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The Effects of the Food and Oil Crisis

An excellent example of a research paper by Reid Stady.

After only taking a few glances around at this man-made American culture, it's fairly easy for most to come to the realization that our daily rituals are devastating the planet and other humans as well. The truth is that our government, which controls the most powerful army and weaponry on the planet, uses oil, at least to some extent, as a primary reason for entering into devastating wars. Now that our favorite natural resource is diminishing, a few very powerful countries around the world, including the United States, are scrambling for a new means of powering the amenities we've come to enjoy, with side-effects possibly even more devastating than the oil wars we've engaged in over the last few decades.

Oil has long been a necessity in the American economy. Ever since the days of Rockefeller and the Industrial Revolution, the U.S. oil industry has been, largely, on an uphill climb regarding production and consumption. Today, oil is well known as the base ingredient for gasoline, but it's easy to neglect the fact that oil is also used in just about all forms of heating as well as the manufacture of nearly all man-made products and packaging that graces our market economy. From Nike sneakers to iPods, oil is one of primary components in the production of popular items like these, although for most, the true extent of our dependency on oil is mostly unknown. Even more overlooked is how far our country is willing to go in pursuit of our beloved petrol.
During Jimmy Carter's presidency, circa 1980, the President admitted that crude oil is in "the vital interests of the United States of America, "and that in protecting this interest, [the administration] would use any means necessary, including military force" (Klare). The U.S. government systematically and quite covertly establishes and maintains relationships with tycoons in foreign countries in preparation for when other American oil pipelines begin to run dry, and it seems the next potential focal point may be Africa.
While the majority of American forces are elsewhere, "the American military presence in oil-producing areas of Africa, though less conspicuous, is growing rapidly" (Klare). While most Pentagon officials would say the reason for military presence in Africa is purely for anti-terrorism reasons, one officer suggested a more probable cause, explain that "a key mission for U.S. forces [in Africa] would be to ensure that Nigeria's oil fields, which in the future could account for as much as 25 percent of all U.S. oil imports, are secure" (Klare).
The outcome of this kind of monopolization over the international oil industry is not limited only to our country's economics or the Gross Domestic Product. These kinds of political movements by a powerful and greedy country like ours gains real, radical enemies, who feel like their country as a whole has been violated and abused by corporate America. These oil fields become big and dangerous business, "and because these facilities are likely to come under increasing attack from guerrillas and terrorists, the risk to American lives will grow accordingly. Inevitably, we will pay a higher price in blood for every additional gallon of oil we obtain from abroad" (Klare). Truly, whether we speak of American soldiers, innocent civilians, or so-called 'terrorists', the number of lives lost daily due to wars over oil is really quite astounding.
Not only is this monopoly over oil wreaking havoc on foreign infrastructure, but the excessive use of oil itself is terrorizing our planet. At some not-so-distant date, the incredible consumption of crude oil (primarily by the U.S. and a few other first-world countries) and the tremendous amounts of pollution exhausted into our atmosphere will both rear their ugly heads and show the world just how much we've affected the world around us. A panel of global warming experts from the UN recently came to the conclusion that should we decide to "continue to burn fossil fuels at current rates, levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will reach 550 ppm (parts per million) - double pre-industrial levels - by around 2050. The most recent IPCC report, published in 2001, said this would increase global temperatures by between 1.4 and 5.8C by 2100, and that sea levels would rise by between 0.09 and 0.88 meters" (Adam).
Perhaps the most nefarious fact about global warming is that it will (and already does) most devastatingly affect the people who are the least to blame for the crisis. In fact, "it is the richest people in the world who have produced and who are still producing most of the greenhouse gases causing climate change", yet the rich have relatively no idea that they're negatively influencing the climate of the planet at all (Thornton). The most impoverished people in the world, who make only the most minuscule impact on the planet, quite unjustly end up facing the brunt of the blow. A recent report explained that "the poorest countries in the world, with 738 million people, make no contribution to climate change, but it is those same people who face the worst consequences" (Thornton).
Here in America, where nearly all are considered 'rich' based on an international level, most rarely ever face the impact of global warming. On a global level however, the effects of our oil consumption (along with other harmful activities) are already proving to be catastrophic. The same report found that approximately "7,800 Kenyans, Tanzanians and Rwandans die every year from diseases that were related to climate change"; the author continued, explaining that even something so seemingly insignificant as a "2C [Two degrees Celsius] rise in temperature could lead to as many as 60 million more people being exposed to malaria in Africa" (Thornton). Another study estimated that with only a three-degree Celsius change in temperature, an additional 300 million people would be at risk to Malaria, and more than half the population of the planet would face moderate to severe water shortages (Verolme).
The effects of mass oil consumption in America and elsewhere are obviously having many mal-effects on the planet and, of course, on many people within it. While the United States continues to search for new areas of the world with high potential for oil extraction, most intelligent individuals no longer negate the fact petroleum and consumption of oil in general are harming our planet in more ways than one. Many are beginning to understand that at some point in the relatively near future, the oil reserves will run out, and corporations are beginning to step up to the plate in the move towards renewable energy, and rightfully so. The only problem is, most alternative fuel and energy sources seem to be causing even more problems than they're solving.
One of the most technologically advanced options that consumers and corporations have today in light (pun) of the current energy crisis is the ability to purchase solar panels in order to power their households or production plants. Perhaps the leading con for end-users is the simple fact that solar panels are extremely expensive, although they do pay back the purchase price over a number of years. The leading cause of the large price tag on solar cells is the delicate nature of producing silicon wafers, which are actually the bulk of this amazing technology that allows a solar panel to capture the electrons in the light waves and convert this into AC current.
In response to a very high demand and skyrocketing prices for solar panels, many solar technology companies have started up business in China nearly overnight in an attempt to capitalize on the demand for polysilicon, the light-absorbent active material in solar cells. "Made from the Earth's most abundant substance -- sand -- polysilicon is tricky to manufacture. It requires huge amounts of energy, and even a small misstep in the production can introduce impurities and ruin an entire batch. The other main challenge is dealing with the waste. For each ton of polysilicon produced, the process generates at least four tons of silicon tetrachloride liquid waste" (Cha).
While all solar cell manufacturers in the United States are required to follow strict guidelines as to how to deal with our recycle the waste, manufacturers in China have no such government-mandated guidelines to follow. Due to the "high investment costs and time, not to mention the enormous energy consumption required for heating the substance to more than 1800 degrees Fahrenheit for the recycling, [economic interests] have discouraged many factories in China from doing the same" (Cha). The technology certainly exists which would allow polysilicon manufacturers to recycle their byproducts, but by dumping raw waste outside the gates of the production plants, manufacturers can produce polysilicon wafers for roughly half the price with essentially no legal repercussions.
At the end of the day, these manufacturers manage to produce the polysilicon at less than half the price of most American companies, but at great cost to the environment and ecosystems around them. This is because silicon tetrachloride, "the byproduct of polysilicon production, is a highly toxic substance that poses environmental hazards," and when this byproduct is exposed to the humid air, it produces the deadly toxin hydrochloric acid (Cha). This terrible chemical quite literally kills or harms all forms of organic life in one way or another. Wherever the Chinese solar plants dump the chemical, all nearby vegetation ceases growth.
One citizen living nearby one of the largest solar plants in China explained that "we didn't know how bad it was until the August harvest, until things started dying"; not only do the byproducts kill crops and fields, but it is terribly harmful to humans as well, able to "make people who breathe the air dizzy and can make their chests contract" (Cha). Perhaps the worst aspect of this ecological problem is that the Chinese government essentially turns its back and allows this pollution to continue, primarily because this new industry is benefiting the Chinese infrastructure so greatly. As great as solar power sounds, unless the products are produced carefully and ethically on all levels, the production methods are likely devastating the ecosystems of developing countries across the board, rather than creating a greener world.
Another common alternative fuel often discussed in the media is Ethanol. Ever since the public first started to consider renewable energy and alternative fuels, Ethanol has been on the table as a potential replacement for gasoline. The theory was that instead of importing most of our fuels from foreign countries (most notably in the Middle-East), we could grow our own fuel. Produced most cheaply out of corn, we could grow this ethanol for our cars, and thus started the talk of Biofuels. In theory, growing ethanol from corn was a brilliant idea. Unfortunately, in the U.S., ethanol wasn't exactly weaned into production; instead, our government called for an enormous amount of our annual corn crops to be dedicated towards the production of ethanol, taking basic foodstuffs straight out of the mouths of the most needy and impoverished people on the planet.
The major cause of the problem at hand is that by taking so much corn off the market in order to pursue Biofuels, we are relinquishing the already small amount of food that goes into the regions of the world with the highest rate of population growth. It seems that although America's heart might be in the right place by pursuing alternative fuels, we are in fact creating a greater and more urgent dilemma that equates to higher mortality rates right now for many third-world countries, rather than the alternative (global warming impacts), which would mainly be felt years down the road. The United States new top scientists that while "there is progress on climate change... out there is another major problem. It is very hard to imagine how we can see a world growing enough crops to produce renewable energy and at the same time meet the enormous increase in the demand for food which is quite properly going to happen as we alleviate poverty" (Randerson).
While it's true that the rise in the demand of corn is not the only cause for increasing food prices worldwide, "ethanol is the dominant reason for this year's increase in grain prices. It accounts for the rise in the price of maize because the federal government has in practice waded into the market to mop up about one-third of America's corn harvest. A big expansion of the ethanol program in 2005 explains why maize prices started rising in the first place" (Buntrock). Ethanol truly could save us from our dependency on foreign oil, but right now the production of this fuel is taking food from the poorest people on the planet, leaving them without one of the most basic food categories: grains. "The World Food Program, the main provider of emergency food aid, says the cost of its operations has increased by more than half in the past five years and will rise by another third in the next two. Food-aid flows have fallen to their lowest level since 1973," negatively affecting the most endangered of all (Buntrock).
While ethanol itself is not necessarily a bad candidate for a macro-alternative fuel, it seems that the primary mistake we made in this pursuit was a massive demand for a very important crop in a relatively short amount of time. Perhaps if we had followed the EU's model, the impact would have been much less severe. The European Union came to the wise decision that it would be in the best interest of the economy as a whole to "intentionally set low targets for Biofuel use - 10 per cent by 2020 - to limit food price rises and that it plans to import some Biofuel. 'We don't want all our farmers switching from food to Biofuel,'" (Rosenthal).
Like the push for alternative energy sources (solar power, for example), it seems that, to some extent, the pursuit of alternative fuel sources is currently causing greater problems than its solving. These are difficult grounds because I truly believe that we should be looking for alternative energy and fuel sources, while at the same time our present venture is creating unforeseen problems by devastating many delicate third-economies as does the use of oil. It's now becoming obvious that we several large problems on our hands, from our government's continual lust for foreign oil, to the impact that alternative fuel production programs are having on the world food supply, it seems that the change necessary will have to take place gradually. As great as these problems are, and as much as we'd like to find a solution overnight, it looks while we'll have to take things on small step at a time. One scientist said it best, blaming "recent supply and demand factors for the crisis," and predicting "that those factors were here to stay" (Rosenthal). So until we can find a solution that we can gradually implement to solve the crisis, it looks as if we'll simply have to do our best to wade this one out.
Works Cited

Adam, David. "Climate Scientists Issue Dire Warning." The Guardian 28 Dec. 2006. .

Buntrock, Gerrit. "Food Prices: Cheap No More." The Economist 6 Dec. 2007. .

Cha, Ariana E. "Solar Energy Firms Leave Waste Behind in China." Washington Post
9 Mar. 2008. .

Klare, Michael T. "Oil Wars: Transforming the American Military Into a Global Oil-Protection Service." ZNet 7 Oct. 2004. .

Randerson, James. "Food Crisis Will Take Hold Before Climate Change, Warns Chief Scientist." The Guardian 7 Mar. 2008. .

Rosenthal, Elisabeth. "World Food Stocks Dwindling Rapidly, UN Warns."
International Herald Tribune 17 Dec. 2007.
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Thornton, Philip. "How Richest Fuel Global Warming - But Poor Suffer Most From It."
The Independent 9 Jan. 2007.
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Verolme, Hans, and Martin Hiller.
Climate Change: Why We Need to Take Action Now. World Wildlife Fund. 2006. .