Home » Blog » Pop!Tech 2006 » Lester Brown – conservation, not ethanol

Lester Brown – conservation, not ethanol

Lester Brown is the author of Plan B 2.0 and the president of the Earth Policy Institute. He’s interested in the radical rethinking we need to go through in looking not only at climate change but at international competition for resources.

He points out that China now consumes more of most basic resources than the US. China now uses more steel, grain, coal and meat than the US does – it’s only in oil consumption that we outpace China. If China catches up with us in terms of consumption per person – which they may by 2031, when their incomes are predicted to catch up – the planet will not survive. That would imply 1.1 billion cars in China, which would require paving as much land in China as is currently planted in rice. We simply can’t continue at this consumption pace.

Instead, we need systematic change. He points to wind farms, supplying 40 million households in Europe with power; solar rooftops in Japan; Geothermal heating for houses in Iceland, which doesn’t need to import heating oil; bicycle friendly streets in Amsterdam and Copenhagen.

Brown recently read Jared Diamon’s “Collapse” and wonders what warning signs societies should be looking at to predict their collapse. He suggests that we should be looking very closely at the price of oil.

Almost all of our food commodities – corn, wheat, soy – can be turned into ethanol. Traditionally, this only happens with government assistance, because it’s so expensive to produce fuel ethanol. But with the rise in oil prices, lots of folks are investing in ethanol on a for-profit basis. Unfortunately, no one is looking at how much grain might be required. An economist calculated that if every ethanol distillery planned and in construction was brough online, Iowa would use 2.3 billion bushels of corn a year. It produces only 2.1 billion bushels. Do we want a future where nations like Malaysia are fighting over palm oil – use it as a foodstuff or convert it to food? In the US, the entire grain harvest would provide only 16% of all auto fuel needs. If ethanol catches on in a big way, we could see competition between people who want to drive, and people who want to eat… which could lead to instability in developing nations with rising food prices.

Moving in a different direction – conservation – would make much more sense. Converting the entire US auto fleet to hybrids would raise fuel economy from 22 MPG to 55 MPG. Add a second storage battery to a Prius and it can be plugged in and used without fuel for short drives. Invest in thousands of wind farms, and we could have electric cars that run for less than they’d cost running $1 per gallon gas. (By contrast, filling an SUV with ethanol requires as much grain as would feed a human for a year.)

“The key to restructuring the global economy is to get the market to tell the truth.” The
prices we’re paying now aren’t real prices – our gasoline prices don’t include climate change, respiratory injury and other consequences. If we included these costs, we’d be paying $10 a gallon, not $3. We need to restructure the tax system to lower income taxes and raise carbon taxes, as they’re doing in Sweden.

Brown observes that socialism collapsed because it didn’t let the market tell the economic truth. Capitalism, he believes, may collapse because it doesn’t tell the ecological truth.

For those who don’t believe the US can retool to build windfarms and electric cars, he references the transformation of the US economy after Pearl Harbor. FDR banned the purchase of new private cars, forcing the auto industry to produce enough armament to fight wars on two oceans. “He didn’t say, ‘Go shopping.'” If we wanted this sort of a transformation, we’re capable of putting it together – it requires political will.

1 thought on “Lester Brown – conservation, not ethanol”

  1. well, it’s easy to be practicing conservation in some places- I don’t think holding Iceland out as a shining beacon to follow is sound, though. Having just returned (and I LOVE the place) I can attest to the fact that there are just 300,000 people living there- in a region bigger than new england- and it has been blessed, if you will, with plenty of resources for geothermal heating (to wit, VOLCANOES). It’s not that hard to provide sulfur-smelling hot water and thus heat to a population of 300,000, especially when 200,000 are concentrated in one city, when you have as many volcanoes, etc., as you do in that country.

    Anyway, loved Iceland. I don’t disagree with the nature of the argument, just find that it’s disingenuous to use straw men to prove the point…

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