Biofuel are not cool

My name is Marsha Hanzi, professional in permaculture and ecological agriculture. I farm and teach in the drylands of Northeast Brazil.

On a recent trip to the United States I noted that there, as here in Brazil, bio-fuels are considered the modern solution to the upcoming peak oil crisis.

It seems that people have not stopped to think about the consequences of such a move. Bio-fuels to feed the hungry fleet of the world´s cars will need enormous monocultures in what should be land producing food. Here in Brazil I have just heard about a project for a 30,000 acre sugarcane monoculture to produce alcohol for American cars. One does not need a doctorate in agronomy to realize what such a monoculture, in a near-arid savannah, means to the region´s water, soil, ecosystems, and biodiversity. Even our small farmers, who traditionally produce food for the local market, are being encouraged to plant one-fourth of their properties into bio-fuels, thus reducing by one-fourth the production of foodstuffs in a situation where food security is already a critical issue.

At the same time, on my U.S trip, I was shocked to see so many obese and flabby people, with bodies that obviously are not being used. This is due not only to bad eating habits based on fast-food and coca-cola. It is basically a problem of LOGISTICS. Unlike their lean and fit European contemporaries, many Americans live in towns, and especially suburbs, where they depend totally on the car. There are no safe sidewalks, bike lanes, or public transport availble, and shops are concentrated in distant malls.

Multiply this reality by the fact that most food in the U.S. travels over a thousand miles to reach the consumer´s plate, and one can see that the scarcity of fuel can be life-threatening to the average American – they will no longer be able to get to work, shop, or eat.

But grabbing at bio-fuels, to keep the fleet of private cars on the road, is the same strategy as the Iraque War. It is just another deperate manouver to maintain an unsustainable system. It may be even more insidious because it threatens, in a very real and immediate sense, the world´s food supply. But we cannot blame the world´s citizens for supporting such desperate strategies if they are not offered viable alternatives.

What we are seeing is sloppy thinking, on the part of even elightened citizens and governments alike, and poor planning. What the world needs at this moment is that America stops trying to keep up “the American way of life” with private SUV´s, long distance travel, and artificial life-support systems , which threaten the health of all, including the planet itself. What we need now is to focus on “quality of life”, which is a completely different ball-game. Ironically, this change does not necessarily imply sacrifice as one might imagine. Riding a bike to a local market is infinitely more pleasurable than driving a car down a packed freeway! But for this to happen we need safe bike lanes and local food production and distribution. It is basically a planning challenge and the solution will come from good urban design, which includes local food production, and not from the military nor the technocrats.

So bio-fuels are NOT cool. Trains are cool. Bikes are cool. Walking shoes are cool. Communities are cool. Leaving agricultural land for food production is cool.

Please help to spread this word. Our grandchildren and their children´s children will be grateful!

July, 2007

*Marsha Hanzi founded Brazil´s first permaculture institute. She presently directs a center for culture and ecological agriculture, which she founded in 2003, in the drylands of the state of Bahia, Brazil.


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