Friday, November 12, 2010

Does agro-energy serve life or capitalism?

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

In a previous article we addressed energy as one of the greatest enigmas of the universe, especially the Energy Fund which sustains the cosmos and every being. Now we are going to focus on agro-energy, the most coveted one today because of the increasing depletion of fossil energy sources. It's like a sort of Noah's Ark, saving the current system.

Naturally, energy, no matter its type, is essential for everything; it's the engine of the market economy in particular, and for all civilizations.

Whoever wants to have a well-grounded summary of the topic from a global perspective, going over the producing countries and analyzing the main biofuels and bioenergy in general, should read François Houtart's book, A Agroenergia - Solução para o Clima ou Saída da Crise para o Capital? ("Agro-energy: climate solution or capitalism's exit from the crisis?" - Ed. Ruth, 2009). The author, a Belgian sociologist, is well known throughout the Third World for having established a Tricontinental Center in Leuven where he trains high-level cadres, coming from the Southern hemisphere, including many Brazilians, to act in transformational ways in their respective countries. He is one of the founders and organizers of the World Social Forum.

The use of renewable energy is driven by two imperatives: first, the short longevity -- about 40 years for oil, 60 for natural gas, and 200 for coal. The second is the protection of the environment and control of global warming which, if neglected, will threaten all civilization.

Still and all, a substitute for fossil energy is not attainable even in the medium term. In 2012, agro-energy will represent only 2% of global consumption and in 2030 may reach 7%, assuming you use all the arable land in Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea. If you use all productive areas of the Earth, it would reach the equivalent of oil production, which is 1.4 billion barrels per day. Current [energy] demand has increased to 3.5 billion, tending to rise. Here we find a systemic impasse, which should compel us to think of another, less energy intensive mode of production and consumption.

If there were a sense of collective future, compassion for the suffering human race, much of it subject to hunger, water shortages and all kinds of diseases, and if care of Mother Earth against whom we are waging a total war on the ground, underground, in the air, in the rivers and oceans, predominated, we would think seriously about how to find a way to inhabit the planet with more synergy with the rhythms of nature, with collective responsibility for the inclusion of all and with goodwill toward the community of life. Now would be a great opportunity. But we lack wisdom and still believe in the illusory possibilities of the disastrous capitalist system that has led to the current impasse.

The drama that surrounds alternative energy sources lies in the fact that they have been abducted by the logic of capital. It aims at increasing profits and never takes into account the "externalities" that are outside the economic calculus (such as the degradation of nature, air pollution, global warming, the growth of poverty). These are only taken seriously when they are so negative that they impair the capitalist system. So let's not be fooled by companies that boast about the "green" nature of their production. "Green" is OK, as long as it doesn't affect profits or decrease competitiveness.

It has to be spelled out: the search for clean alternative energy is not intended to forge ways to save the human race and its ability to live, but seeks to preserve the fate of the capitalist system with its win-lose logic.

Now, this system, with shocking flexibility and adaptability, is capable of producing unlimited goods and services, but always at the expense of the domination of nature and the creation of evil social inequalities. Today it's propping itself on the limitations of the Earth whose resources are exhausted. Marx's prophecy that capitalism would destroy its two sources of wealth -- nature and work -- is coming true. We are witnessing the exact fulfillment of this ominous prophecy.

Agro-energy can not be used for the resuscitation of a dying man; it should strengthen life, which demands another type of production and a non-destructive relationship with nature. The time to achieve this, so that we are not too late, is pressing.

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