I want to believe

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


It's bad enough that my last fill-up cost me $52. And that my last trip to Kroger topped out at $225. But now the fading economy has really hit me where it hurts. Today NPR Marketplace reported in passing that beer prices are rising due to higher prices for key ingredients like wheat, barley and hops. An MSNBC article from May explains that smaller microbrewers are in even more dire straits because they can't absorb higher costs or negotiate lower prices like big brewers. I feel no shame when I admit I am a beer snob. When I'm out and about, you're likely to find me blathering on about hoppiness and clarity and grapefruit-y undertones. Its just what I like.

Reason Magazine takes the debate to the next level by claiming the rising prices are are a result of greater demand for biofuels. Its not a new argument, and I don't deny the logic behind the proposition that prices for food staples are higher across the board due to a combination of agriculture subsidies and more land being turned over to biofuel production instead of food production. Growth of corn for ethanol production is highly subsidized in the United States and Europe, giving farmers a huge incentive to switch crops. Therefore, the supply of foodcrops is not stable, but in fact shrinking, excerbating the strain caused by supply vs demand.

It is true that some production methods for biofuels can result in a greater release of carbon into the environment than the amount released by a comparable quantity of fossil fuels. Reason, being a conservative publication, concludes that the solution involves abandoing biofuels altogether, and also smacking "the greens" in the mouth. However, the Science article that Reason cites explains that what is actually important is the location of the biofuel production, and the methods used to produce it. The authors of the article were comparing biofuel production in clear-cut areas in rainforests, savannahs, etc., versus the use of perennial biofuel crops in low-value or abandoned agricultural lands. The increased carbon release from biofuel production is a result of the clearcutting of the land on which it is grown, not a flaw inherent in biofuel production. What does not seem to be seriously up for debate is that use of biofuels can reduce the amount of fossil fuel consumption world-wide, lowering the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and hopefully slowing global climate change.

The truth, however, may wind up being more inconvenient that Al Gore anticipated. The truth is that as a middle-class American, I can afford to care about climate change. Sure, I may be paying more for beer, but I can afford to want to leave a cleaner environment for my children. And while I and other middle-class Americans are demanding more research into biofuels, mothers in Haiti, Bangladesh and Africa are daily enduring riots, desperately paying more than 75% of their income to buy rice and grain to keep their children alive. The truth is that there is a divide between the First and Thirld World that is deep and growing deeper every day, with no clear solution in sight. In 2007, Barack Obama stated "I believe [climate change is] one of the greatest moral challenges of our generation". He plans to invest $150 million over 10 years into biofuels, including second-generation biofuels that may help to arrest the ethanol-corn growth that has resulted in skyrocketing food prices. Obama's campaign advocates change we can believe in. And I want to believe. I want to believe that I don't have to mortgage my children and grandchildren's future to fulfill a moral obligation in the present. I don't know if his plan will work. But I know we have to try.

Posted by oballard at 10:12 AM  
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