Bodiless Salvation or Disaster?
by Alexis Zeigler

Biodiesel is the fastest-growing alternative fuel in the US. For its pro-ponents, biodiesel promises to deliver us into an age of clean and renewable fuel. Yet if present trends continue, biodiesel is more likely to escalate human misery around the world for years to come.

Biodiesel's proponents claim that they are recycling discarded cooking oil. But is that oil really waste? In my hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, used oil is collected by one of the four largest rendering companies in the US--Valley Proteins, which reprocesses dead animals, inedible slaughterhouse remains and used cooking oil into a wide variety of products. From a financial report, we learn that "Valley Proteins turns the raw materials it collects into commodity goods, which are sold to over 170 customers.... The company's finished products are quoted on established commodity markets or priced relative to substitute commodities...." About 80 percent of the fats from rendering are used in live-stock feed. The rest are reprocessed into other products, including pet foods, chemicals and lubricants.

Note the phrase, "products are... priced relative to substitute commodities." Used cooking oil is not a discarded product--it is reprocessed and put on the market to vie with "substitute commodities." Any of the many companies using products from Valley Proteins is likely to purchase the cheapest adequate product, regardless of its source. If the buyers should run short of used vegetable oil, they would simply turn to products made from virgin oil instead.

If biodiesel consumption were to remain within the supply of used vegetable oil, that would all be fine. The problem is that the consumption of fossil diesel radically exceeds the supply of used oil. Americans use nearly a billion gallons of petroleum a day; the entire output of all of the rendering companies in the US is a billion and a half gallons per year. If the entire annual output of used vegetable oil were diverted into the fossil fuel market, it would last us 36 hours. And that simply begs the question of where industry would turn to for all that cattle feed.

Is biodiesel renewable? Any resource is renewable only if it is extracted at a rate no greater than it is replenished. Overcutting a forest or overfishing a fishery renders a renewable resource non-renewable. Given that biodiesel potentially involves taking human food, like soy, corn and other oil-producing plants, and feeding it to automobiles, the renewability issue is paramount.

If we are going to feed human food to cars, we should take stock of the status of the global food production system. In 2004, global grain stocks were reduced to their lowest point in 30 years. Do you know when the world fish catch peaked? In the early 1980s. Irrigated farmland produces a lion's share of human food, but the global supply of irrigated farmland per capita has shrunk considerably. Even though the US has the most productive agricultural system in the world, it now teeters on the brink of agricultural debtorship. Beginning in the 1990s, the US has imported more food than it has exported in some years.

Given that the amount of farmland per person, irrigated and not, has substantially decreased, how is it that we continue to feed growing populations? Because we have been replacing soil with oil. Worldwide, the amount of energy we invest in each calorie of food has climbed steadily with increased use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. According to David Pimentel, a researcher at Cornell University, American agriculture now invests three calories of fossil fuel for each calorie it produces. That is long before anyone considers putting those food calories into a gas tank.

If biodiesel is ecologically expensive, then won't the market correct the problem by keeping biodiesel financially expensive? Maybe, but for biodiesel's extra edge--guilt relief. There are a lot of progressive Americans who want to help the environment, but whose lifestyle is as car-dependent as anyone else's. In fall 2004, Congress passed an excise tax relief to encourage the use of biodiesel. The horse is out of the gate.

If Americans are convinced that biodiesel is a "green" fuel, and we drive up the consumption of vegetable oil, we simply shift the weight of demand onto the virgin vegetable oil market. That isn't just a theory. In my home state of Virginia, the Soybean Association has been offering a cash rebate for first-time biodiesel purchases of up to $500. The only motivation for such action is to bolster the price of virgin oil. This isn't about used fryer oil any longer.

Biodiesel is a powerful movement that is rapidly gaining force. As cars with their savage buying power are put into market competition with the hundreds of millions of humans already trying to live on a dollar a day, the latter will lose the tug of war. The global poor, for whom vegetable oil is already a scarce item, will do without.

All of this begs the question: If not biodiesel, then what? We have to have some source of energy, for transportation and otherwise. The issue is whether you work on the problem from the demand side or the supply side.

If you take any modern energy system and try to address it from the supply side, you will fail. Already, there is a movement to use biofuels to generate the nation's electricity. That means that massive tree-chipping operations have started descending on our national forests, converting lush, green ecosystems into moonscape and chips. The chips are then burned instead of coal to generate electricity, thus keeping the tumble driers of America in operation. If you try to meet US energy demands from the supply side, you are simply going to throw unsustainable weight onto already overstressed biological systems.

Neither can we deal with transportation fuel by attacking the problem from the supply side. According to Pimentel, biofuels such as ethanol represent a net energy loss, Even if we disregard the energy used to distill ethanol, about 11 acres of corn must be used to fuel one car for one year--but the global supply of grain-land per person was .57 acres (notice the decimal) in 1950, and is projected to be .17 acres in 2050. Biodiesel represents similar ecological absurdities, yet both biodiesel and ethanol have Congressional support. How we do cherish the myth of technology.

If you try to get your energy from any "alternative" source, the same supply-side principle applies. If you tried to supply the average American household with photovoltaic panels, it would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Not only is that financially unfeasible, but the panels themselves represent a huge environmental cost. The only feasible way to supply a household with alternative energy is to first dramatically reduce the energy consumption of that household.

Why are we trying to solve our ecological problems with the wrong answers? Because the all right answers challenge our lifestyle. It is absolutely impossible to support the American lifestyle in a sustainable fashion with any energy source. Biofuels are not merely a neutral bystander; they are enormously destructive. Supply-side biofuels perpetuate the myth that our lifestyle can continue, if only we find the right fuel--biodiesel, ethanol, hydrogen, etc. "President" Bush supports hydrogen; Congress supports biodiesel and ethanol. Think about it.

Single-family housing, as well as individual automobiles, are simply unsustainable, regardless of our energy source. So what then are the solutions? Live close enough to where you work and play so that you don't have to drive. Refuse to own a car. Live cooperatively. For mainstream liberals, that may sound absurd. But that is precisely why the entire discussion about biofuels is misguided, because real solutions demand a more radical perspective. Real answers are social and ecological, not technological. Turning the beast of industrialism with its voracious appetite away from fossil fuel and into our forests and fields is not an answer.

Alexis Zeigler is an activist in central Virginia who works on environmental, transportation and media issues. His writings are posted on his website.

© Earth First! Journal Beltane 2005