Biofuel Energy, Capital Time, and the Destruction of Borneo: An Ethical Perspective

OCTF seminar followed by drinks – all welcome

The European Commission Renewable Energy Directive mandates that ten per cent of liquid fuels used in the European Union must be composed of plant-derived fuels by 2020. The directive claims that biofuels and bioliquids ‘help guarantee real carbon savings and protect biodiversity.’ The forests of Borneo, like those of other tropical regions, have and are being destroyed, their rich biodiversity and human cultures eroded, and the stored greenhouse gases in their biomass and soils released to the atmosphere, in order to generate short term profits from global, including European, primary resource markets for tropical timber, and tropical plantation products including mandated biofuels under the ECRED. ECRED promotion of biofuels based upon real world science indicates that far from saving carbon and protecting biodiversity has the opposite effects. The regulation, though well intentioned, was based on poor understanding of the functioning of global energy and primary resources markets, and in particular the way in which these markets interact with weak governance systems in developing countries to promote capital accumulation pathways that are exploited by economic corporations and political elites at the cost of the habitats of indigenous people and species, and of the resilience of ecosystems. From an ethical perspective the regulation on biofuels reveals an ontological misunderstanding of persons and other beings in time which puts short-term accumulation of economic value above longer term values such as ecosystem resilience, biodiversity, and long-evolved human traditions. The medium-term temporality of global climate governance, combined with the short-term utilitarian calculus has through this regulation supplanted much longer term temporalities which have evolved over thousands of years and which traditionally governed the viability of tropical ecosystems and the ways of life that humans and other animals have developed to dwell in them sustainably.

Michael Northcott’s teaching and research is in the areas of Christian Ethics, ecology and religious ethics, and economy and ethics. He has published 12 books and over 70 academic papers. He has been visiting professor at the Claremont School of Theology, Dartmouth College, Duke University, Flinders University, and the University of Malaya. He has successfully supervised 28 doctoral students since coming to Edinburgh in 1989 with a majority of those students from Asia and North America. He welcomes enquiries from potential PhD students in Christian ethics, ecology and religion, the environmental humanities, and environmental and economic ethics.

He leads a large AHRC grant on faith-based ecological activism in the UK entitled ‘Caring for the Future Through Ancestral Time’. Please go to the following link for more information:

He is a co-investigator on the Human-Business at Edinburgh Initiative investigating the ethical implications of current modes of representing economic value: