Friday, April 22, 2005

(All Aboard for) Earth Day

So far, 2005 has been a banner year for increased awareness of pressing environmental problems, with the growing instability of oil prices (and concurrent talk that the world's oil production may have peaked, or soon will), additional signs of global warming, (such as glaciers melting much faster than expected), and even, increased media coverage of Christian concern for the environment.

It is worrisome, though, that much of the discussion is about the supply of, and our dependence on, oil, when in fact, the real problem is our overreliance on petroleum (nitpicking!) in general, not just on oil used as fuel. Everything synthetic is currently manufactured from petroleum--fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, as well as plastic in all its incarnations. This undue reliance is so unnecessary as, ironically, two of the men most responsible for the modern dependency on automobiles were also promoters of non-petroleum fuels and materials, with hopes of empowering farmers and small industries.

Rudolf Diesel
's engines originally used peanut and other vegetable oils as fuel. Interestingly, the new diesel-powered cars from Europe run on clean, reduced-sulfur diesel fuel, and can even run unmodified with a biodiesel blend (a blend of petroleum diesel and diesel from vegetable and animal sources, such as soybean oil). Some enterprising folk have (and do) operating their diesels with the leftover frying oil from fast food outlets! (How's that for recycling?)

Even more shocking was Henry Ford's promotion of plant-based petroleum alternatives in the early and mid-20th century. There's a famous photo of Ford taking a hammer to one of his vehicles in 1941 (at the 15th Annual Dearborn Michigan Homecoming Day celebration); this car's body was made of soybean-based plastic, and he was demonstrating its toughness (the hammer bounced off the car's body). In fact, Ford invited the press to see that and other products made from soybeans at that exhibition, as he had previously, at the 1934 World's Fair. Ford believed, as did Diesel, that utilizing the soybean and other plants more fully would help both farmers and small industries. (So, contrary to popular misconception, Henry's great-grandson Bill Ford is not the first environmentalist in the Ford family.)

What, you might ask, thwarted the widespread industrial use of soybeans and other agricultural materials in industry? You guessed it, the price of petroleum dropping in the mid-20th century after the largest Saudi oilfields went into production, making petroleum cheaper to produce than these worthy alternatives.

In reality, our reliance on petroleum is so ingrained that it is used for even relatively insignificant products, which, when widely used, continue the petrol dependency. One small step in breaking the non-fuel aspect of petroleum dependence might be to a well-stocked local health food store, as its repertoire of petroleum alternatives consists of more than the organic produce. For instance, the body care and cosmetic product lines carried by such a store rarely, if ever, contain petroleum products (there's even a product called Unpetroleum Jelly, which works as well as its petrol counterpart), and even the ink used to print the weekly store specials is often a soy-based one!

Will we be ready for a change?

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