Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Global warming is NOT the end of the world

Hoax For Sale: The Green Revolution That Never Happened Is About To Not Happen Again.

Who best fits the following description: Wealthy white American male born to political royalty. Claims to have unique insight that reduces complex issues inherent to the modern world to simple action items that fit his personal and political agenda. Relentlessly pushes his ideas in every possible public forum, but remains secure in the knowledge that he will never have to make any of the personal sacrifices necessary to make his vision a reality. Sound like anyone we know? Of course George W. Bush immediately comes to mind. But this description could just as easily be applied to Al Gore.

With the awarding of the Peace Prize to Al Gore et al., an act of political correctness so grotesque that the Prize may never fully recover, Mr. Nobel’s creation has reached a new low. Final proof, if such proof was required, that in the age of the image the medium has finally become the entire message. The worst part of this fiasco is that Mr. Gore’s warm fuzzy message will set the stage for a second great green revolution hoax. And this time humanity may not have another century to get it right.

Global warming will undoubtedly change the face of our planet (far from an anomaly in geological history)… it is not the bang or the whimper upon which our world will end. And even if turning up Earth’s thermostat was just about to terminate both humans and polar bears, ‘biofuels’ the most popular technical solution being offered to the public is worse than a red herring. The biofuel solution wraps itself in the glittering cloak of ‘sustainability’ so that (to quote another southern politician) it shines and stinks like rotten mackerel by moonlight.

But here’s the hard truth…biofuels are not sustainable, they are not green, and they most certainly will not stop global warming. The public is being shamelessly scammed by the same old crew. The only difference is that this time they have some high-profile but seriously misguided liberals out front to shill for them. To paraphrase the old Clinton campaign mantra ... it’s the Military-Industrial Complex stupid!

In order to understand why biofuels are not a sustainable technology, it is necessary to recognize that the term ‘Green’ when used in conjunction with biofuels has nothing, repeat nothing to do with restoring balance to an ecosystem. The ecology movement's use of the term 'Green' ultimately derives from the color of most terrestrial plants. Plants and microbes such as phytoplankton are natural sources of energy because they are capable of conducting photosynthesis. During the photosynthetic process plants convert solar photons – the cleanest energy source of all – into sugar. They do this by transmuting sunlight and air into sugar. Quite a trick to be sure! Packets of light energy are captured and transmuted into chemical bond energy. The green machine works something like this:

Inputs = sunlight + carbon dioxide + water vapor
Outputs = carbohydrates (sugars, cellulose, etc) + oxygen

Rich in carbohydrate-based chemical energy, photosynthetic biomass fuels the rest of biological life on the planet. So if plants can fuel humans, why can’t they fuel our cars and planes? The answer, of course, is that it takes far more than sunlight to grow a crop. Modern agriculture is a form of manufacturing that is driven by the intensive application of fertilizers, pesticides, groundwater, soil cultivation and more. All of these inputs have one thing in common… they require energy! Growing corn to make ethanol is based on the same logic (and agricultural ecology) that rationalizes feeding ten pounds of balanced vegetable protein to an animal in order to produce one pound of balanced animal protein to feed a human. But how is this pseudologic perpetuated?

In the age of semiotics ‘branding’ is king, and no brand name in science has more recognition and credibility than the Nobel Prize. So, when Norman Borlaug, Ph.D. won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 as the father of the ‘Green Revolution’, the public assumed that a Green Revolution had, in fact, occurred. And therein lies the first hoax. Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Prize for his work as a plant breeder. But, in fact, his main contribution was the development of crop plants that required enormous amounts of energy. Ergo the first Green revolution was an exercise in reverse sustainability!

Wheat and corn are the staple food crops of the western world. Until Dr. Borlaug came along, the yield per acre of wheat was seriously limited by the fact that these plants had tall, thin stalks. When farmers tried to apply too much fertilizer to a field of wheat, the spindly-stemmed plants would collapse under the weight of all that extra grain on top—a trait called lodging... literally plant strangulation. To prevent lodging, Borlaug crossed in a Japanese dwarf variety of wheat (called Norin 10) and ultimately created shorter, stronger stalks that could better support larger seed heads. As a result, farmers could pour on the enormous amount of fertilizer necessary to create big-headed plants and dramatic increases in yield were achieved. Borlaug went on to breed in additional traits such as disease resistance. He deserves great credit for helping create the modern mechanized agricultural system of the mid-20th century that allowed developing countries to feed millions who otherwise would have starved.

But was this a Green Revolution? Dr. Norman Borlaug was a product of his time, and the mandate for agronomists after World War 2 was: increase yield per acre. More bushels of wheat and rice, more ears of corn. The explicit operative assumption was that energy was not limiting… any sustainability alarms going off yet? One could fertilize at will. There was no shortage of fuel to run the tractor back and forth across the field as often as necessary to apply pesticides or cultivate the soil. If the climate was arid, it was assumed that fuel was plentiful to pump water out of the ground or ship it in via artificial aquaducts (to be constructed as necessary by more fuel-gobbling heavy equipment). In terms of food production, the results were spectacularly successful. But the first ‘Green revolution’ had absolutely nothing to do with sustainability.

Much of Borlaug’s seminal work was done when he was a Program Director at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT, pronounced simiyat). CIMMYT was established by the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations in ‘cooperation’ with the Mexican government. I mention this because the Nobel Prize was extremely important to successfully branding the first Green Revolution. Now the Rockefellers and Fords of the 21st century, variants on the people who brought us mechanized monoculture (and more recently GMOs) want to sell us a second Green Revolution with the brand name Biofuels. It’s a snappy moniker for using energy intensive mechanized agriculture to create a product that, when introduced into an internal combustion engine, will still pour CO2 into the atmosphere. That’s a real inconvenient truth.