Yesterday is Always Tomorrow for the Global Bioeconomy

December 13, 2021 |

By Douglas L. Faulkner, President, Leatherstocking LLC and the “Cleantech Conservative”

Special to The Digest

No, I’m not repeating here the usual biting critique from anti-biofuels advocates about an industry always promising a better mañana, but never delivering today.  Instead, this title summarizes my historical perspective as a veteran of decades of the bio-wars, taking comfort from the even longer-running saga of the ever-changing bioeconomy.

It never ceases to amaze me that the media and politicians frequently belittle biofuels and biobased products as old-fashioned, hopelessly low-tech, of no import, and, yes, even damaging to the environment and the engines of prosperity.  To those enamored of an all-electric future just-around-the-corner, turning woody and agricultural biomass into industrial products reeks of the musty odor of an idea long consigned to the dust bin of history.  The much-ballyhooed Green New Deal, for example, contained not one mention of the America’s bioeconomy.

Many climate activists equate supporting biofuels with collaboration with the hated fossil fuel industry.  Those modern-day critics are struggling with the very concept of using nature’s bounty responsibly as opposed to just walking away from modern agriculture and forestry and letting nature take its course without human intervention.  The European Union’s recently proposed “Fit for 55” proposal suggests this radical course, sparking intense opposition, especially from Nordic members.  The long-discredited “food versus fuel” controversy seems to be gaining traction again with renewed global inflation, despite the inconvenient truth that those rising prices for food and fuel (and everything else) were parented by factors other than biofuels.  Never have so many so badly understood so much about the real benefits of using crops, trees and wastes to produce fuels, chemicals, products and power.

I take a different view, one based on the historical record and long personal involvement in the ups-and-downs of a steadily growing global bioeconomy.  I see a dynamic multitude of resilient, innovative businesses, with deep roots in the early twentieth century and still very relevant as a source of stability and strength for the turbulent decades ahead.

The so-called chemurgy movement extolled the use of science to turn farm products into industrial materials, as stated in its 1935 manifesto, “The Declaration of the Dependence Upon the Soil and the Right of Self-maintenance.”  Two of its most prominent leaders, Henry Ford and Dr. George Washington Carver, sparked an interest in bio-based alternatives to petroleum for rural prosperity and later, overcoming wartime shortages.

Carver and Ford would be astonished by the progress of the global bioeconomy.  Tools from modern biology and information technologies married ironically to the vast knowledge gleaned from a century of experience from the petrochemical and transportation industries underpin an incredibly sophisticated network of over-lapping industries.  The scientific advances and new uses for nature’s bounty explode regularly across the pages of the trade and scientific press.  These industries have ebbed and flowed over the years but always adapted to changing circumstances and come back stronger.  The output of these industries will only grow in importance as the difficulties and expense of the great energy transition come more into focus.  Rapidly expanding the bioeconomy to help decarbonize the world is one of the great intellectual challenges of our time.

No one wants to contemplate a renewal of major global conflict, but Western leaders should ponder what such strife with the enemies of freedom today would mean.  The most important fact underpinning such strategic calculations is that modern militaries and civilian economies still depend heavily on petroleum and natural gas.  A corollary to that is that war with any of  America’s enemies will not be confined to foreign lands.

Eighty years ago, the Japanese Empire launched an infamous surprise attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  While the Japanese Navy inflicted enormous damage it missed the massive fuel depots there, allowing America’s surviving aircraft carriers to remain a force at sea until the Navy could rebuild.  Future adversaries are unlikely to make such a fundamental mistake.  China or Russia or their client states would almost certainly target our petrochemical energy infrastructure and that of our Allies with an outbreak of hostilities.  Even regional strife with those autocrats could easily fracture global oil supply lines.

De-centralized global biofuels and biobased chemicals production offer a valuable insurance policy against geopolitical threats and oil market instability.  No other energy source can offer such reassurance of a new “swing producer” to help offset potential petroleum supply disruptions.  Such a valuable national security tool should be protected and nurtured by policymakers in a time of growing threats from the enemies of democracy.

A maturing climate debate will highlight the significant, positive role that can be played by the global bioeconomy in the long and expensive transition from carbon.  The public will begin to see more clearly what a  “natural” alternative to oil can mean for so many consumer goods in so many industries while the electrification drive unfolds over the next several decades.  It could rejuvenate agricultural and forestry sectors and their rural communities in both the West and the developing world, giving new prospects for energy, food and environmental security with new horizons of sustainable economic growth.

Those quintessential American pioneers, the black Southern scientist and the white Northern industrialist together helped to birth a shared vision and a lasting dream a century ago.

Emotions cool, political slogans fade and dictators rise and fall, but the spirit of the chemurgy movement endures in today’s global bioeconomy and its message of hope tomorrow for a weary and worried world.  And, that’s worth celebrating and fighting for.

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