Alternative Fuels (and living the Miller Highlife)

If you’re a fan of non-fiction film you are probably familiar with the name Errol Morris, director of The Fog of War and Thin Blue Line. I’ve also mentioned that he writes a blog for the New York Times in a previous post.

What most of you famliar with his work probably don’t know is that Morris actually makes most of his living in directing While perusing his work I stumbled across this commercial he did for Miller Highlife; it is simply amazing.

I could go on ad nauseam about this commercial but it is really so perfect. It’s witty but also ironic precisely because this is the rhetoric of bike activists but coming from a beer company (who presumably falls on the other side of the political spectrum).

But this commercial highlights a popular fallacy that seems to be gaining traction of late, the idea that if we stopped using gasoline (or switched from gasoline to ethanol ) the energy crisis would be solved; this is simply not true.

Before we get into this though let me roll things back for a moment to an article from Harper’s Magazine published in 2004 I recently found. I highly suggest you read it (it’s quite interesting) but, assuming you’re lazy, I will summarize the salient points.

As James Prescott Joule discovered in the nineteenth century, there is only so much energy. You can change it from motion to heat, from heat to light, but there will never be more of it and there will never be less of it. The conservation of energy is not an option, it is a fact. This is the first law of thermodynamics.

The implications of the law of conservation of energy for oil is that the energy stored is not new. We call petroleum based energy “fossil fuel” because that’s exactly where it comes from: fossilized plant and animal matter. Oil is the energy stored in living things condensed and highly concentrated over millions of years. This is what we are doing when we create biofuel, simply accelerated to a time line that is useful to us; oil is quite literally food energy stored in extremely dense packages.

If you follow the energy, eventually you will end up in a field somewhere…
more than two thirds of humanity’s cut of primary productivity results from agriculture, two thirds of which in turn consists of three plants: rice, wheat, and corn. In the 10,000 years since humans domesticated these grains, their status has remained undiminished, most likely because they are able to store solar energy in uniquely dense, transportable bundles of carbohydrates. They are to the plant world what a barrel of refined oil is to the hydrocarbon world. Indeed, aside from hydrocarbons they are the most concentrated form of true wealth—sun energy—to be found on the planet.

But plants do not produce energy from nothing, and as with any energy conversion process there is a net loss. Plants spend some of the sun energy they collect in making flowers and roots and stems which pass back into the soil when they die.

When we say the soil is rich, it is not a metaphor. It is as rich in energy as an oil well. …The layers of topsoil build up into a rich repository of energy, a bank. A farm field appropriates that energy, puts it into seeds we can eat. Much of the energy moves from the earth to the rings of fat around our necks and waists. And much of the energy is simply wasted…

I’ve already mentioned that we humans take 40 percent of the globe’s primary productivity every year. You might have assumed we and our livestock eat our way through that volume, but this is not the case. Part of that total—almost a third of it—is the potential plant mass lost when forests are cleared for farming or when tropical rain forests are cut for grazing or when plows destroy the deep mat of prairie roots that held the whole business together, triggering erosion. The Dust Bowl was no accident of nature. A functioning grassland prairie produces more biomass each year than does even the most technologically advanced wheat field. The problem is, it’s mostly a form of grass and grass roots that humans can’t eat. So we replace the prairie with our own preferred grass, wheat. Never mind that we feed most of our grain to livestock, and that livestock is perfectly content to eat native grass. And never mind that there likely were more bison produced naturally on the Great Plains before farming than all of beef farming raises in the same area today. Our ancestors found it preferable to pluck the energy from the ground and when it ran out move on.

Today we do the same, only now when the vault is empty we fill it again with new energy in the form of oil-rich fertilizers. Oil is annual primary productivity stored as hydrocarbons, a trust fund of sorts, built up over many thousands of years. On average, it takes 5.5 gallons of fossil energy to restore a year’s worth of lost fertility to an acre of eroded land—in 1997 we burned through more than 400 years’ worth of ancient fossilized productivity, most of it from someplace else. Even as the earth beneath Iowa shrinks, it is being globalized.

David Pimentel, an expert on food and energy at Cornell University, has estimated that if all of the world ate the way the United States eats, humanity would exhaust all known global fossil-fuel reserves in just over seven years. Pimentel has his detractors. Some have accused him of being off on other calculations by as much as 30 percent. Fine. Make it ten years.

There is another energy matter to consider here, though. The grinding, milling, wetting, drying, and baking of a breakfast cereal requires about four calories of energy for every calorie of food energy it produces. A two-pound bag of breakfast cereal burns the energy of a half-gallon of gasoline in its making. All together the food-processing industry in the United States uses about ten calories of fossil-fuel energy for every calorie of food energy it produces.

That is not to say there is anything wrong with eating cereal. The point is that the argument that vegetarianism his less of an impact on the environment because eating lower on the food chain wastes less energy loses traction once you factor in processed foods. Furthermore, animals are able to process foods that we can’t, sourcing energy stores that would otherwise be unavailable to us.

Still, these livestock do something we can’t. They convert grain’s carbohydrates to high-quality protein. All well and good, except that per capita protein production in the United States is about double what an average adult needs per day. Excess cannot be stored as protein in the human body but is simply converted to fat. This is the end result of a factory-farm system that appears as a living, continental-scale monument to Rube Goldberg, a black-mass remake of the loaves-and-fishes miracle. Prairie’s productivity is lost for grain, grain’s productivity is lost in livestock, livestock’s protein is lost to human fat—all federally subsidized for about $15 billion a year, two thirds of which goes directly to only two crops, corn and wheat.

So how does this all come back to High Life as an alternative fuel? Well energy independence, stopping global warming, and whatever other problems you may point to as caused by oil are not going to be solved by making a switch to ethanol. We have to be smarter about our uses of energy, waste less of it; a change in lifestyle. It means riding your bike and putting some of that energy stored in your beer belly back into the system. It’s not just about using less oil, it’s about using less period.