Starvation Scapegoat
Blaming Population for a Green Problem

Steven Mosher
by Colin Mason and Steven Mosher
02 June 2008
Reproduced with Permission

Although the search for clean, alternative sources of energy is to be commended in and of itself, the environmentalist movement has a history of overreaching. The ethanol story is a case in point. Of course the farmers are happy that another major, government-subsidized market for their products has arisen -- and we at PRI like farmers. But the ethanol story begins with a radical environmental push for renewable energy. And what better source of renewable energy, they argued, than one of the principal crops of America's farmers: corn.

It turns out that this is a lousy idea from several points of view. First, as studies have demonstrated, it costs twice as much to make a gallon of ethanol from corn as it does for a gallon of gasoline, even though gasoline is nearly twice as efficient. In addition, according to a Cornell University study, although ethanol might burn cleaner than gasoline, the amount of oil and coal that must be consumed to produce it is so disproportionately huge that ethanol production is actually contributing to the energy crisis, not helping to resolve it. The huge machines that plant, fertilize, and harvest the corn used to make ethanol run on diesel, after all, and the fermentation plants run on electricity.

Not only is ethanol not worth the cost of producing it, the drive to make ever more ethanol is cutting severely into the food supply. According to an article published last year by Business Week, the dent in American food production alone has been dramatic. "In the U.S., last year's [corn] harvest was 10.5 billion bushels, the third-largest crop ever," it reads. "But instead of going into the maws of pigs or cattle or people, an increasing slice of that supply is being transformed into fuel for cars. The roughly 5 billion gallons of ethanol made in 2006 by 112 U.S. plants consumed nearly one-fifth of the corn crop. If all the scores of factories under construction or planned go into operation, fuel will gobble up no less than half of the entire corn harvest by 2008."

The very liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman pointed the finger at politicians: "You might put it this way: people are starving in Africa so that American politicians can court votes in farm states." But this is only part of the story. Politicians in non-farm states vote for ethanol because it is extremely popular with the environmental lobby.

And what does the radical environmental movement do? Assisted by its minions in the media, it is once again blaming "overpopulation" for rising hunger around the world.

"Debate Grows with Philippines' Population," writes Bruce Wallace of the Los Angeles Times, "As the food crisis looms, who's to blame?" The answer from this bastion of liberal sentiment is not, as it should be, environmentalism run amok, but the old stand-by: overpopulation. Although the article concedes that the population growth of the Philippines is slowing dramatically -- families are now averaging only 2.5 children -- he still sides with the population fear-mongers in blaming the food shortages on too many people. The environmentalists cited in the article deny that their beloved biofuel movement is sending much of the world into starvation. Instead they attempt to shift the blame onto their favorite culprit -- the world's people, in particular, the world's poor.

This is not surprising. It is well-known that those with a pronounced Green outlook on life believe human beings to be nothing more than a cankerous sore on the face of the earth. Their "environmentally friendly" solutions to perceived problems often ignore the costs that such programs impose, especially upon those least able to bear them, the poor.

The cost of turning massive amounts of food into fuel is, by now, obvious. The Green Revolution, which doubled and tripled grain production around the world, is being undone. Nevertheless, these costs mean little to the Big Green, which seems perfectly happy to manufacture a crisis, as it has in this instance by causing a shortage of food, and then once again lay the blame at the feet of human fertility. And why not? Thomas Malthus held that overpopulation would naturally be checked by the food shortages and starvation it brought about. He thus advocated a hands-off attitude toward world food crises, insisting that we allow "overpopulated" areas to starve themselves back into balance. The modern environmentalist movement's approach is similarly deadly -- a breathless advocacy of abortion, contraception, and sterilization-with an eye towards reducing the number of people in the world. Steven Mosher is the President of Population Research Institute.