This video is another gem from DoubleTake.tv, a site that contains a growing collection of short Baha’i-inspired documentaries. Watch how an innovative “white bloke” living on the island of Vanuatu rolls up his sleeves and gets down to finding a homegrown solution to the problem of rising fuel prices.
Let’s reflect for a moment on the video and then turn our thoughts towards the bigger picture..
The Biofuel Conundrum
Biofuel production is without doubt one hot topic these days. It provokes an entire spectrum of opinions from advocates and critics alike. Having initially been devised as a mechanism to reduce the world’s dependence on crude oil, the mass production of biofuel using food crops has precipitated another crisis — in the form of rocketing food prices and increased global famine. What are the possible reasons for this wretched situation? Was this outcome inevitable, or was it somehow avoidable?
Being a regular user of public transport, I’ve had to endure yet another rise in the base taxi fare, as well as a significant price rise for bus tickets, all in the past month. Clearly, biofuels haven’t lowered fuel prices — not for me anyway — and the trip over to the local grocery store is becoming more and more of a nervous window-shopping experience. So what exactly has gone wrong?
As usual, I dive into the World Wide Web to try and figure things out. A Time magazine article, Solving the Biofuels vs. Food Problem, points out that in 2006 alone the U.S. produced 4.86 billion gallons of corn ethanol. That sounds like a lot, but what does it really mean? Well, United Nations expert Jean Ziegler, explains that it takes the same amount of corn to produce 13 gallons of ethanol as it does to feed a child for one year. Divide 4.86 billion by 13 and we have 374 million starving children who could have been fed, all by a single country!! And this was back in 2006 — I can only imagine the numbers would have shot up by now. Ziegler, clearly exasperated by this situation, goes on to comment:
..the effect of transforming hundreds and hundreds of thousands of tons of maize, of wheat, of beans, of palm oil, into agricultural fuel is absolutely catastrophic for the hungry people.. So it’s a crime against humanity.. What has to be stopped is.. the growing catastrophe of the massacre (by) hunger in the world.
Based on this statistic alone, it would take a foolhardy person to reject Ziegler’s statement outright.
When Baha’u'llah, Prophet Founder of the Baha’i Faith, pronounced that the prevailing world order is “lamentably defective”, need we look any further for proof?
Couldn’t They Have Waited?
Both Ziegler and the author of the Time article state that non-food alternatives for biofuel, such as switchgrass (which is energy-efficient) and Jatropha shrubs (which grow well on poor land), are only a few years away from becoming viable for mass production. The Science Blog reports on an even more promising alternative, a grass called Miscanthus. Why then, do the economically advantaged countries not wait a little while longer? Surely it should be obvious that all this excess corn can quite easily feed the world’s hungry population. Why do these countries ruthlessly trade human lives in order for their citizens to drive a few extra miles on the highway?
Tragically, what Bahá’ís see in present-day society is unbridled exploitation of the masses of humanity by greed that excuses itself as the operation of “impersonal market forces”.. What they find themselves struggling against daily is the pressure of a dogmatic materialism, claiming to be the voice of “science”, that seeks systematically to exclude from intellectual life all impulses arising from the spiritual level of human consciousness.
(Commissioned by The Universal House of Justice, Century of Light, p. 137)
This captures, in essence, what Baha’is believe to be the root cause of humanity’s ills. What is completely disregarded by our present economic and political systems are those universal spiritual qualities spoken of in the Holy Books of the world’s religions — justice, honesty, trustworthiness, generosity, love of one’s neighbour and so on. Indeed, it is puzzling to observe how these guiding principles, which govern the behaviour of righteous individuals across just about every society, are conveniently swept under the rug in debates on international policy.
Having said this, individual transformation, although vital, is alone not enough. It is becoming increasingly urgent for nations to acknowledge that they belong to a single common homeland known as planet Earth, and that the good of the whole can never be achieved without sincerely seeking the best for each and every part. This implies moving from a culture of competition for natural resources towards one of collaboration. The implications of this change of thinking would be nothing short of revolutionary, and revolution, it seems, is precisely what is needed.
Sure, it is easy to pass this off as some fanciful notion and continue seeking the latest popular explanation as to why our world systems are just so volatile. Commonly-heard phrases like “economic downturn”, “instability in the Middle East”, “rising interest rates”, “loss of investor confidence”, “farm subsidies” are forever making the rounds in the media, and people blindly accept these for the very reason that they are impersonal. These phrases, in my opinion, are comfortable to accept because they do not challenge the status quo. They do not challenge ingrained patterns of human and societal behaviour. Instead, all they do is mask the reality that we are governed by a system that has long passed it’s sell-by date; one which is described as “morally and intellectually bankrupt” by The Universal House of Justice. The only solution that will ensure a long-term future of peace and prosperity is spiritual — it can only be spiritual.
But what to do about the biofuel problem?
Ahh, the million dollar question. Obviously there is no such thing as a quick fix. Nevertheless, Baha’is believe that even the most complex economic problems can be solved through the application of spiritual principles. Now, supposing for a moment that Tony Deamer’s coconut fuel initiative in Vanuatu became a candidate for large-scale production. What are some questions that we would hope the Government would ask? What are some suggested potential international guidelines on this matter? Here is a quick list that came to my mind:
- What is the nutritional value of the crop in question? Is it a viable source of food for the world’s population?
- What is the current economic state of the country in question? In what ways can the money saved on importing fuel be channeled towards improving education, health care etc?
- Will the by-products of the fuel extraction process have any worth or be discarded as waste?
- What is the potential environmental impact in terms of greenhouse gas emissions etc?
- How do we “give back” to the land what has been taken from it?
In terms of coconut fuel in Vanuatu, you may find it interesting to read this article, in which Tony Deamer addresses some of the above questions.
Do you have any personal thoughts on this issue?