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Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Location: Northwest Arkansas, United States

Friday, August 04, 2006

Chemical Agribusiness the Only Alternative to Starvation: It's True, Because It's Said a Lot!

Via Tom Philpott at The Grist Mill. A Counterpunch interview with Wendell Berry.

[Counterpunch]: There are people of my generation who grew up on farms or their parents or grandparents grew up on farms and they say, "Without mechanization, I wouldn't have been able to go to college. My pa, my grandpa couldn't have earned a living off the land." They suggest we have to have industrial methods in order to feed people. Why does this notion have such persistent currency?

[Berry]: People in prestigious positions persist in saying it but it's not true.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

That stuff is broadly correct, but Berry has made a common mistake about biofuels. Even leaving aside the fact that improved biofuel production has a better ebergy in to out ratio, the thing is that not all energy is the same and not all agricultural methods need the same energy inputs in the first place. For instance, while petrol is now the major cost of Idaho potato farmers, potatoes were grown for subsistence with no outside energy inputs at all.

But even supposing that current mechanised agriculture remained in use, you could run farm equipment off gas producers. That would be using a form of biofuel that is inconvenient as the final product, but needs much less energy to harvest. Further, fossil fuels like coal can be used to drive the production process (fermentation and distilling). Even if that used a poor conversion efficiency, it would be substituting for fossil fuel imports.

The major problem is that a 100% conversion to biofuel would take more agricultural land away from production of staples than the USA has available (using current methods) - it's not such a problem for Australia. But that's not the problem for the USA; the USA only needs to replace imports, not all petroleum.

Even so, coal for synthetic petrol would be a better way to go - if the infrastructure were in place. I see biofuel production as being a better way to bridge a shock, since it would be easy to ramp up production from a small base. The thing is to have that small base in place since a zero base presents major problems (not just of production but of quality control and distribution).

In this respect, butanol seems very promising because it can substitute directly for petrol. (Again, theser people need to complete their first trials and get to that non-zero base.)

For now, the likes of off-thegrid people can easily use gas producers for farm machinery and produce a small ethanol and/or butanol surplus for other uses, without ever hitting the problems that Berry foresees. They would just need to have enough rubbish crops growing off season or whatever that could fuel the gas producers, and enough land surplus for the biofuel feedstocks they wanted that for in the first place.

August 05, 2006 4:19 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Thanks for the technical info, PML. Most critics of biofuels and other alternative energy seem to assume that it would be produced for mass-distribution through some sort of Stalinist blockbuster project, rather than generating electricity on-site for one's own use, or using biofuels as a way of recycling one's own wastes and reducing costs.

At the most primitive and low-tech level, some people use methane from collected human waste as a heating fuel.

August 05, 2006 11:16 AM  

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