Issue 246: April/May 2007


 The Tyranny of Economic Growth

by Brewster Kneen

“Access to an adequate energy supply at reasonable cost is crucial for sustained economic growth.”
 – U.S. Council for Agricultural Science and Technology,
(see RH #243)

That’s the problem in a nutshell: the unquestioned assumption of economic growth with its dependency on high energy consumption. With the imminent demise of endless oil, biofuels are now touted as the saviour of sustainable economic growth, simply compounding the problem.

In previous Ram’s Horns I have noted that many of the problems produced by biotechnology derive from its central dogma of one gene, one protein. In the same way, sustained economic growth is the central dogma of western civilization in general and capitalism in particular. The realization of what fuels this growth has finally emerged from the dark of the coal mines and oil wells, as we observe the depletion of fossil fuels and the relentless consumption of all other so-called natural resources.

After a couple of centuries of this, it has finally dawned on us (or most of us) that these resources are finite in supply and that their extraction and consumption is wreaking havoc on what we refer to as ‘the environment’.

Actually, the words and concepts ‘resources’ and ‘environment’ and the way we use them are part of the problem: both have come to refer to something outside of and apart from us, even something over against us, rather than intrinsic elements of our own lives. ‘Resources’ implies things that are there for us to exploit, particularly for ‘economic growth.’ Just think of the implications of the term ‘genetic resources’ and the attitude toward life forms – plants, animals or humans – that it implies.

In exploiting and consuming ‘natural resources,’ including fossil fuels, to achieve our economic growth, we have paid little attention to the costs we have externalized in the process – the cost to other peoples and their habitat, or the cost to our environment.  It is time to call for a halt to economic growth, to the process of the rich getter richer by depriving others, (what used to be called greed) which is simply bad ecology and worse ethics.

Take Harper & Co. (after a year in office it still insists on calling itself “Canada’s New Government”) which is considerably more closely attuned to US madman Bush than to ecological reality.  Its late-March budget announced the allocation of $2 billion in support of renewable fuel production as well as $1.5 billion in direct subsidies to producers of corn-based ethanol. The renewable fuel fund specifically mentions Iogen, which operates a demonstration plant near Ottawa to convert cellulosic biomass (straw, switchgrass, plantation trees such as poplars) to ethanol.

This may sound like a good thing – certainly for the major ethanol producers such as Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill – but only as long as one does not make the connection with the private automobile and the trucking industry. Ethanol proponents argue that adding 5% ethanol to gasoline in Canada would produce an emissions reduction equivalent to taking 200,000 cars off the road, but of course those cars (not to mention trucks) are not actually being taken off the road, and the highways they require will cost the public unaccounted-for billions, both in terms of taxes and environmental degradation, to say nothing of maintenance and new construction costs.

oil junkie

The competition for biomass to feed the highly subsidized ethanol industry has recently driven up the price of corn/maize, soybeans and canola, and while this may appear of benefit to the farmers, the price of industrial agricultural inputs – nitrogen fertilizer produced from natural gas as well as patented seeds and agrotoxins – has risen as well. Meanwhile farmers are encouraged by the Canadian government to “participate” in the ethanol bonanza by investing their savings in local ethanol plants, only to be told by the big energy companies that they will not be looking for ethanol from small plants spread all over the countryside, but from big ethanol producers, such as ADM and Cargill.

These ethanol producers are, by and large, the grain traders, so as usual they benefit coming and going. Their raw material, maize, is heavily subsidized by the US government, and so is their product, ethanol. Agriculture remains at the short end of the stick as the supplier of raw materials.

“So why the stampede to make ethanol from corn? Because we [the USA] have so much of it, and such a powerful lobby promoting its consumption. Ethanol is just the latest chapter in a long, sorry history of clever and profitable schemes to dispose of surplus corn: there was corn liquor in the 19th century; feedlot meat starting in the 1950’s and, since 1980, high fructose corn syrup. We grow more than 10 billion bushels of corn a year in this country, far more than we can possibly eat . . . We probably can’t eat much more of the stuff without exploding, so the corn lobby is targeting the next unsuspecting beast that might help chomp through the surplus: your car.”
 – Michael Pollan, New York Times, 24/5/06
(see RH #240)

The addiction to fossil fuels induces outrageous behaviour. An illustration of this is the development of the tar sands in northern Alberta, which are sand more or less saturated with bitumen, or very heavy oil. Separating the heavy oil from the sands requires very large amounts of water and natural gas (to heat the sands so that the bitumen is somewhat fluid). Needless to say, the open-pit process is also a disaster for the landscape. However, “The Conservative government has signaled that it won’t let its climate change plan derail aggressive oil sands expansion, exempting new projects from greenhouse gas emission targets until three years after they are up and running.”    (G&M, 27/4/07)  Even then, companies can continue to increase production and pollution emissions while meeting the so-called “intensity targets” set by the government, since “intensity targets” refers not to an actual reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, but to producing no more pollution per unit of production. Thus more production equals more pollution. Environment Minister Baird said the new plan seeks to balance the environmental goals with the needs of a growing economy, explaining that the government feels it necessary not to impose initial emission limits on new plants in order to allow for economic growth.

feeding corn to cars

If the Canadian government were seriously concerned about the environment, it would address the problems directly rather than offer yet more subsidies to its corporate sponsors, particularly the large oil companies operating in Alberta.

A major issue that must be addressed, for example, is our excessive dependence on the truck and automobile. What is needed is development of public transit and local production. The only way to get the automobiles off the road is with massive improvements in public transit of all sorts, including rail. There is already good (but not adequate) train and bus service between Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto, so all air travel between these cities could be eliminated immediately.  The resulting increase in demand for super-train service would make it feasible, particularly if the public money (subsidies) currently spent on roads and highways were shifted to the development of public transit.

 The same process could be applied region by region across the country. When we lived in Sorrento, British Columbia, a mainline railway passed our place, but it carries no passengers, so we had little choice but to drive and/or fly the 430 km to Vancouver.  (The trains carry coal and sulfur to Vancouver Port and return with containers full of stuff from China  to fill retail shelves across the country.)

In Brazil, renewable sources account for 40% of total energy use, compared to the world average of 14%.  In 2006, Brazil became self-sufficient in oil production, chiefly because sugar-cane ethanol provides the fuel for 40% of domestic transportation. Ethanol is now produced from more than 500 cane varieties without irrigation; the raw cane is used to produce either sugar or ethanol, and in both cases the byproduct (bagasse) is used to generate heat and power in mills that can produce either. As a result, Brazil’s ethanol is the cheapest to produce in the world.
– Annette Hester, G&M, 7/3/07,


#246: April/May 2007 TOC
The Tyranny of Economic Growth: Brewster says bio-fuels are neither necessary nor helpful; we need to reduce consumption
Insecurity in the Global Food System: the perils of melamine in
gluten, congestion in seaports may hamper global distribution systems
Railway abandonments continue and service declines: in western Canada
Canada lowers standards on agro-toxins to match US: all in the name of increased food quality, of course
GE Alfalfa: Banned in US, Approved in Canada
Balancing Demands: the industry looks at wildlife versus economic
growth, guess who wins
Prairie Cooperatives: Saskatchewan Wheat Pool and Agricore United
Good News from Brazil: silent attendance by critics at decision panel affects the decisions
Seeds Need to Stay Close to Home: the Fantons are re-localizing the Seed Savers network in Australia
Stopping Short: discussion of the just-in-time system
Where your food dollar goes: update on Cargill's annual profits