(I hope to produce the following in a video form when time permits)
Excusing for a second the vulgar name calling Monckton uses at the youth group in this video, I want to address his dominant view in this piece, which he has used as one of his leading arguments against taking sensible actions to shift our practices away from fossil fuels; that biofuels are killing millions through starvation.
Denialist such as Monckton demonstrate that evidence is irrelevant to them; it doesn’t matter what evidence you offer to such an individual, they’ll keep on denying (explored here and here) and as Prof Abraham showed, Monckton is one to ignore scientific rigor in his presentations, preferring instead to rely on slights of hands, blatant lies and PR skills to woo the crowd away from common sense. Thus refuting his claims will do nothing to address his errors. Instead, I want to turn the argument on its head and ask, “Just how much is our current practices in food production reliant on fossil fuels?”
At the farm
- Not often talked about, most of our nitrogen fertilizers are made from natural gas. This requires energy to convert it into useful fertilizers and to transport the material to the farm.
- A whole range of combustion engines prepare the land, plant, harvest and convert the raw material, which then requires energy to be packed and stored in constructed buildings on site.
On the high seas (something that is one of my pet-peeve… another time..)
- Ships need a lot of fuel to travel the high seas (ever more so to travel further and further to find the few places with a fair amount of fish remaining); this is increased when you’ve got huge nets or rakes dragging along the bed to increase your resistance.
- Once you’ve got the fish, it takes a lot of effort (much still done by hand) to prepare the fish, which is then put on ice to keep fresh (oh yeah, it takes a lot of effort to keep tons of fish cold).
The processing plants
- From the storage silos, sheds and ports all this raw material is packed into trucks and trains which, believe it or not rely on their own personal internal combustion engines or use electric engines mostly running on fossil fuel turbines (then there’s the energy to construct these machines, but we don’t want to branch too much).
- The raw food makes its way to processing plants, where it is generally made to look less and less like it did in nature. A basic rule of thumb would be that the less it resembles its natural state, the more it’s been processed and thus the more energy that was required. Often this will happen at a number of places (ie. sugar processes somewhere, maybe refined somewhere else, maybe not, it is then distributed, where it is processed and sent to somewhere else where it meets flour that had a similar chain, eggs that had an interesting trip as well, milk – don’t get me started, coco which somewhat more interesting, maybe colours, flavours and preservatives which all get mixed and made as muffins or cakes or something similar) and then the final product is then packaged which requires more energy and if the packaging is plastic, that went on a strange process to change from fossil oil to the shiny packaging.
- This is all then packed in boxes (which need a fair amount of energy to get to its current state) and distributed by more trucks, trains, planes and ships…. phew…
The middle man
- These boxes make it to warehouses – massive constructions that require a lot of energy to build, maintain and provide ambient conditions for the produce (just think about cool storage).
- They will sit there until the order is put in from the supermarket. Then through both human effort and combustion effort, the item is distributed unpacked from its box and placed on show for the consumer.
- Supermarkets are amazing places for energy usage. Think about the lighting, the number of closed registers with the screens glowing and computers humming. Think about the comfort of the ambient conditions; this requires heating and cooling. You could have the heaters blasting in the middle of winter, which fight the open refrigerated shelfs of milk and cheese. Think about the mindless overhead music. Think about the whole construction; the parking; the big lit signs outside, the trolleys, all the overnight cleaning equipment. Out back they’ll often have bailers, lifts, motored forklifts, huge refrigerators and freezers and rooms lit because someone went in there a week ago and forgot about or left lit because OHS&W say otherwise would be dangerous.
- So it takes energy to make the clothes we wear for public decency before we even leave the house (well, most of us – and DON’T get me started on cotton or plastics in clothing for that matter).
- In most cases we use some form of transport to get from the construction in which we live to the supermarkets.
- Once we’ve selected a whole bunch of food, we make use of the few open registers, where the stuff will be put into bags (plastics again in many cases = oil + energy!!) we then load it into the transport and take it home.
- At our little space, we put a lot of it in the refrigerator or freezer (much of which is not really required to be cooled) which needs energy.
- We then eventually get some of this together, heat it (energy!!!), put it on a plate half burnt, consume what can be eaten and then wash the eating equipment (hot water = energy – some use solar, but not all!!).
Just looking at food production, we use a lot of fossil fuels to eat.
To expand, per capita each one of us are becoming using more and more energy per year (eg. here). Cheap building and technology advancement help this use. On top of that, our world population is ever increasing. It’s therefore not a major leap to say that our use of fossil fuels is accelerating.
Fossil fuels are a finite supply. It would be difficult to say when this will run out, but, let’s say you’ve got a ton of jelly beans and ten children, the jelly beans would last a long time. Now let’s say that every 10mins you add another 2 children to the group and the more they eat the jelly beans, the more they crave them and the quicker the each consume them. I bet you anything that the supply of jelly beans decreases at an accelerated rate and what you end up with is a bunch of diabetic sugar junkies screaming when cold turkey slaps them in the face. I’d argue that within my life time the economic viability of fossil fuels will be lost and I’d prefer to avoid the sudden shock in the wake.
Now looking back at the heavily fossil fuel reliant food production process, I’d ask Monckton how would that industry handle the more or less sudden shift away from fossil fuels when we’re unable to keep the furnace burning? I wouldn’t be surprised if he had nothing meaningful to add to the conversation; things will really hit the fan beyond his life time. Unlike his biofuel propaganda, the subtraction of fossil fuels to our current practices will leave our primary food industry unable to meet the needs of our ever increasing population.
I don’t think of this as a “green concern”; even an economist with half a brain should be able to see that long term predictions would show that we’re setting ourselves up for a fall without attempting to develop proactive measures to ensure world food security to 2100 and beyond. It’s simply a moral obligation to those who will walk after us. You’d hope to give your children the best advice so that they have a successful life, why not ensure the industry is also able to feed them?
Biofuels will play a role in the future, however you’d have to be mad to think that they’ll replace fossil fuels. No, their part will only be small (food production before fuel production) and intelligent discussion over alternatives is essential to future planning.
This youth group obviously did not deserve such disgusting accusations. They are young enough to see just how quickly we’re consuming our jelly beans and are concerned by those, already lost on the sugar high, who insanely urge us to stay on our current path to nowhere.
On a sidestep, I’d also like to add that if we’re at a point where we’re removing the tops of mountains and drilling in deep waters, which led to this massive spill in the Mexican gulf and the difficulties in stopping it, are we not already passed the point of viable fossil fuels? To what point do we think that it’s too difficult to rip from the earth?