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Now that Al Gore has his "green" Oscar and George W. Bush has closed a deal in Brazil by which American will burn up the cane fields in the name of environmental salvation, it is time to get serious about the realities of biofuel. Clearly research into biofuels is necessary, but few people are aware yet how this research will be carried out, how constrained ideologically it will be, how corrupting an influence it might become on American universities, and how dangerous its products might be to the ecology of the planet. Fortunately, a movement is a foot on the campus of UC Berkeley that may create a wave of resistance to and awareness about consequences of a biofuel economy, especially one governed by oil companies.
The still nascent Stop BP movement began as a response to British Petroleum’s offer to fund a secretive half-billion dollar bio-energy laboratory on the University of California at Berkeley campus. Ostensibly, the idea is to genetically engineer plants to yield more ethanol, but other likely projects include research into better burning ethanol. BP learned awhile back in New South Wales that high ethanol content burns out engines. They learned this from their customers who were livid to discover the damage after they had breakdowns and stopped buying BP products. But such incidents now seem to serve BP’s interests since they make the issue of biofuel research seem pressing, thus helping them push research deals through quickly and out of sight.
The Stop BP at Berkeley Campaign, however, worries not only about a lack of oversight, but also that there is no guarantee that BP or UC Berkeley will devote any of this research treasure to ensuring the safety of food supplies and fragile ecologies as these new organisms (or products) are grown and released.
So far, in pursuing this deal, UC Berkeley has tried to avoid public scrutiny, has tried to cover up the fact that BP might be able to control an enormous amount of the curriculum as well as research trajectories. It has disrupted the students right to demonstrate in front of California Hall-this at the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement. Two students were arrested for pouring what appeared to be oil on the steps of the building. The substance turned out to be organically grown molasses. Nevertheless, when the demonstrators offered to clean it up with mops and rags that they had brought, the campus police refused and physically intimidated several demonstrators. Since then a cadre of dissident professors roiled the Academy Senate at UC Berkeley demanding that the deal be properly discussed, but were largely rebuked even though the meeting occurred because of the rising outrage and opposition to British Petroleum on campus.
During the meeting, Associate Professor Ignacio H. Chapela clarified the issue, "What would certainly come out of the BP-Berkeley facilities would be a large number of genetically altered, reproducing, living organisms to be released in the public environment. In Berkeley, in the MidWest and around the world. Genetically-modified (or "GMO") grasses, trees, algae, bacteria, viruses destined for intentional, large-scale release in the public environment. These organisms do not represent Science. If anything, they may represent our failure as scientists to assume the deep inadequacies of our understanding about living organisms and the ecology of our planet. Despite a third of a century and more than $350 billion dollars invested in the trinket, a hurricane remains more predictable, and a wildfire remains more controllable than GMO organisms."
As a professor of biological ecology, Chapela has spoken out frequently against GMOs, but in this new campaign, he points out that biofuels are not likely to be the best solution for "the crazed consumerism binge of the short two centuries we have spent burning our fossil-fuel accounts." He warns of recent evidence to the contrary: "Indonesia without Biofuels used to be close to 20th in the world as producer of CO2 in the atmosphere. In a few years with biofuels it is now third, only behind the US and China." Chapela went so far as to suggest that in overlooking the potential hazards and
obscuring the amount of control BP will have over the research UC Berkeley has resorted to prostitution.
There is no question UC Berkeley Chancellor understands the conflict of interest. He came to the position in part as a result of similar deal the university had signed a with Novartis even while going on record as saying, "Few would put a great deal of confidence, I suspect, in the objectivity of lung cancer research funded by tobacco companies." It’s just that he doesn’t think the fact corporations are using public resources to produce research exclusively to topics that may yield profits for the company necessarily compromises the objectivity of the professors. Double-speak from administrators is nothing new, but what is new is amount of money oil companies are devoting to plundering public university intellectual resources in the chase for future biofuel patents. Chevron, for instance, has already sought out UC Davis for its own bio-energy lab in much the same manner as BP at Berkeley.
Such deals with their lack of oversight and their analogues in the pharmaceutical industry-many of which have produced well-documented dangers and immense profits from public subsidies-have been the forefront of Stop BP campaign so far. But the campaign is beginning to address the more global concerns about pursuing biofuel research drawing attention to the need for social and ecological considerations to be placed on par with scientific research. For example, prices for corn and corn products (from which ethanol can be made) have already spiked in the US and other countries, making food all the more expensive for those who already struggle to afford it. Furthermore, as Bush’s deal with Lula in Brazil suggests, the ideology of free trade is rampant in promoting biofuel, even though the US insists on a 54-cent-a-gallon levy on fuel shipped to the U.S. Under free trade ideology, the US through the World Trade Organization has forced developing countries to devote their agricultural industries to exports rather than for producing food for the domestic market. This has lead to a new feudalism in which the people who grow the food often cannot afford to eat it.
There are other potential problems. In Indonesia, ancient forests are being burned up to make room for oil-palm biofuel. They’re already digging up the rainforests in Brazil to plant soybeans that will be used in NutriSystem microwavable food packages designed to help fat American’s lose weight. As demand for ethanol increases to be equal to current oil consumption, it is almost guarantees forests will be dug up in the Global South to plant more sugar cane, since after all that is where it grows best. How then can ethanol be called carbon neutral when it will increase deforestation, when its promoters such as BP are notorious human rights violators, when companies such as BP are under a grand jury investigation for spilling 267,000 gallons of oil in Prudhoe Bay?
But that is where most Americans become giddy. To prevent these problems, most Americans believe technology is the answer. The attitude is captured in one letter sent to Stop BP activists:
I believe the potential social benefits of this collaboration dwarf the potential risks. Providing inexpensive, carbon-neutral energy to the world could resolve an array of social problems. Achieving that goal will require the help of industrial partners who can help overcome global challenges to providing new energy systems to all the world’s people.
Not a word here about the need to decrease consumption. Not a word about the consequences on farmers or the poor.
As professor Iain Boal, a historian of Technics and the Commons, said at a recent teach-in, we are living in an age where constant Climate Change Emergencies maybe invoked as a blunt instrument to silence dissent. Recalling Naomi Klein’s phrase "disaster capitalism," he described science’s long history of creating crises that then force capitulation to a neoliberal models, where the very forces that brought us global warming are offering to quell it for a price.
Boal said, "The capitalist ‘market’ is about monopoly and crushing competition, and it always has been. Knowledge-making, however, which is the business of the university, depends on an economy of the gift, of collegiality and cooperation…I am speaking of a critical, liberatory science rooted in an ethic of care and equity, in restorative justice and rightful reparation to the communities and natural systems worldwide which have been devastated in the deadly pursuit of private enrichment. A science, finally, that will be at home in a world no longer dominated by private tyrannies, one that partakes of an open, ample life in common."
It’s toward such a vision that I suspect the Stop BP campaign is inspired. But for now it’s on the hard work of organizing and demanding a wider debate that its activists such as Kamal Kapadia, Lee Worden, Hillary Lehr, Ali Tonak and many others are focused. Along with them and their professors such as Miguel Altieri, Ignacio Chapela, Iain Boal and many more, I submit their names to go with those mentioned in Jeffrey St. Clair’s recent piece on maverick environmentalists. And I recommend Judith Scherr’s fine Counter Punch piece here on the situation.
Check out the many resources at Stop BP Berkeley.
STANDARD SCHAEFER is a writer and teacher in San Francisco. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.