There are some excellent books on climate change, fossil fuels and renewable energies. Still others focus on the world economy and the detrimental role of the huge multinationals. But there are few, if any, that have featured agrofuels in the context of these major themes and, as this book does, presented them in a historical and geographical perspective.

So what, exactly, are agrofuels? In his preface, François Houtart explains why he has not used the more common term ‘biofuels’. ‘Bio’, of course, is from the Greek word for ‘life’, or ‘way of living’, and, as the author points out, this gives an overly optimistic ring to the term that is quite inappropriate.

Agrofuels, which are derived from plants usually grown under monoculture conditions, can supply energy that will be (mainly) used for transport. Some are based on crops – particularly sugar cane, maize and wheat – that are cultivated in large quantities in the United States and Brazil and produce ethanol. Others, derived from the African palm, produce the agrodiesel that is popular in Europe. However, palm oil has to be grown where both land and cheap labour are available – in other words, Asia, Latin America, and, increasingly, Africa.

All too often, agrofuels are presented as a positive solution to the double crisis of climate change and fossil-fuel depletion. In reality, says Houtart, they not only fail to diminish greenhouse-gas emissions but, because of the way they are produced, actually increase them. And their contribution to energy supplies is very small indeed.

Agrofuels must not be considered a substitute for fossil energy. Although some renewables (such as solar, wind and hydrogen energy) do show considerable promise for the future, at a time when world hunger is on the increase, there is the adverse impact of biofuels on food production. In the United States, for example, many farmers are now finding it more profitable to cultivate crops for cars than for people.

There is already much evidence of the ecological devastation caused by agrofuel monoculture, in terms of massive deforestation, soil degradation, water contamination and also the appalling social consequences, through land concentration and the eviction of rural populations from their land.

So why are agrofuels being so enthusiastically promoted?

Houtart explains it is because this has become a highly promising sector for investors seeking new fields of profit. Besides agrobusiness, oil, automobile, chemical and pharmaceutical corp-orations are now all leaders in agrofuel investment, showing little concern for the damage to the environment and the resulting destitution of the peoples of the South as they make their ‘superprofits’. For the multinationals, these are just ‘externalities’ that do not enter into their economic calculations.

Nobody is more aware of this human catastrophe than Houtart, one of the co-founders of the World Social Forum created at the end of the 1990s to give expression to the needs and aspirations of the peoples of the world. A Belgian priest and theologian and now eighty-five years old, he has spent his entire working life on behalf of the world’s oppressed peoples and it is gratifying to see that this was recently recognised by UNESCO in awarding him the Madanjeet Singh Prize for his work in promoting tolerance and nonviolence.

Houtart concludes his book with his vision of a new society in which the collective wellbeing of humankind will predominate over the narrow selfish interests of a minority. Such a society, he says, should be built on four major principles: the sustainable use of natural resources, requiring a new philosophy of the relationships between humankind and Nature; giving priority to the ‘use value’ of goods and services, rather than their ‘exchange value’, to curb speculation and consumerism; the generalisation of democracy, not only in political life but in all sectors of society including the workplace and the family; and multiculturalism, in which all cultures of the world can contribute to the development of the genuine wellbeing of humanity.

In spite of all the difficulties and sorrows that Houtart has seen and experienced, he remains optimistic that what he describes as “the Cries of the Earth” will join with “the Cries of the Oppressed” and become so loud that they can no longer be ignored.

Victoria Bawtree is co-editor of The Post-Development Reader, published by Zed Books.