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    Mongabay, a leading resource for news and perspectives on environmental and conservation issues related to the tropics, has launched Tropical Conservation Science - a new, open access academic e-journal. It will cover a wide variety of scientific and social studies on tropical ecosystems, their biodiversity and the threats posed to them. Tropical Conservation Science - March 8, 2008.

    At the 148th Meeting of the OPEC Conference, the oil exporting cartel decided to leave its production level unchanged, sending crude prices spiralling to new records (above $104). OPEC "observed that the market is well-supplied, with current commercial oil stocks standing above their five-year average. The Conference further noted, with concern, that the current price environment does not reflect market fundamentals, as crude oil prices are being strongly influenced by the weakness in the US dollar, rising inflation and significant flow of funds into the commodities market." OPEC - March 5, 2008.

    Kyushu University (Japan) is establishing what it says will be the world’s first graduate program in hydrogen energy technologies. The new master’s program for hydrogen engineering is to be offered at the university’s new Ito campus in Fukuoka Prefecture. Lectures will cover such topics as hydrogen energy and developing the fuel cells needed to convert hydrogen into heat or electricity. Of all the renewable pathways to produce hydrogen, bio-hydrogen based on the gasification of biomass is by far both the most efficient, cost-effective and cleanest. Fuel Cell Works - March 3, 2008.

    An entrepreneur in Ivory Coast has developed a project to establish a network of Miscanthus giganteus farms aimed at producing biomass for use in power generation. In a first phase, the goal is to grow the crop on 200 hectares, after which expansion will start. The project is in an advanced stage, but the entrepreneur still seeks partners and investors. The plantation is to be located in an agro-ecological zone qualified as highly suitable for the grass species. Contact us - March 3, 2008.

    A 7.1MW biomass power plant to be built on the Haiwaiian island of Kaua‘i has received approval from the local Planning Commission. The plant, owned and operated by Green Energy Hawaii, will use albizia trees, a hardy species that grows in poor soil on rainfall alone. The renewable power plant will meet 10 percent of the island's energy needs. Kauai World - February 27, 2008.

    Tasmania's first specialty biodiesel plant has been approved, to start operating as early as July. The Macquarie Oil Company will spend half a million dollars on a specially designed facility in Cressy, in Tasmania's Northern Midlands. The plant will produce more than five million litres of fuel each year for the transport and marine industries. A unique blend of feed stock, including poppy seed, is expected to make it more viable than most operations. ABC Rural - February 25, 2008.

    The 16th European Biomass Conference & Exhibition - From Research to Industry and Markets - will be held from 2nd to 6th June 2008, at the Convention and Exhibition Centre of FeriaValencia, Spain. Early bird fee registration ends 18th April 2008. European Biomass Conference & Exhibition - February 22, 2008.

    'Obesity Facts' – a new multidisciplinary journal for research and therapy published by Karger – was launched today as the official journal of the European Association for the Study of Obesity. The journal publishes articles covering all aspects of obesity, in particular epidemiology, etiology and pathogenesis, treatment, and the prevention of adiposity. As obesity is related to many disease processes, the journal is also dedicated to all topics pertaining to comorbidity and covers psychological and sociocultural aspects as well as influences of nutrition and exercise on body weight. Obesity is one of the world's most pressing health issues, expected to affect 700 million people by 2015. AlphaGalileo - February 21, 2008.

    A bioethanol plant with a capacity of 150 thousand tons per annum is to be constructed in Kuybishev, in the Novosibirsk region. Construction is to begin in 2009 with investments into the project estimated at €200 million. A 'wet' method of production will be used to make, in addition to bioethanol, gluten, fodder yeast and carbon dioxide for industrial use. The complex was developed by the Solev consulting company. FIS: Siberia - February 19, 2008.

    Sarnia-Lambton lands a $15million federal grant for biofuel innovation at the Western Ontario Research and Development Park. The funds come on top of a $10 million provincial grant. The "Bioindustrial Innovation Centre" project competed successfully against 110 other proposals for new research money. London Free Press - February 18, 2008.

    An organisation that has established a large Pongamia pinnata plantation on barren land owned by small & marginal farmers in Andhra Pradesh, India is looking for a biogas and CHP consultant to help research the use of de-oiled cake for the production of biogas. The organisation plans to set up a biogas plant of 20,000 cubic meter capacity and wants to use it for power generation. Contact us - February 15, 2008.

    The Andersons, Inc. and Marathon Oil Corporation today jointly announced ethanol production has begun at their 110-million gallon ethanol plant located in Greenville, Ohio. Along with the 110 million gallons of ethanol, the plant annually will produce 350,000 tons of distillers dried grains, an animal feed ingredient. Marathon Oil - February 14, 2008.

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Thursday, March 06, 2008

A Thousand Biofuels?

By Yannick Devillers. In the 1980s two thinkers published an important work in continental philosophy, titled 'Mille Plateaux' (A Thousand Plateaus). In it, they attacked binary thinking and the school of thought known as 'structuralism', which reduces the analysis of social realities to clearly defined structures composed of binary oppositions. To analyse reality, structuralist thought imposes pre-defined, static structures on it, and treats everything that falls outside of these structures as a type of irrelevant 'noise' or 'waste'.

Gillles Deleuze and Felix Guattari instead proposed a better model to analyse complex contemporary cultures, power and social structures: look at them as a dynamic, ever changing web, a network of shape-shifting 'plateaus', which cannot be reduced or represented by clear definitions and the movement of which continuously opens gaps and spaces for the unexpected. Reality is a rhizome, a web of underground roots that shoot up, die and reappear in unexpected places. The 'Thousands Plateaus' are open, dynamic and permanently growing. With this model, Deleuze and Guattari became the leading thinkers of postmodern philosophy.

Their analytical framework penetrated a wide variety of other fields, from architecture and design, to market analysis, economics and the social sciences. Biopact suggests we apply the metaphors of A Thousand Plateaus to the web of opportunities and risks presented by bioenergy and biofuels.

Fuels made from biomass are never either 'eco-saviors' or 'destroyers', as a recent headline states. That is simplistic binary thinking. Instead, there are a thousand biofuels, a thousand opportunities and risks involved, a multitude of technologies and conversion processes. The sheer diversity of geographic locations in which they are made, the wide range of market connections, the multiple social and environmental effects resulting from their production... all these different factors weave a web of different biofuels that can be plotted on a network that covers a spectrum ranging from the 'very good' to the 'very bad', and everything in between.

Biofuels can be very helpful on a local scale in farming communities who are losing their livelihoods because of disastrously high oil prices. They can be damaging to local populations when produced on a large scale by powerful conglomerates. But at the same time, the often criticized activities of multinationals and the 'global market' of biofuels can just as well result in unanticipated beneficial effects: skyrocketing food prices as a result of biofuels could unlock a series of much needed investments in African agriculture and break the perverse conditions EU/US subsidies, trade barriers, corrupt African governments, lack of interest in agriculture) that has kept farmers there in poverty - with the result that Africa's much anticipated Green Revolution could be ironically triggered by the biofuels market. That would be a huge, beneficial transformation. But we don't really know.

One thing that we know for certain is that biofuels are never just good or bad. The entire complex web of social, economic, environmental and political factors in which they are caught must be analysed. The full series of spatio-temporal dimensions must be taken into account: from the very local to the global, and from the short term to the very long term (e.g. the time-scale of the projected effects of climate change).

An example of this type of network-thinking is gradually being expressed in analyses about the 'global lifecycle' of biofuels: production in one place can result in unexpected social or environmental effects elsewhere. The analysis of 'indirect emissions' and 'indirect land use change' shows how interconnectied in the global web of biofuels really is.

Throughout their thinking, Deleuze and Guattari also developed a theory about a phenomenon they dubbed 'the black hole' or 'a body without organs' - a type of knot in the web that remains undefined and can exert an influence so strong that the entire network suddenly shifts towards another dimension. The presence of this knot of uncertainty instills caution into those who try to analyse reality, because the 'black hole' is permanently there but remains invisible. All discourses about the future (of biofuels) are thus relative, local, and temporary, never the final word.

There's certainly a kind of 'black hole' present in the energy market, and especially in the biofuels market:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Uncertainty demands we thread carefully in this sector. The sudden transformation could come from the rapid transition to electric cars, or from unexpected climate effects that destroy agricultural production locally or regionally. Perhaps Peak Oil is already here? The Tata Nano, the little people's car, could announce a shift towards mass biofuel consumption in the developing world, if oil were to become too expensive. Nobody knows.

There are a thousand different factors at play in the biofuels sector - from the social to the ethical, from the economic to the climatic - which makes it impossible for anyone to predict where this sector is going. This should make all those involved in it more humble and careful. A more contextualised and broader view on the potential risks and benefits of biofuels implies that we wage the debate on a more mature level: biofuel opponents should admit that there do exist examples of great benefits, whereas staunch advocates should never negate the fact that their fuels can result in unexpected, unwanted effects.

Read A Thousand Plateaus, if not for its theory, then for its abundant and ironic use of botanical, agronomic and biological metaphors. After all, we are talking about 'bio'-fuels for a reason.

This is an opinion piece by Yannick Devillers, historian and sociologist, member of Biopact. Translated for Biopact, by Jonas Van Den Berg.


Anonymous Dayvan cowboy said...

I don't think rhizomatic thought amounts exactly to system dynamics, which is what you're thinking of. For one, you're whole system is, er, systematic, composed of clearly separated interlockd aborescent pieces.

I actually work with system dynamics in the biofuel field by day (for money) and with some applications of A Thousand Plateaus on what I'm *really* doing.

Interesting attempt though.

7:22 AM  

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