Agrofuels

Issue section: 
(350)

François Houtart, Pluto, £17.99

Biofuels have received a lot of attention in the press in recent years. While considered a potential alternative to fossil fuels, which are the biggest producers of CO² emissions, some academics have raised doubts as to their sustainability.

François Houtart looks at how this relatively new energy source, once courted by the left and heralded as a potential saviour from runaway climate change, fell into the hands of oil giants, global corporations and the right. He investigates whether biofuels can ever be a viable alternative to current energy sources.

Houtart focuses on how biofuels in their current use are wreaking havoc on societies both environmentally and socially in a way that makes them unsustainable. The reason, he argues, is not necessarily the fuels themselves but the corporations which produce and sell them in a bid for huge profits.

Painted as being an ethical fuel source by oil companies keen to cash in on a new source of revenue, Houtart shows biofuels are increasingly responsible for population displacement, rising food prices and the destruction of rainforests, all done in the short-term interests of the directors' board. Brimming with disturbing reports, from the murders of villagers for their land to the predicted disappearance of the Amazon rainforest by 2040, Houtart formulates a convincing stance, arguing why a truly sustainable future for energy can only be found outside of the capitalist economy.

Though very detailed, the book does have some shortcomings. Firstly, Houtart struggles to answer his own question as to whether agrofuels can ever be a viable sustainable alternative to other energy forms, even in a post-capitalist society. While suggesting the potential of agrofuels, frequent admissions of their pitfalls cast serious doubts on their usefulness.

For example, to produce only 7 percent of the world's energy through agrofuels would require an area of land the size of the combined agricultural space of Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Japan. This is due to the more pressing need to use land to provide sustenance for the global population. Yet without considering other sustainable energy alternatives, the book struggles to offer direction.

Houtart's conclusions, although billed as "radical", are much less so. He favours reformism, and limiting the effects of finance capital in favour of an ethical stance by "controlled" representatives. To me this ignores the power of large corporations which will not be willing to bend to the will of well-meaning politicians.

By avoiding the need to connect social injustices in the environment sector to a wider class struggle in order to overthrow capitalism, he reveals his reliance on a more top-down approach which will ultimately end in disappointment.