Ethanol and the Gulf Dead Zone: More Echoes of Engels

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I previously quoted Friedrich Engels in regard to the impact of the U.S. ethanol boom on Brazilian rainforests.  Here’s the quote again:

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. …

And here is another case in point:

The recent passage of the mammoth energy bill could have unintended consequences for the Gulf of Mexico that have nothing to do with oil and gas platforms.

Under the law, production of ethanol is set to increase five-fold to 36 billion gallons a year by 2020.

Some environmentalists are worried that the shift to ethanol — viewed as a home-grown alternative to foreign oil — could enlarge the northern Gulf’s “dead zone,” an 8,000-square-mile area so devoid of oxygen that fish, shrimp and other sea life cannot survive.

Already ethanol, by doubling corn prices since 2002, has driven corn production to its highest levels since World War II. Growing corn requires considerably more nitrogen-based fertilizer than most crops. When the fertilizer runs off fields in the Midwest, it drains into the Mississippi and eventually reaches the Gulf of Mexico.

“This year’s dead zone is the third highest on record, and I think we’re already seeing an impact from increased ethanol use,” said Donald Scavia, a University of Michigan professor who studies farm practices and hypoxia, or low-oxygen water. –Houston Chronicle, December 31, 2007

These are not exceptional or unusual cases. Unintended consequences, usually negative, are part of the very nature of capitalism and the much-ballyhooed free market. Capitalists control the state and the corporations, but they do not and cannot control the consequences of their own actions. The price must be paid by the rest of us, and by all life on this planet.