Shield of the Episcopal Church of the United States Environmental Stewardship Commission
Shield of the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota
Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota

Environmental Stewardship Resolution

The following is offered for your information and comment.  On this and similar pages the Environmental Stewardship Commission of the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota intends to offer thoughts and ideas on how any congregation or individual with a congregation can implement portions of the Resolution.

From "A Resolution on Church Buildings and Grounds, and Church-Related Activities"
passed at the 143rd Annual Convention (October 27-29, 2000)

"THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the staff and membership of the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota engage in building actions and cultural activities with prayerful considerations about the impact these actions will have on our Earth home.  Ways we will live into this approach are by making careful, educated decisions on the origin, impact and disposal of cleaning, maintenance and office materials purchased, used and expended during on-site activities and operations."

Thoughts on how to implement this concept
by John Gibbs, Ph.D.

A Household of Food-Fuel Tensions

  The way we live within our households tells who we are.  That is true not only of families. We work out our self-definitions also in the civic household of  "the common good," and in the household [oikos] of the ecumenical [oikoumenikos] Church. The way humans collectively inhabit [oikein] the household of all life forms tells no less decisively who (and Whose) we are.

  Any living household, moreover, is a continuing balancing act between conflicting demands and resources.  Ecology [oikos + logos], which studies the one finite household of all life forms, presents us with vast complexities in the interactions of life forms among themselves and with their environments. The choices we make or fail to make, the balances or imbalances that we arrange within those ecological complexities, disclose who we are – for God, ourselves, and all the world to see.

  One balancing act that we cannot avoid in the ecological household is the rising tension between food and fuel.  The complexities of that tension are both detailed and comprehensive, both intellectual and pragmatic, both technological and moral.  It is beyond this brief article, indeed beyond the mind of this writer, to do more than acknowledge the developing conflicts within our human demands for both food and fuel, compare some possibilities and difficulties in biomass fuels, and list some sources for further information.

  Both writer and reader require utmost patience and caution, for ideologically constipated minds cannot process ecological complexities.  (The same is true of biblical and theological complexities, but that's another story.)

  First:  What about the hope that biomass fuels can supplement, and to a limited extent replace, fossil fuels?  Some experts argue that we can have both an increasing food supply and the fuels that can be derived from biomasses (that is, stored solar energy).  The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which so contends, defines "biomass" as "all forms of plant-derived matter (terrestrial and aquatic) other than that which has been fossilized."  That UN body, which aims to build "partnerships for food security," proposes "an integrated approach to the production of food and fuel" within which "there is no need for conflict between future food and energy needs."  [For this and other references see the list of websites at the end of this article.]

  It is easy to become optimistically enthusiastic about the fuel possibilities latent in biomass resources (sawdust, rice straw, alfalfa and switchgrass, animal wastes, paper components in municipal solid waste, etc.). Experts tell us that direct combustion, thermochemical, and biochemical processes, can process biomass into usable fuels such as biodiesel, and at the same time produce a "carbon sink"  (that is, a net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere) that helps reduce global warming.

  For instance, as the Environmental News Network reported December 2001, “chicken manure could become environmentally friendly fuel.” ... “Liquefied, cooked and sterilized by heat and intense pressure, it can be blended with diesel to power an engine with no significant difference in performance.”  That's a neat answer to water pollution from manure that would otherwise have been plowed into the ground as fertilizer.  The 500 tons of litter on the average chicken farm could be converted into fuel worth about a ¼-million dollars, claims Prof. Al Stiller who developed the process at West Virginia University.

  Most biofuel in this country has been produced from corn and soybeans, or in Europe from rapeseed (canola).  The National Biodiesel Board and other groups lobby for funding to convert corn, soybeans, and waste vegetable oils into biodiesel.  Only one unit of energy is needed to produce 3.24 units of energy, they claim, which is "the highest energy balance of any fuel."

 The Biomass Energy Research Association's (BERA) website offers a paper by Donald Klass, "An Introduction to Biomass Energy, A Renewable Resource," which points out that biomass is "renewable in the sense that only a short period of time is needed to replace what is sued as an energy resource."  Klass argues that we will have to derive fuel from biomass because of two driving forces: first, "the end of the Fossil Fuel Era" will be in sight by 2050; second, fossil fuel usage adversely impacts the environment.

  Second:  On the other hand, there are obstacles to bioenergy development, and many difficulties have arisen.  First, caveats appear even in proponents' presentations in favor of producing fuels from biomass. The BERA paper, which was last modified on April 21, 2002, reports that in the U.S. "no full-scale IBPCSs [Integrated Biomass Production-Conversion Systems] have yet been built."  But without such systems, biomass energy is limited to niche markets.  Further, just when forests are being widely destroyed, more forests are needed "because they are the largest, long-lived, global reserve of standing biomass carbon."  It will also be difficult to get investment in first-of-a-kind IBPCSs.

  If biomass is "renewable" over time, as Klass thinks, is it also spatially renewable?  Will the space required (land, water, air), and the quality of space that a full-scale IBPCS would demand, be always renewable?  If such large systems ever are built, could they remain located in or near areas of biomass growth?  Shannon Jung, Director of the Center for Theology and Land in Dubuque, emails to me that "the issue is becoming more and more water."

  Even the UN report implies, and sometimes lists, major barriers that must be overcome before bioenergy can displace fossil fuels to the extent that present and projected energy demands require.  If world demographics will in 20 years require 50% more cropland, how can we be sure that, after food demands have been met, there will be sufficient land and water resources for biomass to grow and then be processed into fuel?

  The American Biomass Association claims: "Energy crops can be grown on more marginal lands, in floodplains, and in between annual crops and riparian areas."  But if demands for bioenergy increase severely at the time that oil and natural gas reserves are nearly depleted, will that less productive land suffice, or will there arise competition for the better food-producing land?

  Another difficulty is the impact of corporations on biodiesel production from corn and soybeans in the negative ways they have impacted agriculture for food.  Do we really want to be the kind of people who "farm without the farmer" in a "field of corporate dreams," as Debra Bendis' article in The Christian Century, June 19-26, 2002 asks?  If we have failed to humanize agribusiness, what strategies can we devise to humanize bioenergy-business?

  A third difficulty is both economic and moral.  At a time when "falling water tables in China may soon raise food prices everywhere," as the Earth Policy Institute's "Alert" for May 2, 2000 reports, do we still use soybeans and corn for fuel?  The EPI's Alert for Nov. 21, 2001 targets water depletion: "World grain harvest falling short by 54 million tons: water shortages contributing to shortfall."

  Third:  Where to from here?  Some folk continue to make fuel from corn and soybeans and canola.  Others advocate, as does the Union of Concerned Scientists, that we switch from those crops to native crops such as switchgrass as the preferred source of biomass.

  Others contend that even native biomass does not go far enough to replace fossil fuels.  Lester R. Brown of the EPI is persuaded that the new "Eco-Economy" will be powered by wind, solar, and geo-thermal energy.  These are fully renewable sources in the sense that they are always inexhaustibly there.  Further, they pose no conflicts with food production, and they do not add to global warming.  Brown reports that the cost of "wind electricity" has dropped from 35 cents per kilowatt-hour 15 years ago to 4 cents at prime sites, with some long-term contracts signed at 3 cents.  Solar energy is a decade or so behind wind in its economic feasibility, but it also is coming along.

  We have surveyed the emerging food-fuel tension within our ecological household.  Whether we choose food for ourselves at the expense of small local farms, and fuel for ourselves in competition to food for all humanity, depends on who we are, as our own Steve Schaitberger commented to me.  Our choices depend on what priorities guide us,  what loyalties determine our journeys, and on Whose we are.

List of websites of groups mentioned in this article
American Biomass Association
American Bioenergy Association
209 Pennsylvania Ave., S.E.
Washington, D.C. 20003
Environmental Organization Web Directory
American Soybean Association
12125 Woodcrest Executive Drive
Suite 100
St. Louis, MO 63141-5009
Food & Agriculture Organization of UN
Biomass Energy Research Association
1116 E Street, SE 
 Washington, DC 20003 
National Biodiesel Board
3337a Emerald Lane
PO Box 104898 
Jefferson City, MO 65110-4898
Earth Policy Institute
1350 Connecticut Ave. NW 
  Washington DC 20036
NCC Eco-Justice Working Group
475 Riverside Dr. #812
New York, NY 10115
Environmental Network News
2020 Milvia
Suite 411
Berkeley, CA 94704
Union of Concerned Scientists
2 Brattle Square
Cambridge, MA 02238
Copyright statement

John Gibbs, PhD, a retired theologan, attends Trinity Episcopal Church, Park Rapids, MN.   He originally wrote this implementation essay in 2002, and it will appear in the December 2002 issue of Soundings, the newspaper of the Epsicopal Diocese of Minnesota.  He and we welcome your comments.
Please address your comments or additional reflections to John Gibbs or any MEESC member, or mail them to:
c/o C. Morello
4451 Lakeside Drive
Eveleth, MN 55743-4400 USA

The MEESC assumes that all correspondence received is for publication on this web site. If your comments are not for publication, please so note on your correspondence. The MEESC reserves the right to decide which items are included on the web site.

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