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Which Is Greener?

Driving, or walking? John Tierney stirs up a hornet's nest of vegans and other morally overrighteous high-horse riders (see comments). I mean, to question Ed Begley, Jr. Isn't that just the height of apostacy?

This reminds me of a piece that I've been thinking of writing about overall energy and fuel costs, including human fuel. With the ethanol boondoggle, we've gone back to the point at which we're using crops for transportation (something we largely left behind at the end of the nineteenth century) and we now have increasing prices in both food and fuel as they compete with each other for the same farmland. This isn't a good trend for the Third World (consider that one of the effects of the ethanol subsidies has been a dramatic increase in corn and tortilla costs in Mexico, making a poor country even more so).


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Al wrote:

Here's another point to consider when you write about crop transportation costs.

Consider fresh fruit. Humans didn't evolve to eat fresh fruit year-round for the simple reason that wherever we were we had to eat whatever was available. Yet here we are trying to meet daily requirements of fruit. Here in Seattle, mentioning canned fruit is heresy of the first order. And hothouse food is against nature. So... the organic blackberries are traveling a long damn ways. The "Seattle Lifestyle" is, frankly, mind-boggling.

rjschwarz wrote:

The only reason Mexico had a corn problem was because corn was the pork subsidy of choice in the US. If we didn't subsidize corn sugar or even corn stalks and other biowaste would be used.

The linked article mentions a British Green who compared walking vs short rides and used as an example a glass of milk to replenish the energy from the walk and the methane from the cow that produced that glass. But that cow produced gallons of milk so the methan produced should be distributed amongst all the consumers and not attributed to the single glass. This example is a strawman that undercuts the persons entire arguement. There are no doubt better examples out there, ones that work, but I suspect the anti-milk angle has a bit to do with Veganism and that whole rat-milk nonsense that came up in the UK recently.

kert wrote:

IIRC high speed trains are the greenest per passenger mile, closely rivalled by large jet aircraft, of all the motored transport methods.
cant beat a bicycle though.

Ray wrote:

If you write the piece on overall energy and fuel costs, you might want to consider that one of the byproducts of corn ethanol is animal feed.

Also, on food prices, clearly the increase in the price of gasoline is also a major factor in the cost of farming and transporting food, including corn, in the U.S. and the third world. How does that factor compare to the ethanol factor in food prices? Does the ethanol factor restrain the price of gasoline used in food production? Can a typical third world farmer afford to use gasoline-powered machinery for farming with current gas prices?

Are there large regions of the world that could be profitably converted to "ethanol farming" (say the recent growth in the Sahara, or narcotics farms) if it were feasible for them to sell their product in the U.S.?

To me the ethanol subsidy isn't a problem, as the gasoline industry gets plenty of subsidies and other government support, and OPEC, being a cartel that can manipulate prices to put competition out of business, requires a balancing force. However, the ethanol tariff is a problem. The tariff keeps third world farmers from having a big market that could help them build their economies out of poverty. That's my opinion, but in your article you could just as easily have the viewpoint that they would neglect feeding their neighbors.

If your article research shows ethanol to be problematic in terms of overall fuel cost, what alternatives are there, considering our current trends of decreasing U.S. supplies of oil, increasing U.S. population and economy that need more oil literally to survive, and increasing demand for oil worldwide? Multi-dollar gas tax increases? Methanol (bio and/or coal based)? Expanding ethanol use beyond corn? Nuclear power combined with PHEVs? You might want to include other factors beyond pure fuel cost, like pollution, OPEC state interests often being against ours, and vulnerability of oil infrastructure to terrorist attack.

Jonathan wrote:

I've put up a related post here.

Kirk Parker wrote:


They're only greenest if you ignore how those passengers get to the train or plane. I don't think very many people actually live at Heathrow or the Paris TGV stations.

Mac wrote:

Ray Wrote: The tariff keeps third world farmers from having a big market that could help them build their economies out of poverty.

Sometimes its the government of a third world country that keeps their economy in poverty. There is not one cause nor one solution to poverty of other nations, however, if the governments of those countries would deem it necessary to grant a high degree of economic freedom to their people, the tariffs wouldn't matter because the money would flow. Proven several times over around the world, economic freedom for citizens equals economic stimulus for the country.

mz wrote:

Hmm. As a first cut, it seems incredible.
If a human uses 250 watts for walking and a car 10 kilowatts, but the car goes 10 times the speed (in an urban area on a short trip), the car uses 5 times as much energy for the same trip.
(Of course with a bicycle you're far better off.)

Since the car uses gasoline, and the human uses food that derives a big portion of its energy from oil products (fertilizing, transportation), it's tough to compare. But the car uses its oil more directly which definitely is a more efficient way.

Of course, what the food is, makes a big difference. If it's beef, then it's probably about 10x less efficient than potato.

Also, the "last mile" transportation is a significant energy factor in the food business. If food is at a supermarket where everybody drives with their cars vs distributed with lorries to smaller local shops where people need to walk only a short distance, the total energy usage in the latter case is much smaller. With cars the problem is that they weigh so much compared to the cargo people use to carry in them.

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This page contains a single entry by Rand Simberg published on February 25, 2008 12:18 PM.

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