Ethanol a Symptom: Get to the root cause

Another story pertaining to ethanol on the news tonight prompts me to write this. The report, on ABC World News, explained that a recent exponential increase in the cost of wheat — thus an increase of cost for bread, pasta and so forth — is the result of more farmers planting corn instead of wheat to take advantage of the increased production of ethanol.

Although I don’t really know much about the process or how it compares to other options, ethanol has been a household term for me for years — probably years before most people in the country on account of growing up in Nebraska (Cornhuskers, anyone?).

What I keep hearing, though, are the detractors. A few weeks ago an NPR story talked about how the production of the fuel actually leaves a larger carbon footprint than regular gasoline (granted, corn still has the advantage of being renewable). That same article said that one of the best plant sources for ethanol production is illegal in the states: Hemp. I’ve also heard that sugar cane is a much more efficient replacement for corn. And when my wife worked at the newspaper a few years back, a man claimed to have found a way to turn chicken crap into fuel (but couldn’t carry out his plan for lack of funds).

Where is all of this going though? The local news warned of higher gas prices again tonight and suggested people take drastic measures in response, such as selling their SUV. I’m all for more efficient vehicles, but my wife rightly guffawed when the commentator referred to this measure as “drastic.”

It seems to me a much more fundamental change is needed. In essence, things like ethanol or hybrids treat a symptom and ignore the cause. The cause in this case is an over-reliance on the automobile and subsequent lack of or plain ignorant city planning which allowed for an unmitigated proliferation of a car culture. People really concerned with changing the way Americans use energy should consider advocating lifestyle changes much more significant than purchasing a lower MPG. What about redesigning our lives and our communities in order to foster a dramatic lessening of our auto addiction so that we can walk to work, walk to the grocer, walk to the post office — and even if not walking or biking (which would also speak to the sloth and gluttony issues in America, i.e. obesity) to allow for shorter drives or possibly the use of scooters? What about installing and advocating efficient mass transit?

Yes, things like that will cost a lot of money, but isn’t the government subsidizing ethanol as it is? And isn’t energy independence for the U.S. worth a lot of money?

The great little book The Geography of Nowhere contained an anecdote I’ve always remembered. Author James Kunstler relays how people visiting a historical main street type museum all suggested their experience there was very positive, peaceful if I remember rightly. However, none of them were able to put two and two together in order to realize that what made this environment different was its lack of cars. Kunstler attributes the positive response of the museum visitors, at least in part, to the absence of automobiles.

Motor vehicles are so ingrained in our culture we can’t imagine life without them, which frankly I find more than a little sad. Isn’t the United States supposed to be full of innovators, people — including capitalists — thinking outside of the box to solve problems (preferably before they become problems) and improve our quality of life? Instead we live in a culture where the only thing the innovators (read “capitalists”) are interested in is the bottom line and keeping their shareholders happy (read “sticking with the status quo”), and the rabble behind the steering wheels are primarily concerned with preserving or improving their own comfort level in the near future while disregarding a possibly perilous more distant scenario.

Indeed, a more fundamental rearrangement of values seems like the better solution.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

2 Responses to Ethanol a Symptom: Get to the root cause

  1. Pingback: Auto addiction and the planning pendulum « The Aesthetic Elevator

  2. Pingback: Continued observations on petrol pains « The Aesthetic Elevator

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