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Bio-Diesel: Salvation or Disaster?

Biodiesel is the fastest growing alternative fuel in the U.S. For the proponents of biodiesel, it promises to deliver us into an age of clean and renewable fuel. If present trends continue, biodiesel is more likely to escalate human misery around the world for years to come.
Biofuels have a long history. The first diesel engine was powered by vegetable oil. In the World War II era, more than a million cars in Europe were running on methanol, a fuel that can be made from any kind of cellulose. The auto-makers of the time installed brackets on the frames of cars assuming that people would install methanol converters in their cars. People were running their cars on corn cobs, wood chips, and other woody debris. Anyone who has purchased gasoline in middle America has seen ethanol for sale. The ?ethanol? sold at the pump is usually a of gasoline and ethanol, the latter made from corn and other grains. In the 1970s, Brazil converted 70 percent of their transportation fleet to ethanol made from sugar cane. Their experience is perhaps most instructive as regards the development of biodiesel.

Brazilian cars in the1970s ran more cleanly with alcohol fuel, and with less dependency on Middle Eastern oil. As a result of the increased demand for sugar cane, big cane producers pushed out smaller farmers, and many acres previously dedicated to growing beans to feed people were converted to sugar cane production to feed the cars of the rich. Given the superior market power of car drivers, sugar cane took precedence, and the price of beans and other staples went up. The poor went hungry, and the rich fed their cars well. As to whether this increased social distress helped facilitate the overthrow of the military government of that time is anyone's guess.

It is important to put biodiesel in the larger ecological context. Anyone familiar with the principles of biological systems knows that ecosystems form a pyramid. At the bottom of that pyramid are the plants who first convert sunlight to bio-energy. Plants make up the largest volume of organic matter in any ecosystem. Just above the plants come insects, small animals, and animals that eat plants. Further up the pyramid are animals that eat animals, and at the top of the pyramid are the large carnivores. This pyramid is relevant to biofuels because different biofuels tap the pyramid at different points. Methanol can be produced from any form of cellulose, and thus uses feedstock from the very bottom of the pyramid. Ethanol can be made from any kind of starch or sugar, and thus takes its feedstock from the middle of the pyramid. Biodiesel takes as its feedstock vegetable oil, which is near the top of the pyramid.

If biodiesel is more ecologically expensive, then why is it becoming so popular? Because factors other than ecology are driving the biodiesel revolution. Environmental laws such as they exist in this country have been easier to enact when the impacts fall closer to home. Thus global warming is exceedingly difficult to influence through legislation because its victims are distant in time and space. The strongest environmental regulations in the country concern urban air quality. Not coincidentally, a lot of Americans live in cities which are very much affected by air pollution. Biodiesel burns cleaner than fossil fuel, as does ethanol. As a result, some cities are converting their bus fleets to biodiesel to help clean up urban air. Methanol, like gasoline, is toxic and burns dirty. Even though its feedstock is cheaper and more available, it has fallen out of favor because it puts people in its immediate vicinity at risk. Biodiesel could claim many thousands of human lives, but like the casualties of global warming, these people are sufficiently removed in time and space that they remain voiceless.

Another factor favoring the development of biodiesel is the ease with which it is converted to automotive fuel. Methanol and ethanol are both somewhat complicated to manufacturer. Under some circumstances, vegetable oil can be used as fuel with no conversion at all. Even when biodiesel is modified, the conversion is a relatively simple process. This has made it a favorite of urban environmentalists and rural homesteaders alike. This in combination with the clean burn has brought biodiesel to the forefront of biofuels.

Anther great charm of biodiesel is the fact that it is made from discarded cooking oil. But is that oil really waste? Why is it sitting there behind that restaurant anyway? That barrel of oil is there because it was put there by a oil reclamation company. Used vegetable oil is reprocessed into a wide variety of products. Being a long-chain hydrocarbon, vegetable oil, like its fossil cousin, is a highly flexible commodity that can be used to produce an enormous variety of products.

In my hometown, the barrels behind fast food restaurants have ?Valley Proteins? written on them. That turns out to be one of the four largest rendering and used cooking oil collectors in the country, currently serving 17 states. They reprocess dead animals, inedible animal remains from slaughterhouses, and used cooking oil into a wide variety of products. From a report from American Capital (who recently invested $10 million in Valley Proteins) we learn that ?Valley Proteins turns the raw materials it collects into commodity goods which are sold to over 170 customers that include producers of livestock feed ("feed mills"), pet food and refiners of fatty chemicals. The company's finished products are quoted on established commodity markets or priced relative to substitute commodities. The primary finished goods include fat and protein products, which are used in hundreds of commercial applications. Fat products are sold predominately to commercial animal feed manufacturers and to manufacturers of pet foods, fatty acids, chemicals and lubricants. The products are also used as an ingredient in bio-diesel (a blend of petroleum fuel and methyl esters derived from animal fats or vegetable oils), a cleaner burning substitute for diesel fuel. The company in fact has modified its own boiler equipment to use the lower priced fats it produces in its rendering plants and thereby minimize boiler fuel expense.?  http://www.americancapital.com/news/press_releases/pr/pr.cfm?p_pr=pr20040624a.html About 80% of the reprocessed fats from rendering companies are used in livestock feed. The rest is used by ?splitters,? companies that process oils into fatty acids and glycerine, as well as other companies that produce industrial lubricants, as well as cosmetics and soap.

The key phrase in the previous paragraph is ?products are quoted on established commodity markets or priced relative to substitute commodities.? Used cooking oil is not a waste or 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 simply purchase the cheapest adequate product regardless of its source. If the companies and consumers should run short of products that were originally made with used vegetable oil, they simply turn to products made from virgin oil.

If biodiesel consumption remained within the supply of used vegetable oil, that would all be fine. But the consumption of fossil diesel radically exceeds the supply of used oil. 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. Americans use about a billion gallons of petroleum a day. The entire output of all of the rendering/ used cooking oil collection companies in the U.S. is about a billion and a half gallons per year. If all of the used oil presently used for all other purposes were divered into the fossil fuel market, it would last us a day and half. If you look solely at the consumption of diesel, the entire output of used vegetable oil in the US represents about 3% of how much diesel we use. 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 from the top of the ecological pyramid and feeding to automobiles, the renewability issue is paramount.

Most people do not spend a lot of time sitting around the global food supply, but if we are going to feed human food to cars, we have to ask that question. We get our food from a number of sources. Do you know when the world fish catch peaked? In the early 1980s. What about grain production? Per capita production peaked in 1993. The vast majority of human food is grown on irrigated land. How is the supply of irrigated land holding up? Because of salinization, erosion, and other management issues, our the global supply of irrigated farm land has shrunk considerably in the last several decades. The final humbling fact is that, even though the U.S. has the most productive agricultural system in the world, we are now a nation that teeters on the brink of agricultural debtorship. Beginning in the 1990s, we have imported more food than we have exported in some years. The staggering fact is that all of these biological limits were being reached before the advent of the Adkins fad in U.S.,which is driving our consumption of ecologically expensive foods skyward. Our current circumstance also predates the broader impact of biofuel conversion. At the time of this writing, global grain stocks are at their lowest point in nearly 40 years.

If the amount of irrigated farmland has actually shrunk, how is it that we continue to feed growing populations? The phrase ?the oilification of food? was first coined a few decades ago, but it is more relevant than ever. The amount of energy we invest in each calorie of food produced has climbed steadily, and continues to climb. We now invest many calories of fossil fuel for each calorie of food we get in return. That is long before anyone considers putting those food calories into a gas tank. (If you check the footnotes of any energy-food calculations, you will eventually find yourself reading the words of David Pimmentel. Although he is not famous, he is the individual who essentially created the field of energy/ food conversion research. He has been trying to sound an alarm for a long time about the oilification of food.)

There are grossly conflicting claims regarding how much fossil fuel is required to produce a gallon of biodiesel. Some biodiesel advocates say that one gallon of fossil fuel used on the farm produces several gallons of biodiesel. If that were true, biodiesel would already be dirt cheap and a dominant fuel. Oil company conspiracies aside, neither Archer Daniels Midland nor the American farmer would let that one slip by. Even now, many people claim that ethanol represents a net energy loss from farm to gas tank, and that ethanol/ gas blends are simply a complicated farm subsidy. Ethanol is lower on the food chain than biodiesel and thus represents less embedded energy.

If biodiesel is ecologically expensive, then won't the market correct the problem by keeping biodiesel financially expensive? Maybe, but we have to add one factor to biodiesel's appeal -- guilt relief. There are a lot of Americans who want to help the environment, but who's lifestyle is as car-dependent as anyone else's. As much as the pundits of tradition may wax poetic about the good old days and falling moral standards, it is the young and liberal who, at least in terms of lifestyle, drive change in America. The social and sexual habits of the young move into the mainstream over time. The outdoor craze of the 1970s helped spur the SUV craze of the 1990s. The changing of fads is not always benign. And once a movement is started, even should that movement divert grossly from its original intended course, the movement may well continue the way of a merry juggernaut. The guilt-relieving power of biodiesel is enormous. Our society is organized in every respect around the automobile. That fact is terribly difficult to escape regardless of personal intent. As of fall 2004, Congress passed an excise tax relief provision to encourage the use of biodiesel. The horse is out of the gate.

Americans have a buying power in the global marketplace that grossly outstrips the vast majority of humanity. The slightest whim of purchasing fashion in our economy can send waves through the lives of thousands of people very far away. Already, American cats have more buying power than many third world people. As the fish of the world's oceans have been increasingly swept up in the nets of globe-roaming trawlers, the fish content of American cat food has increased while the fish consumption of poorer peoples all over the world has declined. All over Latin America, beef production has increased, domestic consumption has decreased as more and more beef is shipped to the McNorth. Any widespread purchasing decision in the Western World can have enormous impacts around the world.

Biodiesel is a powerful movement that is rapidly gaining force. Regardless of intent, if the biodiesel movement succeeds in convincing millions of Americans that biofuel is an ecological solution, they will create a market. The feedstock for that market is the global supply of vegetable oil. That market already shifts spontaneously between reprocessed used oil and virgin stock. Increased consumption of biodiesel beyond the supply of used oil will simply put more demand on virgin stock. 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 that tug of war. The global poor, for whom vegetable oil is already a luxury, will do without. Deficiencies of fat-soluble vitamins will escalate. It is no exaggeration to say that biodiesel, if widely adopted in the west, will result in the deaths of many thousands of people around the world.

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 invariably fail. Already, there is a movement to use biofuel to generate the nation's electricity. What does that mean? That means massive tree chipping operations have started descending on our national forest, thus converting lush green forests into moonscape and chips. The chips are then burned instead of coal to generate steam that turns the electric turbines, thus keeping the lights, computers, air conditioners and tumble driers of America in operation. Careful what you wish for. If you try to meet America's energy demands from the supply side, you are simply going to throw unsustainable weight onto already overstressed biological systems.

If you try to get your energy from any "alternative" source, the same supply-side principle applies. If you tried supply the average American household with solar electric (photovoltaic) panels, it would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Not only is that financially unfeasible, that money also represents a huge environmental price in the energy embedded in the manufacturer of those solar panels. The life-cycle payback (ratio of energy generated to the cost of the system for the life of the system) of such an approach is very high, well beyond any reasonable margin of ?sustainability.? The only feasible way to suppy a household with alternative energy is to first dramatically reduce the energy consumption of that household.

Neither can we deal with transportation fuel by attacking the problem from the supply side. The environmental costs of automobiles is huge regardless of how they are feuled. Few people realize that the average car has as much energy embedded in its production as it will burn in it lifetime. As soon as you buy a car, you have already used thousands of gallons of fossil fuel before you turn the key. Neither high-efficiency cars nor biofuels affect that fact.

We are most often very pleased to entertain any answers except the right ones. Even if you look at the brightest examples of eco-homes, there is always a detailed explanation of the immediate energy costs, but never is there an analysis of the life-cycle costs of such energy efficient homes. The reason is that if you look at the embedded energy costs of an American model energy efficient home and extrapolate that across the lifetime of its inhabitants, the final analysis does not approach anything any reasonable person could call sustainable because the house is large and used by only one or two people.

Why are we trying to solve our ecological problems with all the wrong answers? Because the right answers challenge our lifestyle. It is absolutely impossible to support the American lifestyle in a sustainable fashion with any energy source. The most destructive aspect of biofuels, if approached from the supply-side, is that the biofuels movement creates and perpetuates the myth that our lifestyle can continue if only we find the right fuel -- biodiesel, hydrogen, etc. Several decades ago, Donella Meadows and the Club of Rome pointed out in a book entitled the Limits to Growth that even an infinite energy supply would add only a decade or two onto the lifetime of industrialism. Why? Because energy supply is only one of many variables. The ability of the planet to absorb pollution, generate clean water, renew the soil, any of these systems can be overrun only with disastrous consequences. Of all the major mineral resources we use currently, only three (iron, titanium, aluminum) are so plentiful as to be inexhaustible. The rest are being used on an unsustainable basis. If our energy supply were infinite and clean, industrialism would collapse because of a myriad other limits. No energy source can replace all the ecological systems and inorganic resources that support or lifestyle.

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 work so you don't have to drive. Live cooperatively. For many people, that may sound absurd, but that is precisely why the entire discussion about biofuels is misguided --because the real solutions are socially and culturally problematic.

The real solutions are there, and have been for a while. Even very simple technologies like solar water heating are very hard to pay for in single family housing because the capital cost is high relative the very low intensity of use in a single family home. With cooperative living, not only is the consumption of many resources divided by the number of people sharing that resource, but the higher capital costs of alternative energy systems becomes a lot more reasonable because they are being used more intensively. If you are looking at housing and energy options, insulate and seal up, then worry about supply.

Most importantly, build a culture around you, in cooperation with the people around you, that supports a lifestyle that is not based on single family housing and individual automobiles. This is the key point, because humans are very social animals, and need the support of our fellow humans. We become our social environment over time. True sustainability comes from consciously creating a social environment that supports a sustainable lifestyle. Convince other people to join you in this great task. And after we have have put the movement well underway to collectively choose how we live, then we can choose the most benign sources of energy to support us. That is a real answer. Turning the beast of industrialism with its voracious appetite away from fossil fuel and into our forests and fields is not an answer.

homepage: homepage: http://cvilleindymedia.org

***** 18.Oct.2004 16:04

old man

(The real solutions are there, and have been for a while..... With cooperative living, not only is the consumption of many resources divided by the number of people sharing that resource, but the higher capital costs of alternative energy systems becomes a lot more reasonable because they are being used more intensively....

..... Convince other people to join you in this great task. And after we have have put the movement well underway to collectively choose how we live, then we can choose the most benign sources of energy to support us. That is a real answer. Turning the beast of industrialism with its voracious appetite away from fossil fuel and into our forests and fields is not an answer.)

Me: Your article is good. It makes a clear and convincing case. But realistically, do you realize what it will really take for people to really elect for a lifestyle that is possible with sustainable resources? I think I do, and it is probably as equally dismal as what is before us now. I don't see a way out of massive devastation worldwide. Naturally, poorer people will take the worst of it. Maybe someday there will be a better balance, but I don't see it happening before the next 100 years is up.

you may be right, but 19.Oct.2004 07:34

Alexis/ author

You may be right we are headed for some bad times, but it's still a lot more fun to try to do something about it than to give up. A lot more sane too. Nothing more depressing than not fighting the beast....

Be Careful what you ask for 09.Nov.2004 07:25

Old Cat

You may suggest more "cooperative living", but you may find a pretty high price. For example, I would wager that such a "high density" lifestyle would be acceptable to the broad middle class only if its accompanied by severe "Singapore Style" social controls.

We need NOT to tap into our "food pyramid" 09.Nov.2004 07:37

biodiesel scientist chachiheadmaguedo@yahoo.com

Ok, yeah yeah yeah, i can understand... you probably learned about biodiesel, and thought about it all week long, and have made up your mind about it forever... well, until you read this. Let me argue that:

a) You want to talk about sustainability, but then talk about a "food pyramid"... as if us even living in a world where we grow our own food, and narrow down our production options to the 100 or so plant species that white people seem to understand and like the most... WHEN, before the agricultural revolution (oh, about 10,000 years ago), homo sapiens along with other animals had a diet of about 2000 plant species. Where did all our nutrition go?

b) Algae as a feedstock yields much more oil per acreage than any vegetable oil(roughly 13,000-22,000 pounds per acre, depending on how good of an algae farmer you are). Not only that, but you can harvest algae more than once a year, it's completely renewable, its feedstocks are water, light and shit(so, not only can we have our waste systems taken care of for free, but algae will actually purify the water. DID YOU KNOW?: An algae farm 260 km. sq. will produce enough oil to power our entire nation? How's that for f*#king sustainable?

c) You haven't even considered how much waste vegetable oil we have access to. There are billions of gallons of waste veggie oil produced every year in Amerika. It may not be enough to generate the 55 billion gallons of diesel that we presently consume (not to mention the hundreds of billions of gallons of gasoline), but it definitely is enough to supply all of the brave and intelligent homo sapiens who like to do their own thing in their own backyard and not support Amerika's MIC (military industrial complex). Can I get a MIC check?? Now, when that wave of thought sweeps the land (much like New Kids on the Block did), then you'll see an increase in the private sector's desire to do things like grow algae farms on rooftops and in deserts.

d) Do you actually think that because homo sapiens, as well as other animals, are starving all around the world, that there is a shortage of our food supply, even if we start "taking human food from the top"? Canada destroys 2/3rds of their grain every year to keep prices up... we do the same. Other countries do the same. We have enough resources.

e) Using straight veggie oil is okay, sure. But you'll be changing your fuel filters more often than if you convert it using methanol and lye (you only need a quarter of the methanol and no lye if you use a high-heat / high-pressure system). Using B100 that has been sufficiently cleaned and dried is the only way to ensure a very long engine life, because biodiesel acts as a degreaser, cleaning your engine before ever f*$#ing it up.

f) The methanol that we use for oil conversion can now be found in a green way. We now have the technology to extract enough methane from landfill sites to create up to 30,000 gallons of methanol per day, per landfill! Not that the landfills are sustainable in any way, but since we got 'em, we might as well use 'em.

g) Get ready for a new kind of biofuel, called biogasoline, made of a cellulose extract. It helps keep a longer lasting, cleaner engine as well ...and supports our need for environmentally sound fuel. Hey, I would much rather ride a bike too...but I wouldn't want to carry all my tools on one.

Anyway, biodiesel is a good thing, in my opinion, because it gives the public sector a huge chance at taking on the government in the place where it hurts the most. In their oil field. If we can organize enough veggie oil / fuel coops and tell the government "F@#K OFF" every time they ask for their 50 cent per gallon road tax, then the real homo sapiens of this crumbling Amerika will be that much better off. What can they do? Pull out of Fallujah, and come attack Amerikans? Take our McDonald's grease traps away to Guantanamo Bay?

Thank you for listening, and participating in a discussion about biodiesel. Feel free to contact me if you have any other questions regarding biodiesel or other alternative energies, or just to bitch at me about my Un-AmeriKANism.

Roast Pig
Roast Pig

What rural living? 09.Nov.2004 08:34


I like your article, but the idea of higher density living may not be practical for rural communities, where farming creates large geographical gaps between farmers. Equally, what can suburban workers do that are forced to live far away from their work sites due to cost of living issues? Transportation, in both cases, seems to be a real issue, as opposed to just a life style issue. I agree that a demand side approach would be effective, however, I think the necessity of transportation for those two communities isn't a life style choice, but an economic necessity.

Interesting article 09.Nov.2004 09:48


The bit about biodiesel being essentially "laundered petroleum" from industrial farming was something I always wondered about. And clearly it's a limited solution at best, given what energy hogs First Worlders are.

On the other hand, apparently many restaurants are willing to _give_ their used oil away to biodiesel cooperatives. That would indicate that it's not that valuable a commodity, else the processors of it would be paying to get it, instead of charging to haul it away.

Is _all_ waste oil reprocessed into other commodities? Or just _some_ of it? If the alternative to burning it in cars is for the excess to be incinerated, it's better to burn it in cars.


What about Hemp oil? 09.Nov.2004 10:38


Seems to me that if we could just use Hemp oil instead of vegetable oil, that both ecologically and production wise it would be a better alternative and might be the answer for this problem. Hemp is easy to grow, can grow in poor soils and does not take away from food sources. It may still not be perfect but it would be a far less devastating than using vegetable oil.

Fear mongering is not a soloution 09.Nov.2004 11:10


Your gloom and doom about biodiesel is well thought out, but i do not agree. Here is why: First off you talk about people who will die because of feeding food to cars. Right now we have the fate of the earth in the hands of the wealthiest nations on earth. Those nations are the oil rich countries of the middle east. They are wealthy because the USA and the rest of the world and soon china buy petroleum at an outrageous rate. Yes, our consumption is wasteful and could easily become much more efficient, but by cutting off the money flowing to the middle east the need for the USA to colonize and the ability of these countries to support or fund terrorism evaporates.Biodiesel allows us to turn our back on the middle east petroleum supply. Oil money is what funded saddam hussein, osama bin laden, and the saudi royal family as well as the shah of iran, syria, and all of the groups these countries sponsor. This oil destruction also includes America's own national parks which the bush administration has opened for oil exploration and has opened millions of acres of formerly protected land in the arctic. The amount of blood shed over oil, the amount of toxic bombs and radioactive weaponry being deployed is creating a huge loss of human life and has a huge environmental impact. Get your head out of the clouds and back to earth and realize that supporting biodiesel is the only way to solve these problems right now. Yes I agree greater efficiency is required no matter what, but the cost of petroleum is literally killing us and potentially paying for the possibility of a nuclear armageddon.

Fatal Flaws 09.Nov.2004 11:59


Multiple biomass based energy and food sources are available to us which are each appropriate under different conditions. Your writings do point out some of the alternatives. However the conclusions which drive the writings are conceptually flawed.

You State that "Ethanol can be made from any kind of starch or sugar, and thus takes its feedstock from the middle of the pyramid." Starches and sugars produced by plants are part of the BOTTOM of the pyramid. Do you really understand the "food pyramid concept" WE are not talking starches and sugars produced by animals here are we? While it is true that the starches and sugars are plant products which can be effectively utilized for human food, not all plant produced starches or sugars are efficent human food sources, there are nutritional quality and energy costs of processing involved here which can make simple carbohydrates better adapted for mechanical energy production that for food.

Similarly your statement that "Biodiesel takes as its feedstock vegetable oil, which is near the top of the pyramid." fails due to the same misconception. The plant produced oils are part of the bottom of the Pyramid.

On the logical fallacies side... This is not an either/or situation, some plant products can be effectively utilized for food, others for energy in a mix best determined by the local ecostsyem limitations (including a time variable, hopefully including respect for any long term effects on the global ecosystem.

Please recover your baby from the bathwater you just tossed.


i think the point is getting lost 09.Nov.2004 12:20


i think the point of this article is getting lost somewhere in the comments. the point is that we as a nation are voraciously over consuming. It isnt about alternative ways to sustain that over consumption.

The problem is over consumption, not oil or bio diesel. The solution is not found in maintaining the consumption by tapping different resources, but changing the way that we live so we consume less and have less of an impact on the environment.

It doesnt matter where we get a fuel source from, it lies in land-use and other land related resources. Currently, oil is on the downfall, because it is non-renewable. Biodiesel offers a temporary solution until we tap the available land and have to destroy more forests to plant more rapeseed or olive to keep up with the demand of biodiesel.

Even hemp seed oil, it is more renewable, but consumption is too far gone and we do not have the land to use to sustain these high consumption levels. As the author stated, it isnt going to be an easy shift. And people seem to be overlooking the fact that we are going to have to rethink our lifestyle, not our resources.

I think this article is amazing. There is no easy solution. One that i think of is riding more bicycles, but then the production of bicycles is also a huge drain on resources. It is really tough to find a balance. This is a critical and necessary look into how we live our lives and it is very important that we take heed to this and actually start to make changes.

You science is a little off 09.Nov.2004 14:57


Biodiesel can be made from the inedible chaff of all the grain produced in he country. Through trans-esterfication you turn the carbohydrates in to mono-alchol esters, do a little dance, add some sunshite and lots of love and BING...biodiesel. You have to take nothing away from the food pyrimid because you would be converting a product that is a waste material. If this country ran on diesel alone we would be able to produce enough chaff from our agriculture to completely fulfill our fuel needs in biodiesel. I am a little disapointed to see car companies trying to ride the hybrid wave of hippies so proud of their 50 mpg (how toxic for the environment are all your nickle sulfide kriptonite batteries of doom?)when you can get a VW TDI that gets 46 mpg (highway.) The added bonus, LA would smell like chinese food year round.

smoke and mirrors 09.Nov.2004 15:32

make the maze more fun?

Suburbia was consciously created by the powers that be in the '40s & '50s for their own reasons. It's not a "real issue" in the same sense that high density conflicting with agriculture might be a real issue. It's a constructed issue. America intentionally moved people out of high-density housing into suburban tract housing for several reasons, e.g. the illusorily cheap price of transportation at the time, the opportunity to move people far away from their coworkers, and the parallel opportunity to convince them that they were all landowners (look! your own estate! for several feet around your house!) with an accompanying stake in the system.

If, for instance, transportation gets a lot more expensive, or the longstanding suburban-land-value bubble bursts, suburbia could change very abruptly. It's a tremendously artificial and bizarre environment.

Oh, and "the middle class" isn't that "broad." It's a minority maintained as a buffer between the real elites and everybody else. Most adult Americans don't have college degrees and owe somebody money against their homes. The American class system is splintered and confusing, and it's not by accident.

something still is not getting through... 09.Nov.2004 16:28


I think some of us are still clinging to a way of life that is simply not going to be possible for much longer. it is just a simple fact that we are growing ever closer to ecological collapse. we are in damage control now. we need to start making sweeping changes in our lifestyles if we want to lessen the degree of the catastrophy which will ensue...not sources of energy which create more open-ended cycles to create less waste, but changes in the way we LIVE in the skeleton of the capitalist corpse. How we get around, not what fuels will power our current, wasteful autos; how we will live when our suburbs become distant, isolated places (even more so than they are now); how to grow food when the seasons we have come to rely upon for hundreds of generations are no longer dependable!
when asked about strategies for the future of environmentalism, james howard kuntsler said:

"The salient issue for Americans is how we are going to remain civilized when the permanent global energy crisis is upon us. This epochal event will compel us to downscale, downsize, and rethink virtually all our daily activities. No combination of alternative fuels will rescue us, or permit us to keep running our nation the way we are running it now. Most of all, it will require us to live locally -- and intensively so. The great crisis for us will come in the issue of food production. As industrial agriculture fails, along with suburbia and the industrial mega-cities, we will face a tremendously turbulent reshaping of our living arrangements. Some places -- Phoenix, Las Vegas -- will fail entirely. Anything big, whether a corporation or a government, is liable to become ineffectual. Environmentalists must prepare for these very real hardships."

i understand that biodiesel, methanol, even solar enegy (because of the intensity of production of high-technology parts) will not be effective enough at this point to allow us to continue driving automobiles, living in single-family, suburban-style dwellings, living and consuming outside of a bioregional area, etc.
we will simply have to face these facts or become part of the casualties.

***James Howard Kunstler--quoted from:  http://www.grist.org/news/maindish/2004/11/03/post_election/index.html

Comments from the Author 09.Nov.2004 20:12

Alexis lexus51@bnsi.net

I am pleased to see that someone thought so highly of my article to feature it. I would like to respond to some of the comments, more or less in the order posted.

As regards rural living being antithetical to density, it doesn't have to be. There is nothing at all incompatible with rural lifestyles and communal living or higher density, and the family farm is a fairly unique contrivance. Villages seem the much more common way for people to live around the world. Many modern intentional communities make this point as well, putting people in high-density living situations that are also rural.

As far as suburbia being an "economic necessity," I agree with the comment further along that it has a lot more to do with getting people to buy into the system. It is also very much economically driven. The boom of the 1920s was driven by the automobile as developers began to fill in between the trolley lines on land made accessible by the auto. The post WWII boom was also auto driven. The sad thing is that wholesale environmental destruction is economic stimulus.

As far as how much waste vegetable oil is incinerated or otherwise not used, my understanding is that while it is not valuable to the restaurant owner, it is quite valuable to the oil recyclers. I don't think there is much that goes to waste. The largest source of waste might be small scale restaurants that simply don't produce enough to justify a collection barrel out back.

As far as the military costs of oil, I couldn't agree more. Except that in the age of industrial agriculture, food is oil. Enormous amounts of fossil fuel are used to produce our food products. It is not "fear mongering" to look at pieces o f truth. If any biofuel could feed our cars and factories, then maybe that could save us from the geopolitical problems to which you allude. But there isn't enough of any biofuel out there to supply the voracious and growing demand of modern industrialism. I point you to a study done by a few scientists and Stanford. They found that we are already using 40 percent of the global photosythetic product of the land mass of the earth. That means of all the energy produced by the first plant based conversion (photosynthesis), we are already using 40 percent of that. What does that leave for all of the other plants and animals on the planet?

As far as my "fatal flaws" as to where different plant products fall on the pyramid, its a big pyramid, and you can argue details, but the basic facts remain. It is born out by a simple economic analysis. Take 75 dollars try this experiment. See how much cellulose you can buy, then how much starch you can buy, then how much vegetable oil. The cheapest starch might be firewood or straw from a farm. For 75 bucks you should be able to fill a pickup truck. Now for starch. Cheap flower of some kind of animal food might be your best buy. You're not going to fill your truck. Quarter full perhaps. Now vegetable oil. Now your truck bed isn't terribly full at all. Granted, any plant product is lower on the pyramid than almost any animal product, by the analysis holds. Cellulose is cheaper than starch, and oil is the most expensive, in economic or ecological terms.

As regards the comment
"This is not an either/or situation, some plant products can be effectively utilized for food, others for energy in a mix best determined by the local ecostsyem limitations."
I agree, but only within the context of a local ecosystem, and only if someone is paying attention. The global commodities market on which virgin and recycled vegetable oil is marketed is not such a localized system, and heaven knows we are not paying the proper attention. Theoretically plants could be used for fuel locally, but we are rapidly building a movement that is not at all local, and will reach around the world with its impacts.

As regards the comments by bht
"i think the point of this article is getting lost somewhere in the comments. the point is that we as a nation are voraciously over consuming. It isnt about alternative ways to sustain that over consumption. The problem is over consumption, not oil or bio diesel. The solution is not found in maintaining the consumption by tapping different resources, but changing the way that we live so we consume less and have less of an impact on the environment."

Thank you. That is the point.

As regards converting "waste" agricultural carbohydrates to biodiesel or other fuels, I am not intimately familiar with the chemistry of the specific process to which you refer. But I would point out a couple of things. Be careful what you call waste. Even if agricultural waste is getting plowed back into the ground, it is feeding the soil. And more importantly, each step of conversion or refining embeds more energy in the final product. You can make gas out of coal (as the South Africans did to avoid the trade sanctions placed on them), but it takes more energy to do so. Its the same reason that all the high-tech food technologies cannot reasonably replace more simple production methods. Hydroponics and the like may produce a tasty tomato in the winter, but the energy invested per unit of return is high. Any elaborate food or fuel production process is likely to require enough energy to make its products ecologically expensive. Regardless of the conversion technologies, there's not enough of any biofuel out there to sustain the current regime of industrial growth. Making LA smell like Chinese food would cost more than our world has to give.

I appreciate the comment about suburbia not being an accident. It does buy people into the system to give them a little piece of ownership, and it fosters consumption (not to mention racism) and an unprecedented scale.

What is the most basic criticism that "progressives" can level against the traditional establishment? That they are too much bound by old ideas, that they seek what makes them physically and mentally comfortable without looking at the broader impacts of their actions? Biodiesel is all the rage. In the midst of the debate, it seems to boil down to seeking something that can support the auto lifestyle because progressive America is as car-addicted as everybody else. It is beyond our comfort zone to imagine life without the personal auto. So we want to imagine that our autos can be fueled sustainably by biofuel. They cannot. And we are are turning a blind eye toward the large affects of our actions, just like those who we criticize with such gusto. We are playing a very deadly game with our future. We are going to have to reach well beyond our comfort zone.

Although I would not suggest that one person's experience counts as any "scientific" evidence, I have had some experience with these things. Once upon a time I did own an auto briefly, but I have lived for years without. I have run a handyman business without a car or a truck. Pulling three hundred pounds of tools uphill on a bike trailer does not require Olympic ability, but it will teach you patience. As I type, its 30 degree outside, 70 degrees inside, without the use of any fossil fuel. We do have solar panels on the roof. But mostly its warm because the walls are 18 inches thick. Conserve first, then worry about alternative production, always. I have built with straw, leaves, and shreded paper. It's not hard. But it does require getting outside of tradition. And I like my housemates. It doesn't seem like punishment to me. I would not suggest that everyone should live exactly as I choose, only that we learn to how to collectively choose our social systems rather than seeking comforting solutions that aren't solutions.

interesting 10.Nov.2004 03:00


interesting article and discussion

i will not argue your points, just add some additional comments

From a health point of view turning used oil into cattle feed does not seem such a good idea, not for the cattle and the people who eat it. Here in in Belgium this is now forbidden after dioxins were found in chickens because some wacko's mixed pcb's from batteries with the oil. Even without such criminal intent used oil contains toxic byproducts because of the heating. I doubt someone bothers to remove them. So i wouldn't feel too guilty about turning these into fuel.
In fact I would prefer to put even the vegetable oil that most people buy in the stores oil, especially partially hydrogenated oil, in my car then eat it or feed it to my chickens because of the trans fatty acids (see for example  http://www.mercola.com/2000/jun/10/trans_fats.htm)
I am not saying that this is a sustainable solution!

I think that producing vegetable oil from treecrops for use in diesel cars (without converting it to biodiesel) may be part of a sustainable solution that is practical even on a small scale.

another tack on the problem 10.Nov.2004 17:26


Not to change the subject, but I thought I'd point out that it's possible to build a "car" that'll move a person around at freeway speeds that's enormously more energy-efficient than the thousand-pound monsters currently coming out of the world's factories ...


comment 11.Nov.2004 12:44


All this bio energy requires massive agriculture. Most of our crops require fertilizer. The fertilizer is mostly made from NATURAL GAS which is in declining availability. Civilization took a wrong turn down a dead end alley about 10,000 years ago when it turned from hunter/gatherer culture to agriculture. We have wiped out 1000's of species and are wrecking the planet to keep on trucking down this route. The peak oil crisis coming may put the brakes on before we ruin it all. It would be better in the long run for the population to have a large die-off and re-learn to be sustainable. There is no reason the good stuff, internet, mp3 players, etc, will have to go extinct. We will simply have a much roomier and healthier planet. There is hope for the planet, but we will have to accept the loss of much of our gene pool. This will go against millions of years of biological drive, but maybe our smart(?) brains can adjust for the good of all.

Better treatment of animals + Hemp 11.Nov.2004 21:37


Seeing as recycled vegetable oil is helping corporate farmers feed their stock, maybe if all of the recycled oil is used for biodiesel we'd be better off, i.e. our cattle would feed in the fields and not be suck side by side in some overpacked area before they get rushed off to a unnecessarily-painfull death (and yes animals do feel pain and for those of you who doubt -> docters 18 years ago thought children could not feel pain...). Just a thought.

Also Hemp could be pleantiful (if it were legal), since it requires no fertilizer or pesticides (at least compared to what we grow these days), grows fast, and has innerumerable other uses (basically everything that trees and oil are used for, but I don't know if we could actually grow that much Hemp to replace trees and oil...)

As some of you mentioned though, we can not continue as we are; are ways must be changed. It remains unknown if we could restructure the whole system in a sustainable way (products waste used for other products ingredients, just as the Earth does), and still live how we do (i.e. personal transportation and dependency on products), but we passed that point a long time ago.

Is it too late to restore the balance of the earth? I for one think it may be...

transportation 17.Nov.2004 02:38


This is a great conversation, many good points. Perhaps to clarify what we are talking about though

Bio diesel is not proposed to fuel power plants, to make fertilizers, plastics, nor asphalt and all the other crap we make out of petroleum. We are talking about transportation, specfically, the kind in which you use a long-range, heavy-cargo, rapid transit device, more sussinctly known as a car. We need to really viciously reconsider what such a device ought to be used for and when and how. I have also heard of a Bio diesel being used for home heating.

So, if you must use a car, is it better to fuel it with petrol or BioD? Personally i think BioD is a better choice. but then i dont drive except when im moving my household or having to get stuff somewhere else very very fast (like a dying person to the hospital, say)

Another point i wanted to add about rural collective living is that such population concentrations will become absolutely neccessary in an agricultural setting without fossil fuels. Without pesticides and herbicides poly- & inter-cropping become indespensible. Tractors are then obsolete cause harveting the corn destroys the beans and smashes the squash (apart from fuel prices). Hello city folk on the farm. And no big deal cause youre growing so much more food, and good for them cause theres way less food in the cities.
On that point, we need to start FARMING the cities. Self explanatory: agriculture distribution infrastructure, fuel, electricity for refrigeration, fuel for consumers to travel over a mile to the store all go bye bye.

And whoever made the comment about bikes taking alot of energy to produce needs to get a little relative. yes there is an energy cost associated with bikes: particularly in manufcture, but also in maintenance and manufacture of replacement parts (esp bearings). Is this energy cost anywhere near that of a car? Is the energy into a bike continued every moment of the bike's use? do bikes wear out roads (a petroleum product) anywhere near as fast as cars? We do need to put our energy into building hubs that can go 15000 miles before a rebuild rather than say Huffys or Murrays. Not to say such bike are useless so much as planned obsolescence death traps. They are indeed economically accessible.

Lastly, what are we stupid? We can find ways to do this stuff people. Bio fuel is cool, it will probably be an aspect of any future we have on earth. but the point is that we ca figure out ways to make life work without cars (what are they for again?), we certainly seemed to be doing a good job surviving without them up until 100 years ago.

Peace, hope, do something real! (like make sure your bike is rideable, or better yet, ride it somewhere.) And all kinds of love to 300lb bike carts, you make it possible for the rest of us to believe in a future.

Totally agree with Notquick 17.Nov.2004 21:09


Really I don't like those cities that put people so close together that they can't even have veggies in their own garden. Also think about the time when you don't have to worry that car combustion products condense on your veggies and when you can use horse apples to fertilize your garden.

A Horse is my 'pet' of choice, but then again the original author would probably calculate that if more people had horses there wouldn't remain enough space to grow food for people? Really I think the food problem is more associated with underpaid jobs in struggling economies with national currencies held artificially low, and all that after people have been brainwashed into thinking they need to live the modern plastic way consuming brand name products, subscribing to mass manipulation media.

What else is left when individual agricultural families with their own land are becoming the exception? What I agree with is that we need to get back to those village like local sustainability 'tribes', to time when people still faced each other not the TV.

A few things I forgot 17.Nov.2004 21:21


We don't appreciate our own waste enough:

There are also wood pellets that are essentially compressed cellulose material of any kind (what the cattle don't eat from the Bio fuel production)

There is the Stirling Motor that could be combined with the ICE to raise its fuel economy finally above 30%

And of course there are renewable energies in general:

The question of sustainability -a radical suggestion 19.Nov.2004 11:56

Edward Culp edc499@yahoo.com

A comment on the monopolization of ethanol resources in Argentina in the 70s: Is it inevitable that a minority tyranny monopolize the resources for life ie, water, food, clothing, education, let alone -transportation fuel? -I hope not. Governments must recognize that all humans born to this earth have the right to our god-given commons: clean air, water, enough land for their family to live on - not just to survive(maybe) on. -See UN web site for human rights Utopian suggestion: (Probably wishful thinking, but hey why not?) Each natural person should have the right to enjoy enough clean air, water and land (about 1500 sq ft per person US diet). If you include land for canola oil production (n. hemisphere) 12 acres per family. No person or entity would hold 'ownership' rights...which would be held in common. (This sounds communist doesn't it?... yea, but different than Marxism in that the 'ownership of production rights and results of production would not be held in common). In a perfect world, I would envision communities of 100 people 'self-sustaining' and able to share diversity of technical expertise and economies of scale. Any takers? www.meaculpadiem.com

biodiesel is not THE solution it is part of many 21.Apr.2005 21:31

jvamurray jvamurray@yahoo.com

The biggest problem most arguments for or against any one solution is that it treats the solution as the only solution. The point of the biodiesel movement is to remove a small percentage of the users (abusers) of oil rather than to replace oil as the source. The Hybrid movement is similar in its goal. Reduce reliance on oil and other fossil fuels. The overall goal is to go around, under, over and through the obstacles the oil companies are throwing up. If we rely too much on any one of the many solutions we will see failure. If we see the big picture and continue to search and research we will eventually render the Military, Industrial complex, the neocons and the blood for oil people harmless.


agree in principle but... 25.Apr.2005 11:06

tomuru tomuru@hotmail.com

If the fats and oils are going to a rendering operation for animal feed then rich folks (relatively speaking) are still eating high from the pyramid. That waste oil will not wind up feeding the poor will it? You haven't spoken of the possibility of using non-edible oils like castor bean grown on marginal land. These would be grown essentially by poor people to have a renewable liquid fuel. Maybe with a liquid fuel they might generate some electricity to power some lights and a computer to see what else might be available. This has the empowerment possibilities that you may be discounting. It's seems a cheaper alternative than expensive solar panels that many poor will never afford to maintain let alone purchase. Biogas is another alternative for the waste glycerine by product of biodiesel. I prefer to give the poor farmer a choice of technologies and let them decide what is best for their location and time.

If we feed oil to our cars, what will we feed our cows? 06.Jun.2005 17:09

Wolf Harper

Great, so one of the biggest collectors of used fry oil is a rendering company, who makes used vegetable oil and animal buy-products into ... animal feed.

I don't think cows should be eating beef or pork. It's a cheap way to give them protein but I think it's one of the worst abuses among many in factory ranching.

Maybe if veggie fuels drove up the price of meat, that wouldn't be such a bad thing. Americans eat too much anyway.

Anyway I haven't heard alternatives. I certainly don't want to hear about how we should abandon a workable solution so we can hold out for a pipe-dream solution like "getting people out of their cars". That's like saying cars shouldn't have smog controls - people just shouldn't drive.

Tesla, Zero Point, Vegetarianism and Hemp 03.Aug.2005 03:48

Samadhi samadhi2012@yahoo.com


Wow, so much intelligence and insight here. I loved the article as well.

Zero point energy will be the energy of the future. There are many people close to figuring this out (again) after Tesla discovered it in the early part of last century. Most of these people are in Europe, especially Germany.

If people ate less animal products and more living/raw foods then we would free up an enormous amount of land for biomass production. Einstein said that vegetarianism is one of the single most important things people can do to help this planet.

One of the best sources of biomass is hemp. Hemp is the 'poster' plant that represents all other plants. Without it we are doomed. Hemp is the 'Swiss-army knife of saving-the-planet tools' and we must work to make it legal to grow here in Amerika.

So many pieces of the puzzle. The equation is long but the end is always the same. The equation of an automobiles life through ultimate use (comsumption) by the end user is complicated, involves many variables and is unsustainable. Replacing the 'fuel' part of the equation with biofuels will certainly help us towards achieving sustainability. This may be a temporary fix until zero point and other sustainable energy sources are realized, but it is a fix none-the-less.


Portland, Or

I Don't know, but ... 23.Aug.2005 19:26

Rudolph Diesel

I Don't know, but ... see this.  http://freetheplant.net

Alexis, WHAT ABOUT THE ALGAE FEEDSTOCK!!! 26.Nov.2005 21:41

Biodiesel consumer

The Biodiesel Scientist brought up the fact that algae when processed, can produce a HUGE quantity of oil! This point seems to be glossed over! The US gov't funded a study from 1976-1998 involving the production of oil from algae. It took place in, believe it or not, Roswell New Mexico! (Maybe a tip from aliens???) They found that it is indeed possible and the only problem, was that it got too cold at night. The algae farms would have to be located in a place that received plenty of daytime sun and was warm at night. Maybe southern CA or Hawaii? The Big Island of Hawaii has many miles of unusable lava fields, who knows? Anyway, the point is that we can supply all of our biodiesel needs with algae farms that we can locate on land that is unusable for food farming. The algae can process shit from a variety of sources (human and animal) and it would clean up things a bit. Not to mention the huge amount of oxygen radiated into our atmosphere and the carbon dioxide scrubbing ability. For this reference and other fun facts, please see: "Biodiesel,Growing a New Energy Economy", by Greg Pahl. A couple of fun facts: ONE ACRE of algae can produce 500-20,000!gallons of algal oil per year!!!(difference is which scientist you talk to and which algae you use). Whereas Soy oil,(a common feedstock in this country), only produces 48 gallons per acre, Rapeseed(Canola),(the most popular choice in the Biodiesel world produces only 127 gallons per acre. Oil Palm is the closeset to algae production (but still dwarfed by the 20,000gallon figure) producing 635 gallons of oil per acre. So you see, if this country ever did get serious about making biodiesel from virgin oil, the only logical choice would be algae which wouldn't bother our food needs at all and can be grown in a desert assuming enough water and shit was available.

An Unmentioned Possibility 18.Apr.2006 21:05

Kevin Jackson saradunn@swbell.net

The United States Geological Survey says there is enough wind power available in Texas alone to provide power to the entire United States with a lot left over. Take a few more states to make electricity for electric and hydrogen cars and you might have a partial solution.

I think it is clear - there are just too many of us for the planet to support. It is ironic that reproduction rates in the richest (evil) countries are the lowest and rates in the poorest (victim) countries the highest. Any body have any ideas to fix that?