Column: Be careful what you wish for

Farm Forum

Modern liberals like the environment, and they care about improving the plight of the poor. Both concerns are laudable. It is evident, however, that the means by which they have pursued the one often have deplorable effects on the other.

Biofuels are a favorite cause of the environmental left. Fossil fuels hurt the environment when we extract them and when we burn them. Biofuels, by contrast, are supposed to be sustainable and better for mother earth. It is very doubtful that this is true.

What is not doubtful is that the push for biofuels has had some very unfortunate consequences for the world’s poor.

The New York Times reports that the price of corn tortillas in Guatemala has doubled in three years. What once bought eight tortillas (about 15 cents) now buys only four. Corn tortillas are a staple of the diet among poor Guatemalans. It also costs more to feed chickens, so chickens are more expensive. Meanwhile, land for subsistence farmers has become scarce as more and more acres are devoted to feeding the biofuel industries.

In a place like Guatemala, the poor spend two-thirds of their income on food. About half of the children suffer from chronic malnourishment. Whether biofuel production benefits the environment, it certainly benefits the handful of families who control the land in that nation. It certainly does not benefit the most vulnerable of its citizens.

A similar contradiction in pleasing policies is present in the Democratic Party in the U.S.

Almost all liberals vote Democratic, and one reason is that the Democrats are more concerned about global warming. Last year, we are told, was the hottest on record. We are urged to do something about this. That something might include a policy such as cap and trade, which would be intended to encourage the development of less carbon-intensive technologies by making energy in general more expensive. All such policies aim to reduce energy consumption.

Perhaps that is the way to keep us all from being boiled by the sun. However, that same Democratic Party is also firmly committed to keeping federal spending rising or at least to prevent any decline.

Today, most federal spending, paid for by trillions in borrowing, goes to maintain high levels of consumption. That, again, is a laudable goal. It is nice that more Americans should have more floor space abundantly heated, more cars and more trips in airliners to see the grandkids.

Consumption, however, requires production, and production means extracting and burning energy. Maintaining Americans in the lifestyles to which we have become accustomed is by far and away the greatest driver of energy consumption in the U.S., just as rising consumption in China and India drive carbon emission increases globally.

Liberal environmental programs and social programs are wildly at odds. We know who wins. Well-heeled agribusiness here and abroad will protect biofuel subsides and political active seniors will protect entitlements. File this one under the old proverb: Be careful what you ask for; you might get it.

Kenneth C. Blanchard Jr. is a professor of political science at Northern State University. The views presented are his and do not represent Northern State University.