve the nonproblem of carbon emissions.

Not one of them is offering a single coherent idea about achieving complete independence from petroleum and methane before it is forced on us, suddenly and with cataclysmic results.

So I guess now is not the time to suggest that our space program's first priority should be to prepare to divert or destroy any meteor on a collision course with Earth. It's just another of those inevitable but unschedulable world-wrecking events that we're just too dumb to foresee and prevent.

Blain Nelson responds to this essay on his blog

Copyright © Hatrack River Enterprises Inc. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.
 Web Site Hosted and Designed by