When conservation takes too much energy

By Ted Rogers

You know that sticky, soy based stuff they put all over the walkways before it snows here? There’s nothing on it at the school’s Web site, but I’m pretty sure it’s put down so people don’t slip. On one hand, I think it’s kind of cool that they’re using something that’s natural and is biodegradable. On the other hand, it smells like old, funky teriyaki sauce and is terrible at actually working.

They put the stuff down right before the last couple of snowstorms we’ve had. After a few inches of snow, it’s like no one even bothered to put it down at all. Like I said, it’s good that the stuff is biodegradable and okay for the planet. That conflicts heavily, however, with my desire not to break some bone in my butt.

I really like this planet. I like penguins, icecaps and people who like me for liking them. I will admit, though, that sometimes those man-made chemicals really do work better. I live on Orchard hill; and although I know the environment appreciates not getting salted, I could have used it. I think it’s kind of funny that something that is better for the environment doesn’t actually work all that well for the people in it. I don’t think it’s so funny when I realize these same green yet troublesome things come up on the national scale.

The gas alternative, ethanol, is a perfect example of that. Everyone promotes corn-based ethanol for a variety of reasons. Environmentalists like it because it burns cleaner and does some carbon-scrubbing in the growing process of production. Agribusiness likes it because it means growing even larger amounts of tasteless corn for even more profits. The government likes it because Agribusiness likes it and because ethanol would help to ease our dependence on foreign oil. Here’s the thing: as a green fuel, corn-based ethanol is sorely lacking.

Although anybody will tell you that ethanol burns cleaner and reduces greenhouse gasses, there are a couple facts that no one really pays attention to. First, ethanol is actually worse for the environment than gasoline, in terms of carbon dioxide output. Growing corn does take some carbon out of the atmosphere, but the distillation processes and transport of the finished product actually outweighs burning plain gas. It’s also a bad thing that big Agribusinesses would run the production. After driving small American farmers out of business, big agriculture companies took to planting one crop over vast expanses of land. This not only leeches the soil, but it also destroys natural habitats in the process.

There’s a human cost to all this too. The Swiss-based World Conservation Union estimates that you could take the same amount of corn used to fill up an SUV’s tank with ethanol and use it to feed someone for a year. Brazil, the world’s leader in ethanol production, needs to use more land to feed its habit. Fabio Feldmen, a Brazilian environmentalist, said “the cane plantations are the size of European states,” referring to sugarcane, the ethanol crop of choice in Brazil. I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to find a more reliable and greener fuel than gas, but maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to jump on the ethanol bandwagon.

Another example of green technology gone sour that hits closer to home is the Cape Wind project. There is major talk of putting up many large windmills out on Nantucket sound. According to people who like the project, Cape Wind would reduce Cape Cod’s dependence on conventional dirty power. In addition to these perks, the wind turbines wouldn’t cause major environmental impact and would block Nantucket millionaires’ expensive view of the sound. There is a downside, though. The wind farm would only generate a fraction of the energy required for the Cape. The rest would still come from regular power plants.

My problem with this is that I don’t think we should settle for a fraction of the power being green. Wind power, unlike ethanol, is a silver bullet against global warming and the like. There are no emissions of any sort, and few downsides to the environment. My question is, why don’t we try to think bigger? If we can find a way to devote a fraction of total energy costs to green energy, why not go for the whole thing? I’m sure if a little more research was put into it, the wind farm could generate enough energy for even more of the Cape. This stands as an example of half-assing a project that could have turned into a great whole-assed way of living.

It’s great that more and more people are being less wasteful of the only Earth we have. Now the only thing left to do is to be a little smarter about it.