Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Ethanol, troops and books

One of my sidelines is reviewing technical and scientific books, which I've done for a number of years now. This means that I regularly get emailed by authors and publishers asking if I'd be interested in their books. I have no problem with this, though to be honest the supply of books far exceeds my capacity to read and review them. So I was not suprised to receive a request from a small company publishing specialist computer science books - there's a small readership for these types of books, so getting publicity is essential. What caught my eye though was the sig line in the initial email:
U.S. troops have never lost their lives defending our ethanol reserves
The first thing to say is that this is shockingly poor business practice - and believe me, the author of the email was initiating a business transaction. Why assume that the reader - me - gives a toss what your views on politics are? Particularly when the topic is completely technical. I'd have no problem reviewing a book on the subject of biofuels and geopolitics, but that's a million miles from the books being offered for review.

Secondly, the sentiment expressed reeks of that fatal liberal conceit that motive trumps reality. The idea is that having your heart in the right place is what counts.

That's the motive but what about the reality? Aside from the huge subsidies without which biofuels would be dead in the water, what has the move to ethanol achieved? A reduction in CO2 emissions? Nope. Even the Guardian reports that Biofuel farms make CO2 emissions worse.

So, a main plank of the push to biofuels is a bust.

OK, but our emailer wasn't talking about CO2, he specifically mentions the lives of US troops. Strictly speaking he is right. But in terms of human lives overall? The biofuels are a disaster that is growing worse. The push to burn food crops for fuels is causing food prices to rise, causing poverty to rise and has alrady been linked to a number of food riots and conflicts in the developing world. And, it's not just poor brown people affected by all of this. A report from the Congressional Budget Office in 2009 concluded that:
...the rise in food prices attributable to increased production of ethanol will lead to higher federal spending for those [food] programs: specifically, an estimated $600 million to $900 million of the more than $5 billion increase in spending projected for fiscal year 2009 as a result of the rising price of food.
So, the policy is leading to increased poverty even in the US. In all respects the move to ethanol production for fuel is a disaster that will lead to loss of life, increased poverty, increases in government subsidy and more environmental degradation.

It's a complete failure as a policy, though as in all big government policies it will take years for the US, the EU and others to admit they were wrong. So, trying to sell me your books on the back of a policy fail like ethanol is itself a fail. Forget it.

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