Biofuels and the Law of Unintended Consquences

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An increasing number of scientists and activists are raising concerns about the impact of biofuel production. The ethanol boom has its roots in a corn surplus that depressed prices – now, shortages of corn are causing food prices to skyrocket and there’s a fear that high commodity prices are pushing farmers to expand cropland. The resulting deforestation is releasing more carbon than the biofuels are saving:

There was just one flaw in the calculation: the studies all credited fuel crops for sequestering carbon, but no one checked whether the crops would ultimately replace vegetation and soils that sucked up even more carbon. It was as if the science world assumed biofuels would be grown in parking lots. The deforestation of Indonesia has shown that’s not the case. It turns out that the carbon lost when wilderness is razed overwhelms the gains from cleaner-burning fuels.

This situation illustrates the Law of Unintended Consequences. This law, which is more like Murphy’s Law than a scientific maxim, states that “for any action one can conceive, there will always be results that were not predicted.” For example, when city planners first came up with suburbs, they expected these housing developments would reduce traffic and overcrowding in downtown areas. Instead, many of these suburbs made traffic worse because they increased the size of the workforce commuting into downtown.

As with anything ethanol related, there’s some controversy about whether ethanol use is what’s driving up the price of corn, or whether the cost rise is driven by population growth and global wealth. As consumers in Asia and India develop disposable income, we’re seeing a sharp rise in the consumption of animal protein. The residents of third-world countries are developing an appetite for more meat, which means that the cost of grains will continue to rise (because raising chickens, pigs, cows, and other farm animals consumes a lot of feed).

There’s some symmetry to the Law of Unintended Consequences – the ethanol boom itself may have been created by accident. According to, corn prices were historically about $2.50 a bushel after adjusting for inflation. It was only after changes in US law drove down the price of corn that it became an affordable feedstock for ethanol plants:

Nominal corn prices have been low and declining since the 1996 Farm Bill shifted U.S. commodity policy to promoting over-production.

The oversupply of corn created a decline in value, which, in turn, led farmers to seek new markets (such as ethanol) and pressure their representatives in Congress to subsidize these markets. So, by this line of reasoning, the 1996 Farm Bill led to a sharp increase in the price of per bushel. There’s some tasty irony for you.

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Yahoo Green Blog, Valentine’s Day link roundup

Here’s a tip I got about some of the Valentine’s Day related posts on the Yahoo! Green blog.

It looked like the perfect opportunity to be incredibly lazy and create a Valentine’s Day post without actually having to do anything. Here it is:

Yahoo! Green has a big collection of advice on how to make this special day with your sweetie an eco-friendly one.

Check out for tips on last minute Green Valentine’s ideas, earth-friendly chocolates and sweets, and the environmental impact of traditional gifts like roses and diamonds.

Chocolate is rumored to be an aphrodisiac. Of course it tastes good too. But behind the dark, delicious morsels lay some unfortunate environmental truths.

Unfortunately, the modern symbol of love is also a token of terrible tragedies. If you’re looking to buy with a clear conscience, you’ll want to do a little research before you’re beguiled by the brilliance.

Nothing says love like a long-stemmed red rose… but at what cost to the environment? How are those flowers grown? Where do they come from?

“Be mine.” “Hot stuff.” “Kiss me.” Cute messages of love on a classic Valentine’s Day candy — the biggest selling sweet other than chocolate for February 14th. But not the sweetest message you could give to the planet. Here are the top three reasons why Valentine’s conversation hearts are not eco-friendly.

Can you bicycle 55 MPH?

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Sometimes it’s hard to tell the people who are ultra-dedicated to a cause apart from people who are a little bit insane. Chuck Thomas is one of those people who blurs the line.

Every day, he commutes 14 miles to work on his bicycle. That’s pretty impressive in itself, since a 14 mile bike ride burns around 1,000 calories and saves around half a gallon of gas each way. But the really amazing thing about Mr. Thomas’ commute is that he bikes to work on a Tollway. That reminds me of a certain arcade game…
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Punxsutawney Phil, Groundhog Day & Climate Change

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Well, the prediction is in, and Punxsutawney Phil says we can expect 6 more weeks of winter:

After casting a weather eye toward thousands of his faithful followers,
Phil consulted with President Cooper and directed him to the appropriate scroll, which proclaimed:

“As I look around me, a bright sky I see, and a shadow beside me.
Six more weeks of winter it will be!”

It turns out that our favorite groundhog has been predicting increasingly warmer weather in the last couple years.

Wildlife are often the first to feel the effects of climatic changes. Phil would probably be the first to agree that our country needs to develop solutions to global warming fast.

An eco friendly death? Funerals are going green.

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One day, all of us are going to go to join the big compost pile. It’s generally not something we think about, but we’re all part of the circle of life.

So, how green is the funeral industry? With embalming, cement vaults, metal caskets, and marble headstones, death can leave a pretty big blemish on the environment. Luckily, that’s changing as funeral directors recognize the demand for green alternatives.

Many funeral homes now offer bio-degradable caskets, embalming free preparations, and even tree care services (to mark the burial site instead of a headstone). Since green burials use far fewer resources, these environmentally friendly alternatives cost far less than traditional funerals.

The $20 billion-a-year mortuary industry offers a service that remains the [average person’s] third-largest personal expense, after a house and car.

Going green means leaving a healthier planet and a bigger inheritance for your loved ones too!