As we?ve all realized, perhaps too late, summer is ending, and the summer driving season is coming to a complete stop. Considering the price of gas, that?s probably a good thing. But long after our collective finances have recovered from the petrol outlays of summer 2007, we?ll be hearing about gas and more energy issues from a whole host of Democratic and Republican presidential candidates.
It seems that one can?t tune into any of the preternaturally early presidential debates without hearing the phrase "energy independence." As if waving a magic bullet, a candidate usually mentions ethanol produced from corn.
Even though it might seem that I?m skeptical of the usefulness of a string of debates well over a year before the 2008 elections and the promise of renewable substitutes for petroleum, I?m not. I still hope that over the course of the candidates? verbal wrangling we can glimpse snippets of truth and insight. And it?s obvious that we can?t go on as we are with regard to energy policy. Something must change.
As loosely related as these two topics seem, I think an examination of the rhetoric surrounding ethanol may shine a bit of light on some deficiencies of, and things to be desired from, the positions advanced by the presidential hopefuls.
Let?s look first at how the claims for ethanol are framed and how credible such claims might be. At the beginning of any discussion about the use of ethanol or ethanol blends as substitutes for gasoline, we?re struck by the overwhelming desirability of such a solution to our current problem. The vast interior Midwest is perfectly suited to grow corn from which ethanol can be produced. Plus, ethanol is carbon neutral: All the carbon dioxide that comes out when ethanol is burned is CO2 that was captured by corn during its growth. It sounds like a politician?s dream come true - an abundant domestic crop we can put into our tanks that may ease the climate crisis in the bargain.
Even though presidential candidates set up ethanol from corn as a win-win, this isn?t the case. According to an Aug. 19 Newsweek article, half of Brazil?s yearly production of ethanol (much more than ours) would be required to replace just 1 percent of the gasoline used in the United States, said Marcos Jank, head of /nica, the Brazilian sugar and alcohol producers association. Plus, using more corn to produce ethanol leads indirectly to higher food prices.
We can see that the dream of ethanol-supplied energy independence is little more than a fantasy. American voters want presidential candidates from both parties who are creative but also realistic about solutions to complex problems. Given the impossibility of ethanol?s replacement of traditional fuel, why do so many of the presidential candidates speak as if ethanol could solve our complex energy problems? It?s downright troubling that much of our time and mental energy is spent considering a solution that won?t work.
A presidential candidate is supposed to demonstrate his or her capacity for leadership as part of a campaign. A large part of leadership involves considering and discarding initially attractive, yet ultimately mistaken, ideas.
The candidates have already damaged their credentials by failing to correctly identify the problems that most likely doom an ethanol solution to our petroleum addiction. As the debates continue, perhaps a few candidates will have the time to come to their senses and realize that ethanol is not a quick fix. We need a thoughtful, comprehensive energy strategy.
Jesse Butler is a graduate student studying philosophy.