They may be hyped as the way of the future, but biofuels already count as a juggernaut. Supported by the government and embraced by the Big Three automakers, ethanol is surging in the United States. Biodiesel, meanwhile, is roaring ahead in Europe as the continent strives to meet its carbon-emission obligations under the Kyoto treaty.

But as we plunge headfirst into a sea of biofuel — both in the energy-hungry world and in this Grist special series — it’s worth looking back at previous energy transitions to gain insight into the current one.

Oil and the “Sea of Troubles”

During the buildup to World War I, the British Royal Navy faced a momentous decision: keep running its ships on stodgy but plentiful Welsh coal, or switch to a promising alternative fuel concentrated mainly in distant Persia (Iran).

An ambivalent British official invoked Hamlet: “To commit the Navy irrevocably to oil was indeed to ‘take arms against a sea of troubles.'” That official, a young Winston Churchill, eventually convinced the Navy to choose petroleum — the decisive moment in oil’s triumph over coal and biomass.

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Winston Churchill.

Troubles ensued, to be sure. But so did the most concentrated period of technological advancement in human history. “Mastery itself was the prize of the venture,” Churchill later said of the switch to oil. Harnessing oil gave humanity unprecedented mastery over the material world. In the 95 years since Churchill’s decision, we’ve seen revolutions in transportation, warfare, agriculture, climate control, and industrial production.

In that time, those in developed countries have become accustomed to living in brutally hot places without breaking a sweat, and in bitter-cold climes without needing to split a single log. We regularly achieve the dream of medieval kings: to consume products from around the globe. Moreover, we’ve grown used to zipping about at will in private motored pods and giant flying machines — easily traversing, as Freud memorably put it when describing the miracle of the telephone, distances that “would be respected as unattainable even in a fairy tale.”

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Curses, Roiled Again

But Churchill’s “sea of troubles,” which had been relatively calm since the first Gulf War, is now roiled again. The inflation-adjusted price of a barrel of crude has leapt nearly sixfold since 1998, driven at least in part by new demand from rapidly industrializing China and India, the world’s most populous nations.

A growing school of thought claims that global oil production has peaked, or soon will. If correct, the “peak oil” prognosis means that the recent price surge is merely the prologue of a long-term trend.

Meanwhile, for the second time in a little over a decade, the U.S. is embroiled in a war involving Iraq, site of the world’s second-largest oil reserves. (In Churchill’s day, Iraq was known as Mesopotamia — and its oil wealth had already made it the subject of much great-power geopolitical wrangling.) The current Iraq war has lapsed into chaos, and Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz reckons its final cost could reach a staggering $2 trillion.

But the gravest problem caused by what George W. Bush himself has called our “addiction to oil” can’t be solved by military might. In the petroleum age, humans have transferred a huge store of carbon from deep within the earth into the atmosphere. No serious climate scientist doubts that this unprecedented carbon surge has overwhelmed the earth’s ability to absorb it, threatening catastrophic climate change.

What, then, to do? There are no easy answers. When the Royal Navy switched to crude oil, there were fewer than 2 billion people in the world. Today, global population stands above 6.5 billion. Demographers figure population will top 9 billion before 2050. In this context, can we maintain the energy-intensive lifestyles of the post-industrial north, accommodate new energy demands from rapidly industrializing nations, and slash carbon emissions?

Biofuel derived from vegetation presents an attractive solution. Unlike crude oil, a rich concentration of carbon leached from the atmosphere over eons, biofuel stores carbon that’s currently within the atmospheric cycle. Burning it theoretically doesn’t add to the atmosphere’s net carbon balance. And while oil tends, perhaps because of the wealth and power it confers on its controllers, to be concentrated in politically unstable areas, the feedstock for biofuel is potentially ubiquitous: It literally springs from the ground beneath our feet.

Yet for all of its allure, biofuel represents no panacea for our energy troubles. Over the next two weeks, Grist will probe the promise and perils of our growing reliance on biofuels. Our premise is this: Churchill’s “sea of troubles” metaphor proved prescient at the dawn of oil dominance, and environmentalists should remember it as we lunge into the biofuel age.