Dear Umbra,

I’m a little amazed by all the bandwagon-jumping going on over E85 ethanol. I wonder if a corn-based fuel can be sustainable over the long term, given the general risks of farming and the disappearance of American farms in the last 20 years. And doesn’t anybody remember the great potato famine and the danger of relying on one crop? Before the unsuspecting public spends zillions of dollars buying into the idea of an ethanol-based economy, shouldn’t somebody look into whether it’s really a sustainable alternative? Perhaps we should spread the message to stop driving, instead.

Heidi Werner
Cheyenne, Wyo.

Dearest Heidi,

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Yours is one of these letters I don’t really need to answer, I just need to print. But since I’m a columnist, I have to write a few paragraphs of my own (supportive) commentary.

Tripping on empty.

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First, agricultural monoculture does indeed leave crops and animals more susceptible to crippling disease. But here’s a historical side note: without terrible land laws and anti-Irish-Catholic bigotry, the potato famine would not have been quite so faminish. It was instigated not only by Phytopthera infestans (still the bane of potato growers), but also by economics and politics. During the famine, for example, landowners in Ireland continued to export grain and animals to England as their tenants starved. Typical, to me, of recent food crises: always blamed on agricultural production, but more likely caused by politics.

About driving and ethanol, I couldn’t agree more. We do need alternative fuel. But from what I’ve seen so far, corn ethanol is a bit silly. Relying on U.S. corn for a new product carries the same troubles as relying on virgin-soy biodiesel: corn and soy are themselves environmentally destructive crops as currently grown in chemical monoculture. Apparently there is still debate over whether producing corn ethanol is itself an efficient process when one considers the amount of fossil fuels needed. On that front, allay your worries: research into ethanol efficacy and sustainability is active. While the jury remains out, we need to keep looking around and make a bit more effort to reuse our trash — such as veggie oils — as fuel, and to build efficient vehicles.

Far more important, though, is your point about driving less. We need to design our cities and suburbs with fewer cars as a guiding principle. We need to welcome greater density in our housing. We need to fund mass transit more than we fund highways. It’s a problem.

I think we’re used to being individuals: our own cars, our own driving habits. This mind-set influences our activism, politics, media — hot topics such as CAFE standards and fuel prices concern all of us as individuals. It is going to be a big change for our individualist culture to imagine where We might go if We thought about how We move around, rather than how I move around.

OK, I think that’s enough to get your letter printed. Thanks for writing.