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World Reports


Toyotas vs. Tortillas

The world is running out of coal, oil, and gas – and we’re running out of time. Environmentalists used to fret that humanity was fouling its own nest. Today, as mounting evidence of global warming emerges, it seems we’ve set our nest aflame.

Some believe that ethanol may save us from that conflagration. But, as John Muir noted, when you try to pull on something, you find it’s “hitched to everything else in the Universe.” Now, thanks to ethanol, we’ve discovered that Toyotas are hitched to tortillas. Turning corn into ethanol means turning farms into fueling stations.

The American Dream, long fueled by cheap fuel and food, is drawing to a close as millions of acres of wheat, soybeans, and cotton are replaced by fuel-corn plantations. Fifteen percent of the US corn crop is now dedicated to ethanol production, according to Food First. At the same time, America has become a net food importer – with prices rising nearly 10 percent per year. We are literally consuming the planet to feed our cars. When you remember that only a fraction of the planet’s people own cars, this means that the car-owning minority is prepared to starve billions to keep our vehicles on the road.

Thanks to the plant-fuel frenzy, Indonesia’s endangered forests are being cleared for palm oil plantations and vast tracts of the Amazon are being felled for biofuel crops to feed gas tanks – all this despite the fact that ethanol delivers fewer miles per gallon than gasoline and still pollutes the air with greenhouse gases.

So who’s been driving the ethanol bandwagon? The same small group of profit-driven corporations that helped put the brakes on General Motors’ EV-1. When GE’s legendary electric vehicle proved to be too popular and too profitless (no oil to buy, no costly garage repairs required), Big Oil and Detroit conspired to destroy it. (Note: Who Killed the Electric Car? may bean even more important film than An Inconvenient Truth.)

Anne Brower, wife of Earth Island Institute founder David Brower, once observed that we’d never find a way to save the Earth until we found a cure for “greedlock.” A “New World Is Possible” – but it won’t happen until the Old Corporate World crumbles.

That’s why an event like
Live Earth is more a gesture than a solution. Focusing the attention of an estimated two billion people in 130 countries was a monumental accomplishment, but Gore’s “Call to Action” played second fiddle to the amplified guitars of aging celebrity performers. The sight of millions of white arms swaying overhead and clapping in unison looked less like a celebration of the Precautionary Principle than a sign of mass surrender to the Party Principle. At best, the brief “action alerts” that garnished the broadcast were a rehash of 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth. At their worst, they included such suggestions as: “Try using fivepaper napkins instead of six.”

A real Call to Action would have invited all the participants and viewers to switch to energy-efficient lightbulbs on exactly the same day. The resulting drop in global energy use would have demonstrated the power of mass action.

Will more people adopt greener habits because they come wrapped in the trappings of a rock concert? One despairs when the alert highlighting the environmental damage of bottled water is followed by a shot of the drummer for Genesis swigging a plastic bottle of designer water.

So what’s the solution? The Gospel of the Soft Path – which calls on us to all walk softly on the Earth – points the way towards redemption (if not salvation). The solar revolution that promises to bring a million solar roofs to California could bring cheap and efficient vertical axis wind-chargers to city roofs, bridges, and transmission towers. Tidal turbines turned by underwater rotors could power coastal cities. And there are geothermal heat exchangers, fuel cells, and the promise of zero-point energy.

But none of this will come to pass without a fundamental reform of our consumer/corporate economy. Certainly, it’s important to reduce your environmental footprint to the point that you’re standing on tippy-toe. But the real question is not, “What can you do to save the Earth?” The real challenge lies in the question, “What comforts are you willing to sacrifice to stop destroying the planet?”

And beyond that lies another fundamental question: How do we break the grip of profiteering multinationals that defend greedlock by placing roadblocks on the paths to change?

EIJ Editor Emeritus Gar Smith is co-founder of Environmentalists Against War and editor of, an investigative Web site.


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