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The Birth of a Bioeconomy: Growing and governing a global ethanol production network, 1920-2012


This dissertation examines the history of ethanol policymaking and the growth of a global ethanol production network, a cornerstone of the emerging low-carbon, bio-based economy. In this way, the study also provides insights into the nature of economic and environmental governance of this bio-based economy, analyzing the effects at multiple jurisdictional levels. I conducted research in Brazil and the United States, the two countries responsible for the vast majority of global ethanol production. The dissertation draws on data collected using qualitative methods including document analysis, interviews conducted in English and Portuguese, and multi-sited ethnographic investigation at nodes along ethanol commodity chains. The dissertation is divided into two parts, in which I first analyze the social, cultural and political forces that have influenced national ethanol production and consumption strategies, practices, and policies, before turning to the contemporary transnational governance arrangements determining the low-carbon value of ethanol and other biofuels on global markets. Together, Parts I and II emphasize the role of ideas and expertise in the transformation of ethanol and other biofuels, from agricultural support crops to the first globally traded commodities to be sold with low-carbon sustainability credentials.

Broadly, the four chapters in Part I examine the ways in which governments have transformed the economic geography of ethanol production networks anchored in Brazilian sugarcane and American corn. Chapters 2, 3, 4, and 5 examine how nationally specific political cultures of economic governance have influenced ethanol policymaking. In Chapter 2, I present a new framework for understanding the relationship between ethanol policymaking and political cultures of economic governance as a way to shed new light on the cultural and structural conditions of state support for low-carbon development. Chapters 3 and 4 address the US case exclusively. In Chapter 3, I provide a genealogical analysis of the evolution of political culture since the formation of the nation-state, tracing how key ideas and practices regarding economic governance have emerged and receded leading up through the 1970s. In Chapter 4, I weave the history of US ethanol policymaking into this genealogical analysis, using the concept of sociotechnical imaginaries to show how political culture has helped to constitute the vision, strategies and policies used to build the US ethanol statecraft. Chapter 5 applies the same analysis in Chapter 4 to the case of Brazil. The overarching argument developed is that the US and Brazil have differently governed ethanol expansion in accordance with their unique political cultures of state intervention. In addition, these cases suggest that ethanol statecraft also helps to constitute a nation’s political cultures of economic governance.

In Part II, I examine one particular form of economic governance: the emerging global regime complex for biofuels governance. I shift the usual focus of policy analysis from the national level to the transnational level. I conduct a fine-grained analysis of the governance arrangements shaping the global biofuels production network. I advance the argument that a global regime complex for biofuels has emerged and indicates that the politics of expertise provide a new mode of regime complex orchestration. Chapter 6 situates global environmental governance for biofuels as part of a broader historical trend away from multilateral regimes to regime complexes. This began in the forestry sector, which I unpack to use as a critical exemplar. Chapter 7 explores how the low-carbon justification for industrial policies that have increased ethanol production and consumption around the world requires nation-states to arbitrate the meaning of “low-carbon” value through the politics of expertise. This chapter looks closely at the scientific controversy that emerged around models developed to calculate the lifecycles of greenhouse gas emissions produced by different biofuel commodity chains. Chapter 8 provides a theory of regime complex orchestration based on the biofuels regime complex. This theorization emphasizes the ways in which the regime complex structure empowers transnational networks of experts to orchestrate coordination between regimes. The experimentalist architecture of the regime complex for biofuels empowers experts to steer outcomes through think deliberation. In effect, this group of non-state actors has pulled various regimes for biofuels towards broad agreement about the value of including indirect land use change variables in GHG calculator models. Taken together, these findings offer several theoretical and practical insights into the kinds of democratic institutional capacities that are required for a just transition to a low-carbon future.

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