Transition Culture

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15 Apr 2008

Marking the Day When Running Our Cars on Starving Children Became Law

It feels appropriate that I should mark the day when the UK government makes it law that all petrol and diesel must contain at least 2.5% of biofuel in some way. In his usual frank and thorough way, George Monbiot tells it like it is in today’s Guardian; “In the midst of a global humanitarian crisis, we have just become legally obliged to use food as fuel. It is a crime against humanity, in which every driver in this country has been forced to participate”. The most appropriate way I can mark this day of momentous stupidity is with the above powerful and to the point cartoon which Richard Heinberg used in his presentation at Findhorn recently.

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15 Apr 8:42pm


I’m glad to see that its not just me thats focusing right now on fuel for cars.

I hadnt seen todays Guardian yet – but have been spending deciding that fuel rationing for cars is the way to go. Its so starkly simple “Our greed is their need”. The choice seems so simple to me – either we have fuel in our cars or other people have food in their stomachs. No contest – I vote for the food in stomachs. Many people will be too selfish or shortsighted to “see” this – they dont want to “see” it, so they will deliberately “blind” themselves to it.

Hence – petrol rationing for cars. I propose a basic ration of 50 miles worth per household per week for an urban household (ie city or town), increasing proportionately to allow for distance of household from nearest urban centre (so as not to disadvantage those living, say, in the middle of Dartmoor or somewhere else equally remote). Taxis and public transport to be exempt. Its time we consigned ideas like “going for a ride” in a car or leaping in a car for a journey that would take less than 30 minutes to walk to the history books. Car use should only be for necessity purposes and a ration of fuel for this would concentrate peoples minds wonderfully as to what constituted “necessity”.

Mary Hodge
15 Apr 9:17pm

Perhaps if the starving would become better consumers they would be of value to the world economy and then wouldn’t be such a burdon on the rest of society :/

Jane Buttigieg
16 Apr 7:44am

Something that struck me about this news is the fact that the amount of biofuels mixed with the petrol or diesel must be 2.5%. This is interesting in that peak oil analysts have argued that once we reach the peak, the amount of oil available to us will be roughly 2% less each year thereafter. Makes me wonder if next year they will insist on a 4% mix? I think this decision is being driven more by oil availability than concern for climate change.
Something else that happened on Tuesday is that the price of oil went up again. Close to $114 dollars a barrel. So now we are filling our tanks with children’s food, witnessing food riots worldwide and still want business as usual?
Things are starting to happen very fast-time for all of us to really get this transition thing going in our localities with as much enthusiasm as we can!

16 Apr 2:35pm

Last time I travelled through southern Malaysia (15 years ago) it was a wasteland of clear-cut jungle, with just the stumps sticking up out of the bare forest floor. I went back at Easter this year, and the wasteland is now palm oil tree plantations lining the road from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore.

It may be a monocultural disaster waiting to happen, and not as good as jungle, but the palm oil trees are at least an improvement on what was there before.

What is needed is a trustworthy certification system to show that the plantations are sustainable and an ecological improvement, not a knee-jerk blanket condemnation.

16 Apr 7:18pm

On the subject of petrol – its time for petrol rationing. We need to try and ensure that there is fairness here – not rationing by price as is happening at present. We also need to ensure that demand for petrol is minimised (and – with that – the amount of land devoted to biofuel to “water down” petrol with) – as a starting point I would suggest 50 miles worth of petrol per household per week for those in urban areas and a “sliding scale” for proportionately more for those in rural areas.

Amanda Abbitt
17 Apr 8:31am

I am so disgusted that the government have gone ahead with this, when it is clear that the arguments about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ biofuels is still in its infancy. Because of where we live and pathetic public transport, we have to drive some of the time (the bikes get used if at all possible). But I am going to struggle to fill up the tank now with the image of that cartoon in my head.

Hell, I’m going to write to my MP (or start a petition……now there’s an idea)

17 Apr 9:21am

it mentioned in the guardian yesterday that 2.5% is only the first stage, and 5.75% is the next. i am glad i no longer have a car for so many reasons – this development adds yet another very compelling one.

it’s amazing how a regular read of the papers (certainly the guardian anyway) brings a new story on biofuel/food production and security issues almost every day. things are certainly moving very fast…

17 Apr 2:06pm

While I agree that food crops should not be used as a feedstock for fuel, I think we should not underestimate that 70% of maize crops is fed to livestock for meat production.

Reducing demand for meat in the developed world would be a far more important step forward in the fight against starvation.

Mauro, Italy

18 Apr 7:42am

On the day this became law the government also announced plans to review the procedure in the face of mounting opposition. Maybe too little too late but sounds like it may be starting to move in the right direction and certainly gives fuel providers a get out as the legality is now in limbo.

18 Apr 2:45pm

I was just linked to this site and I heard about this bio-fuel law for the first time earlier today…

I’m very confused by the whole thing, using less oil has got to be good… but why is it being replaced by food sources? What are the other alternatives? There is the obvious suggestion of not driving, but thats not likely to happen just yet… especially when the society involves so much travel and public transport (also run on oil afaik) is so expensive.

I’m going to wander through this website for a bit, so I may find answers to these questions, but I feel quite queasy after reading this news.

Jason Cole
20 Apr 12:48pm

To me this is just another distraction away from what the real problem is – overpopulation.

So let’s assume the position of “biofuels are evil” is adopted, so we carry on guzzling fossil fuels, and then, in 10 years’ time, there will be another food crisis, with high prices, shortages, and a considerably bigger population to feed. Not to mention the loss of a distribution chain from not establishing a biofuel feed system.

For me, a 2.5% target is nothing about enabling people driving down to the beach in their SUV. It’s about keeping the critical infrastructure operational.

I also think environmentalists being fickle and performing U-turns like these will tremendously harm their credibility.

It’s fair enough to stipulate that monoculture and deforestation are avoided. But to state that “biofuels lead to hunger” is a stretch too far for me. We seem to have forgotten that we used to have smallholdings with 30% of the land set aside for the pack animals, in a sense, “biofuel”, that we’ve since substituted with fossil fuels and received “something for nothing” in terms of food production.

Mark Forskitt
21 Apr 6:06am

I am somewhat with Jason in this. I don’t think there is any argument against biodiesel from used cooking oil and fats, but that is a very small quantity compared to annual petrol/diesel consumption. I have argued before for encouraging farmers and growers use 10% of their land to produce biofuel to keep their machinery running to keep the food production going while we figure out how to change the average diet and adapt to smaller scale hand grown food production techniques (Edwardian market garden style?). Being an advocate for specific uses like that is not the same as supporting biofuel is good so more is better.

This biofuels good or bad argument is emblematic of the difficulty current decision making has in dealing with complex sensitive interdependent systems. We as a species have been very effective at partitionaing problems in separate domains and tinkering away inside those on the assumption the outside is static or invariant. We are now realising this simply is not so. Sustainable solutions will come from adopting holistic systems thinking.

I am fearful of what will happen is we cannot achieve this shift in thinking. As an example we see advocates of GM and industrial agri-business proclaiming GM and intensive production techniques as the only way to increase yields and thereby ensure enough food for all. Yet we rarely see claims justified for these ‘products’ where fertilizers and pesticides cannot be had. My expectation is that these highly sensitive crops will come way short of expectation in the less than optimum conditions.

It not just GM where that thinking is applied though, Just this morning in farming today there was a piece on the year of the potato, extolling its virtues as producing an extremely high yield per area. Someone went on to point out that was the rational behind its huge uptake in Ireland – true. Except of course an high average yield in the long run doesn’t help if you have occassional total crop failures as from late blight. Yes we can control blight with copper based sprays – but now we are back to oil input to production , and potientioaly a build up of heavy metal in the soil (very bad!).

The people who really know about growing potatoes are the Inca descendants of Peru and the Andes where potatoes are from . Their approach is to grow mixed small patches of potatoes and 3 or 4 other roots (Ulluco etc) in each field or terrace. In any one year they expect one or other crop might fail, but the others ensure sufficient food to get though the year. It’s simple, local, low input and resilient. It is not optimised for maximum return (financial or yield) an any one year – it has worked however for a good 4000 years. I’d call that tried and tested.

21 Apr 2:09pm

petrol rationing? i can see the argument, but think it would completely unworkable, open to mis-use and not equitable. firstly, who would and how would you enforce it? and how do you ‘ration’? why should people in rural areas get more ‘rations’ then those in urban areas? if those in rural areas work in urban areas, why shouldn’t those in urban areas have the same amount of ‘rations’ to visit the countryside to get some fresh air? why would taxi’s be exempt? the one’s who could afford it would just be getting taxi’s everywhere? it would be great for the taxi businesses! i think its pretty harsh to call all people who ‘don’t see it’ ‘selfish’. This doesn’t take into account the way society is currently organised. I also think it entirely goes against the aims of Transition, where grassroots action paves the way for more localised, sustainable living. you need to take people with you, not dictate what they can and can’t do – especially without providing alternative solutions.

21 Apr 2:49pm

Over-population is a term that I think gives the wrong impression.

‘Over-population’ gives people the idea that the world’s problems are the result of high-population countries like India and China. However, the vast majority of people there use a sustainable amount of the earth’s resources. It is the lower-population rich countries that use unsustainable amounts.

21 Apr 3:02pm

I agree with Andy on this.

I was at a session run by Paul Mobbs last year. He sets a rather interesting challenge for those who think the world is over-populated.

As he points out, some 86% of fuels and stuff are consumed by the developed world, some 14% of the population.

He asks the person who wants to see reduced populations in India and China to think logically. What would be the easiest way to reduce green-house gas production by the required 80-90%?

OK, he does not really promote genocide, but it makes people think a bit.

21 Apr 10:26pm

Am not really up to speed on the issues, but it seems to me that requiring oil companies to ensure all petrol and diesel they sell in the UK contains a minimum level of biofuel in the absence of any standards concerning accceptable biofuels and sourcing of same is “putting the cart before the horse” and risks making matters by providing further incentive for highly damaging agricultural practices responsible for destroying rainforests, peatlands and so on around the world.

Biofuels are required and will be increasingly required in the future, but not all biofuels are equal. Also, how they “plug into” the system is very important. For example, generating electricity from pig slurry or other agricultural waste to power electric cars may be commendable?

As regards the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation , are there any biofuels at all around that can be added to petrol/ diesel to satisfy the obligation without causing hardship? Must look into this – as i said, i’m new to the issues and trying to educate myself.

At any rate, simple “prescription by percentage” in this instance is a brute force approach, whereas joined up thinking is required. Coincidentally, I’ve just downloaded an alternative energy strategy that (at first glance at least) appears to attempt to “join the dots” – from

4 Aug 2:38pm

Wow, what a great post.
Unfortunately, there is nothing to rejoice in reality. While your post looks fine, the depicted situation just terrifies. It is not the cost of fuels for our cars, but our spirituality. Though we talk nice about the love, but it is dangerous appear on a street and to face the fruits of our words.
I hope your post will help to awake to many, and many will open their eyes.
Thank you

5 Sep 9:00pm

this is dumb. there are so many ways to make biodiesel that don’t use food…