U.S. Ethanol and Amazon Forests: Echoes of Engels

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In The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man, Friedrich Engels wrote:

“Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unfore­seen effects which only too often cancel the first. …”

That subject, the irony of history, comes up frequently in the writings of Marx and Engels, and even more frequently in real life. A letter published in the December 14 issue of Science magazine offers a case in point.

Subsidies to corn-based biofuel are supposed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Many analysts have argued that the benefit is at best marginal, because growing corn and making ethanol is energy-intensive. But the problem goes beyond that, as the letter points out. The writer is William F. Laurance of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute:

“The United States is the world’s leading producer of soy. However, many U.S. farmers are shifting from soy to corn (maize) in order to qualify for generous government subsidies intended to promote biofuel production; since 2006, U.S. corn production has risen 19% while soy production has fallen by 15%. This in turn is helping to drive a major increase in global soy prices, which have nearly doubled in the past 14 months.

“The rising price for soy has important consequences for Amazonian forests and savanna-woodlands. In Brazil, the world’s second-leading soy producer, deforestation rates and especially fire incidence have increased sharply in recent months in the main soy- and beef-producing states in Amazonia (and not in states with little soy production). Although dry weather is a contributing factor, these increases are widely attributed to rising soy and beef prices, and studies suggest a strong link between Amazonian deforestation and soy demand.

“Some Amazonian forests are directly cleared for soy farms. Farmers also purchase large expanses of cattle pasture for soy production, effectively pushing the ranchers farther into the Amazonian frontier or onto lands unsuitable for soy production. In addition, higher soy costs tend to raise global beef prices because soy-based livestock feeds become more expensive, creating an indirect incentive for forest conversion to pasture. Finally, the powerful Brazilian soy lobby is a key driving force behind initiatives to expand Amazonian highways and transportation networks in order to transport soybeans to market, and this is greatly increasing access to forests for ranchers, loggers, and land speculators.

“In a globalized world, the impacts of local decisions about crop preferences can have far-reaching implications. As illustrated by an apparent “corn connection” to Amazonian deforestation, the environmental benefits of corn-based biofuel might be considerably reduced when its full and indirect costs are considered.”

To quote Engels once more …

“The individual capitalists, who dominate production and exchange, are able to concern themselves only with the most immediate useful effect of their actions…. and the sole incentive becomes the profit to be made on selling. … In relation to nature, as to society, the present mode of production is predominantly concerned only about the immediate, the most tangible result; and then surprise is expressed that the more remote effects of actions directed to this end turn out to be quite different.”


  • It is useful to be reminded of the writings of great thinkers, especially when their messages contain a clanging warning for life today.

    This is certainly the case with the quotes from Friedrich Engels and certainly not the case with those from Friedrich Hayek and his acolyte, Milton Friedman.

    All individual, living systems consist of finely balanced equilibria, which, if disturbed, result in a less than perfect harmony with the rest of the surroundings until the equilibria are again achieved. In humans, this is what we term ill-health. By their nature, equilibria are self-correcting, that is, given the chance the equilibria will be restored.

    What is true for individuals is no less true for the totality of life, the biosphere. It can withstand small upsets without too much ill effect, but if the change is great enough, then the consequences are similarly great. Examples might include massive deforestation, acidification of the waters of the earth, or perhaps extensive radiation of the earth’s surface by radioactive materials.

    Our environment has evolved over many millions of years, slowly changing so that balance is retained. A large part of this change has been brought about by the emergence of plant life and its essential processes between plant life and the environment. Eventually, and as a consequence of this, animal life emerged and, much later, human life.

    Since then, and largely because of the development of the human brain, the equilibrium of the biosphere has been increasingly disturbed. Humans have learnt how to extract ‘fossil’ energy, how to release ‘atomic’ or ‘nuclear’ energy, and how to interfere with many other natural processes in a relatively short period of time, something alien to natural evolution which always proceeds slowly.

    In this sense, humans have burst like an explosion into the biosphere, an explosion that has yet to reach its crescendo. We are beginning to see something of the rapid changes we have set in train that will continue for years to come until they are totally beyond our control. It may well make events such as cataclysmic volcanic eruptions, or violent impacts by comets appear to be relatively minor by comparison.

    Future life forms, if there are any, may well come to regard this period in the earth’s history as the age of the ‘homo insapiens voracious’, the age that brought life to an end.

    Given what we have seen of the human brain, not least the evolution of ‘intelligence’, it is at this point that things began to go wrong, that is, the equilibria of life have been irreversibly upset.

    Perhaps I can make a further comment relevant to energy conversions?

    The second law of thermodynamics indicates that we can never get ‘something for nothing’, that is, whenever we convert from one form of energy to another, the conversion is never 100% efficient; some energy is always lost. We call this ‘free energy’ and it is energy that cannot be converted into any other form – that is, it is the ultimate energy sink!

    Plants such as corn or soya, convert the sun’s energy into chemical energy in the form of carbohydrates with an efficiency between 50-60%. When this carbohydrate is further converted into ethanol, the conversion also has a sizeable and inevitable energy loss associated with it. Burning the ethanol results in a further loss of energy, so that, overall, the conversion of sunlight, via corn, carbohydrate, ethanol to turning the “wheels of industry”, probably results in less than 10% of the energy captured from the sun being used as work.

    One last point, burning ethanol releases carbon dioxide and water vapour into the atmosphere, both of which are potent ‘greenhouse’ gases, so it does not stop ‘global warming’. Granted, the initial plant processes do absorb carbon dioxide, but the procedure overall can hardly be thought of as energy efficient. Please note that burning ‘fossil fuel’ returns many millions of years’ worth of plant carbon back into the atmosphere in only a few years, with similar inefficiencies. This is a massive disruptor of biospherical equilibria with enormous and intricate consequences for all life on earth.

  • The other irony is that the world’s poor end up subsidising the rich world’s driving habits when food is converted into fuel.

    The International Food Policy Research Institute estimates that the expansion of ethanol and other biofuels could reduce calorie intake by another 4-8% in Africa and 2-5% in Asia by 2020.