Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Via Arts and Letters Daily, I have come across a book review that any commentator on environmentalism will want to consider, "Heard the One about the Farmer's Ethanol", by William Grimes, who reviews Robert Bryce's Gusher of Lies.
The book's subtitle, "The Dangerous Delusions of Energy Independence", seems to speak to one of my biggest annoyances with environmentalism: How it is now being sold as good for our economy and self-defense. (It is neither.)
But, as I said, it seems to. (More on that in a moment.) The book nevertheless might be worthwhile, as Grimes indicates, for its close examination of the specific types of arguments used to advance the causes of the various specific "alternative" fuels, as well as its bringing to light facts that their various advocates happily sweep under the rug. Take ethanol:
... Ethanol, in particular, drives [Bryce] wild. Fuel derived from corn has channeled billions in subsidies to Midwestern farmers and agribusiness, he writes, despite glaring shortcomings. It is expensive to produce and requires enormous amounts of water when irrigation comes into play. It produces much less energy than gasoline while emitting more pollutants into the air.Yes. The problem with many fuels is their high cost, and this is why oil remains the best of the alternatives. (I'd love it if the petroleum industry had enough moral backbone to begin a huge PR campaign against ethanol and called oil something like "the alternative of choice".... Please, oil executives, use this idea! It's free.)
Detroit loves ethanol because it can use it to inflate fuel-efficiency ratings on their cars artificially. The mammoth Chevy Suburban, produced as a flex-fuel vehicle capable of burning both ethanol and gasoline, magically boosted its fuel efficiency to 29 miles per gallon from 15, since under federal rules only a vehicle's gasoline consumption need be factored into the equation. Ethanol, in other words, has allowed American car manufacturers to produce more gas guzzlers and contribute to increased imports of foreign oil.
The problem with corn and other alternative fuel sources boils down to cost and output. Fuel made from switch grass, another potential solution to the energy problem, costs a lot to produce, delivers a lot less energy than petroleum and would require, like corn, vast areas of farmland to meet a meaningful percentage of current energy needs. [bold added]
But that's the problem with most of these fuels, except nuclear power (which the Greens are using to go after coal). I fear, based on Bryce's reported advocacy of the federal government steering scientific research towards building a "superbattery" for solar power, that he may remain blind to the source of all this lying: Government interference in the economy.
Would Detroit be so eager to build cars that burn ethanol were it not for the government's silly rules on how to report fuel efficiency? Would so many farmers devote so much acreage to corn for ethanol without government "incentives"? Would promoters of ethanol get caught in such transparent lies even as their industry mushrooms if they didn't get so much help from the government in their pursuit of money? (I was about to say "energy profits", but that would have been at least two mistakes.)
No. One further question indicates why: Did oil become so big in the first place because the government, in its infinite wisdom, finally jawboned enough people into giving up their "addiction" to other fuels? Of course not.
I suspect that Bryce's book might be an invaluable resource concerning the relative merits of the various fuels touted as "alternatives" to the so-called fossil fuels, but that it suffers from a similar malady that many books focused on economics do -- a failure to consider the proper purpose of government.
A proper government does no more and no less than protect the individual rights of its citizens, which means that it allows each one of them to exercise his own judgement regarding the various choices -- including the economic ones -- he is confronted with throughout his life.
Such a government would do nothing to promote or retard any industry, allowing each to rise (as oil did) or fall (as fuel ethanol should) on its own merits as measured by how well it serves the needs of its customers. Individual customers would judge service by price, which ultimately reflects "cost and output", and thus saves every Tom, Dick, and Harry from having to become an energy expert.
But our government has taken up the immoral and quixotic crusade of setting the world's thermostat (HT: HBL) by artificially influencing or dictating how we judge the sources of the energy that we need to live our daily lives. On top of interfering with our ordinary method of making decisions by cost, this crusade demands of us, as voters, levels of expertise we don't and can't have about energy. This is where all the lies are ultimately coming from. Any con man worth his salt preys on ignorance.
In the short run, knowing that many overhyped fuels are actually lousy alternatives to oil and coal will be valuable in stalling the progress of government controls over our economic lives. But in the long run, plugging up gushing holes in the dike will not solve the real problem, which is that we face drowning in a flood of government regulation. To save ourselves, we must reinforce that dike in the only way possible -- by insisting that our government protect individual rights consistently.