The Next Big Thing: Better Biofuels

The next generation of energy is on its way.

The financial crisis is taking up most of the media oxygen these days, but the aftershocks of two other acute crises, in energy and food prices, are still reverberating. The combined result is that energy and agriculture are becoming inseparable issues.

It sounds counterintuitive, because lower oil prices are making fuels from farm and forest land less competitive. This is true, but only in the short run. The crisis has boosted awareness that dependency on a limited set of resources, including financial products, must be avoided by all means. The best response is diversification -- and biofuels will be a major beneficiary of this incipient trend.

Today's biofuels involve either ethanol or diesel, with the former accounting for roughly 90 percent of the market. Brazil, the United States, and China are the greatest producers. More than half of the world's bioethanol is generated from sugar cane; the rest, controversially, comes mainly from corn. Biodiesel is mostly derived from rapeseed and sunflower. Jatropha and other "wild" crops are barely in their infancy. On the whole, biofuel crops as a tool to lift small farmers out of poverty remain an unfulfilled dream.

The real promise for biofuels lies not in food or feed crops, but in nonfood organic material such as grass, wood, organic waste (this may include the inedible part of crops, such as stalks), and algae. The potential supply is large: About half of all biomass on Earth consists of lignocellulose, a structural material of plants that can be processed into fuel. And the legal mandate will be there: By 2016, U.S. bioethanol producers will be required to switch to lignocellulosic feed stocks.

For now, coarse mechanical and chemical methods are necessary to separate the constituents of lignocellulose, and energy efficiency is still low. But soon enough, more sophisticated use of bacteria, fungi, and yeasts will make the processing far easier and cleaner. Aquatic biomass (such as algae) will provide another option, as will rapidly growing grass and tree species and organic refuse from households and factories.

Will the biofuels of tomorrow replace oil, as some advocates suggest? It's doubtful. Produced and used responsibly, fuel from plants will at best be a small, though growing, piece of a broader renewable energy portfolio that includes wind and solar power. But even if electric cars are in widespread use and massive increases in fuel efficiency are taking place, the need for liquid fuels will still rise in the next decade in many areas. In some countries, adding biofuels to the mix will make a real difference in saving foreign exchange and boosting the agricultural sector. Biofuels have the added advantage of allowing the continued use of fossil fuel infrastructure, which, like it or not, is one Big Thing that will be with us for some time to come.


The Next Big Thing: Resilience

If the financial crisis has taught us anything, it is that brittle systems can fail catastrophically.

With increasing fervor since the 1980s, sustainability has been the watchword of scientists, environmental activists, and indeed all those concerned about the complex, fragile systems on the sphere we inhabit. It has shaped debates about business, design, and our lifestyles.

Sustainability is a seemingly laudable goal -- it tells us we need to live within our means, whether economic, ecological, or political -- but it's insufficient for uncertain times. How can we live within our means when those very means can change, swiftly and unexpectedly, beneath us? We need a new paradigm. As we look ahead, we need to strive for an environment, and a civilization, able to handle unexpected changes without threatening to collapse. Such a world would be more than simply sustainable; it would be regenerative and diverse, relying on the capacity not only to absorb shocks like the popped housing bubble or rising sea levels, but to evolve with them. In a word, it would be resilient.

Sustainability is inherently static. It presumes there's a point at which we can maintain ourselves and the world, and once we find the right combination of behavior and technology that allows us some measure of stability, we have to stay there. A sustainable world can avoid imminent disaster, but it will remain on the precipice until the next shock.

Resilience, conversely, accepts that change is inevitable and in many cases out of our hands, focusing instead on the need to be able to withstand the unexpected. Greed, accident, or malice may have harmful results, but, barring something truly apocalyptic, a resilient system can absorb such results without its overall health being threatened.

Like sustainability, resilience encompasses both strategy and design, guiding how choices are made and how systems are created. Stripped to its essence, it comes down to avoiding being trapped -- or trapping oneself -- on a losing path. Principles of resilience include:

  • Diversity: Not relying on a single kind of solution means not suffering from a single point of failure.
  • Redundancy: Backup, backup, backup. Never leave yourself with just one path of escape or rescue.
  • Decentralization: Centralized systems look strong, but when they fail, they fail catastrophically.
  • Collaboration: We're all in this together. Take advantage of collaborative technologies, especially those offering shared communication and information.
  • Transparency: Don't hide your systems -- transparency makes it easier to figure out where a problem may lie. Share your plans and preparations, and listen when people point out flaws.
  • Fail gracefully: Failure happens, so make sure that a failure state won't make things worse than they are already.
  • Flexibility: Be ready to change your plans when they're not working the way you expected; don't count on things remaining stable.
  • Foresight: You can't predict the future, but you can hear its footsteps approaching. Think and prepare.

Ultimately, resilience emphasizes increasing our ability to withstand crises. Sustainability is a brittle state: Unforeseen changes (natural or otherwise) can easily cause its collapse. Resilience is all about being able to overcome the unexpected. Sustainability is about survival. The goal of resilience is to thrive.