Saturday, April 05, 2008

I've got mail...

It has been my observation that farmers who passionately embrace biofuels also frequently consider anthropogenic global warming a scam. This skepticism on climate change seriously undermines one central tenet (and one of the more plausible ones at that) of biofuel use: namely, lower carbon emissions.
Propelled by mounting anxieties over soaring oil costs and climate change, biofuels have become the vanguard of the green-tech revolution, the trendy way for politicians and corporations to show they're serious about finding alternative sources of energy and in the process slowing global warming. The U.S. quintupled its production of ethanol--ethyl alcohol, a fuel distilled from plant matter--in the past decade, and Washington has just mandated another fivefold increase in renewable fuels over the next decade. Europe has similarly aggressive biofuel mandates and subsidies, and Brazil's filling stations no longer even offer plain gasoline. Worldwide investment in biofuels rose from $5 billion in 1995 to $38 billion in 2005 and is expected to top $100 billion by 2010, thanks to investors like Richard Branson and George Soros, GE and BP, Ford and Shell, Cargill and the Carlyle Group.

Renewable fuels has become one of those
motherhood-and-apple-pie catchphrases, as unobjectionable as the troops or the middle class. But several new studies show the biofuel boom is doing exactly the opposite of what its proponents intended: it's dramatically accelerating global warming, imperiling the planet in the name of saving it. Corn ethanol, always environmentally suspect, turns out to be environmentally disastrous. Even cellulosic ethanol made from switchgrass, which has been promoted by eco-activists and eco-investors as well as by President Bush as the fuel of the future, looks less green than oil-derived gasoline. [More]

This rather nasty cover article in TIME has so riled up corn growers they have decided to fight like a Clinton - on a lower level. Quaintly phrasing it "viral" rather than the more accurate "SPAM", corn growers have elected to plunge into the netherworld of inbox-cloggers.

Here's what showed up in my mailbox yesterday:

Please read and pass along: Below is a diverse collection of information to forward to anyone you know who needs some ammunition to fight the increasingly strident and biased attacks on renewable fuels. ... If everyone who receives this email were to pass it along to just four friends and associates, and those who then received it were to do the same, in ten days, this message would reach more than 13 million people. Get tough. Get active. Work together. Thanks for all you do.

Even if the panic level over $6 corn has introduced a sense of desperation, joining the millions of blithering , obscene, and malicious jerks who seriously degrade the capabilities of the Internet with unwanted, unread, and unhealthy propaganda strikes me as a tacky strategy choice. This is close to the kitchen sink, IMHO. The rewards of this approach might be similar as well.

There is a better defense for biofuels.
  • Lose the ethanol subsidies, and immunize ethanol against public policy by letting the marketplace choose. As impossible as it is to conceive, there are a few of us who think biofuels could work as a real grownup business. It would at least allow the marketplace to arbiter fairly between all corn users.
  • Acknowledge the prevalent farmer position on human effect on the climate and dismiss the problem of carbon emissions as meaningless, thus answering the Amazon-burning accusation. Trying to have it both ways is transparently hypocritical.
  • If you must send out mass e-mails, use mailing lists, and allow users to unsubscribe. I'm proud of being a corn grower. I reject the need for chain e-letters to support my profession.

But wait!! There was another surprising e-mail.

Hi John.

My name is ----. I buy grain for... ADM elevators.
We are currently bidding for grain through March 2009.
If you would like to talk about possibly selling us some new crop grain, please give me a call.
I am located in ------ and my number is --------.
Thank you.


Look who is wandering back in the forward market.
I don't mean to embarrass the writer, but obviously somebody heard I was a little frustrated trying to figure out whether Cargill was going to be in the soybean business this fall or not.

Well, this is certainly awkward. After all, I have been going steady with Cargill. But it's that old fear of [margin] commitment thing, I guess.

What's a nice guy to do?

And this note from ND:

Here in Central North Dakota, the farmers are beside themselves trying to get the anhydrous knifed in but the soil is still cold and it's very dry.
Calving is going good and even better than average. Don't know what the prices will be this fall but the grain will keep many from feeding their calves after weaning. Looks like we will be eating grass fed beef instead of corn fed.
Can't say the ethanol fuel is the answer. Gas was $3.24 on Thursday at our local pump.
Keep up the good reporting. We enjoy reading your column.

My goodness, I would have thought the NH3 in ND would be flowing like maple syrup right now. Glad about the calving. My friends with cows here had a disastrous year last year.

The sun is shining here now, and I need to step away from the computer....


Anonymous said...

It’s time you got hip, to this new media called the Internet, John. The corn growers email on soaring gas prices and big oil isn’t spam, but part of today’s wired communications, along with blogging and U-Tube videos. The email isn’t selling replica watches, cheap Viagra or porn. It’s using our newest media to reach target audiences with bona fide messages effectively and economically. If every corn grower in the country were to send that message to every TV commentator, newspaper editor, radio talk show host and politician in their area, imagine the impressions we’d make!

John Phipps said...


Gosh, I didn't know people still got "hip". I am a slow learner, but I have figured this out:

My inbox - especially at work - gets 200+ messages like this. If it is a forwarded message, I will never see it, and I filter anything from that sender as junk mail.

Viral communications are now targeted aggressively by e-mail filters, in order to preserve the value of e-mail. That's one reason many hi-tech businesses have heavier use of texting and IM.

I will look for some hard data, but my impression is from my tiny corner of the media, e-mails like this don't get seen by opinion-shapers.

Worse, with friends who are compulsive forwarders, I now occasionally miss real messages from them due to the low signal/noise ratio.

In this case, I think the the best content cannot overcome a suspect communications vehicle, and the effectiveness is actually negative, as it lowers the reputation of the sender - hence the "Clinton" reference.

Like we have learned from identical letters/faxes to Congress, the marginal return diminishes quickly. I would suggest viral e-mails have long since past the point of any benefit since they are so easy and hence represent little effort.

YouTube may be approaching this point (hence the popularity of video aggregators/screeners like Arbroath), but blogging is definitely not a push medium. John's World doesn't show up unbidden in your Inbox - you have to surf to it.

E-mail is powerful aid to rural America. Playing fast and loose with the addresses of your friends via multiple forwards will only get all our spam loads ramped up faster. Remember those e-mail address go along wherever with the virus.

However, I am grateful there wasn't a "if you fail to send this on, you are not a real patriot" or "you'll have 18 years of bad luck" at the bottom. Those chain e-mails really depress me.

Ol James said...

BRAVO Mr. John, Bravo...if I see fwd., fwd., I instantly delete if my filter didn't do it already. Bad thing about it is..they come mostly from kinfolk. and I like a few of them...just the one's I can tolerate.
Old saying goes..".. beware looking for the might find you."
If you don't froward this to 100 of your friends in the next 15 seconds you will get older by your next birthday.

mlambert said...

As the original sender of the offending email I have to marvel at the effectiveness of this mailing. Apparently effective at ticking you off...which in my experience is no easy task, but a goal still worthy of due diligence...but I have also received positive feedback from several mainstream media outlets as well as an executive in the automotive industry who sent this information piece to untold car dealers. So hopefully it did some good other than exercising your spam filter. The Clinton reference hurt me more than you know. I may sell my laptop and never email again! Ok, I'm kidding about selling the computer. The Clinton comment may keep me from sleeping tonight. Keep up the good work John.

John Phipps said...


The Clinton reference was clearly a poor choice of metaphor. I am sorry. The atmosphere is too politicized to take chances. It refers to using the laudable ends to justify questionable tactics - and is being increasingly applied to her campaign.

In this case, for the reasons I have mentioned above, using forwarding is a means which, as you mentioned achieved some desirable results, but I wonder why organizations such as corn growers do not send such information straight to the media, as opposed to the chain-letter approach.

My e-mail address is of course totally over-exposed, and I get the junk mail I deserve. But other members may be less willing to have their addresses wandering around on all those FWD:FWD:FWD:FWD messages.

To be sure, the email in question is not offensive or a hoax, but you really can't tell looking at your inbox entry. I almost ignored this one.

It strikes me as a poor medium for such an important debate.

mlambert said...

Much of "ethanol's case" has indeed been shared with mainstream media but they have chosen to ignore most of the information. The Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Tribune are prime examples. Ethanol offers a perfect case in point of the agenda driven media coverage today. If an opinion or even documented data doesn't fit an editor/reporters preconceived notion of the story they want, it must be incorrect information. As a person who spent over a decade as a working journalist it pains me to point this out, but this trend is exactly what convinced me to find another career path. In the final analysis oil interests are just much better at peddling their stories to the East Coast media outlets which drive media messages nationwide. If you look at the increasing investment by Saudi Arabia in the aforementioned East Coast media you can also make some scary assumptions. Gotta go, I think I hear a black helicopter circling my house.

John Phipps said...


I was struck by your phrases - they could be mine talking about your side of this debate.

Ethanol proponents are unwilling to address facts too. I have blogged about some:

- the lack of substantiation of Mideast oil replacement (energy independence!) as ethanol ramps up. I have posted twice on how we are more dependent on Mideast oil than ever.

- the growing foreign fertilizer dependence to boot.

- addressing the complaints from the livestock industry who are competing without subsidy against mandates. Hardly the Eastern press there.

My point is modern communications strategy is not to engage in dialog, but to simply avoid topics you have valid counterargument for.

Why shouldn't ethanol opponents be allowed similar tactics if corn growers use them?

This is the way we talk in public now. Never concede even in the fact of overwhelming evidence. Stay on message. Above all, don't listen.

When there is no belief in compromise my guess it it will make for crushing wins and losses.

John Phipps said...


In my previous post I left our an important word:

In paragraph 6, please insert "no" before "valid" to read:
"but simply to avoid topics you have no valid counterarguments for".