Wrong numbers

Jul 31st, 2008 | By | Category: Personal Columns

“God looks after those who look after themselves”, my mother would say.

It made sense. There’s no record in the Bible of God getting up in the morning to find someone a job; no record of him balancing a budget; no record of him managing a home. When human being possess such faculties themselves, divine intervention seems superfluous.

My mother’s individualism is becoming rare. There is a shift from independence to dependence and if there is no-one available then someone must be to blame – the Government, the social services, whoever.

On an international stage, the usual array of blame bearers are not available, so a culprit must be found for the world’s ills, and the target is an easy one to spot. Led by a President whose syntax is not always reliable and who lapses into the odd malapropism, the United States is the big bad villain for the whole of the Left and for much nationalist and Islamic commentary. The United States is so villainous that people seem to lose their critical faculties when considering its role on the world stage.

Last Saturday the Irish Times carried a major article on biofuels and world food prices, it included the following:

. . . there has never been any doubt about the identity of the main villain of the piece – biofuels. Essentially, the case against is that crops such as corn and wheat have been diverted away from food to fuel. This has led to severe shortages, pushing basic staples such as bread beyond affordability for the poorest of the poor.

And the personification of that villain? Step forward, George W Bush. In his state of the union address in early 2006, he declared that the US was “addicted to oil”, and vowed that biofuels would make up 20 per cent of America’s transport fuel needs within 10 years.

“A lot of the problems we are having now can be traced back to George Bush saying that the US was addicted to oil and we need to wean ourselves off it,” says Oisín Coughlan of Friends of the Earth. “His policy was ‘We are not going to change our cars, our planning or our attitude. We will just change the fuel and to hell with the consequences.’ ”

The consequences have been hell for some people. Backed by huge subsidies and trade barriers that keep prices artificially low, a third of American corn has been diverted to produce ethanol. It saves the US a billion barrels of oil a day and has made the country the world’s biggest biofuel producer (accounting for 48 per cent of total production).

Really? That’s some level of production. They save a billion barrels a day by using ethanol. Those SUVs and Hummers and redneck pickup trucks must burn some fuel because the Irish Times says that they are saving a billion barrels a day. Why that works out at a saving of three barrels a day for every US citizen, what must they be using?

A thirty second check on Google would have produced US Department of Energy figures showing US petroleum consumption as 20,680,000 barrels a day – a figure somewhat less than the billion barrels they allegedly save. The number of barrels of fuel from ethanol in May 2008 was 14,768,000 – just under half a million barrels a day – the Irish Times figure is inaccurate by a factor of 2,000.

The figure of a billion slipping through into print is a reflection of the way in which people are prepared to believe almost anything of the United States now. It is much simpler politics to point a finger of blame.

Concern for the poor demands more than old slogans and bad mathematics.

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