Advertisement heard on PBS – “Can Planet Earth be Saved by the Sun?”

Oh urp! You would think PBS would use their words to educate rather than to confuse us all. This question is misleading, anthropomorphic, irrelevant, ignorant and more seriously this is a question which by its very nature denies reality. It tries to imply that we need not fulfill our own responsibilities to the living earth ecosystem of which we are a part. And this quote is from one of the better programs available to us as we try to understand the reality of the earth ecosystem. It’s no wonder that most people are confused about the realities of energy metabolism.

The fact is:

1. The planet earth is not a living thing, and certainly doesn’t need saving. But, not to quibble, we can understand they are talking about the living earth ecosystem. In that case, the answer is NO. The sun can not prevent us HUMANS from destroying the living earth ecosystem. Either we stop ourselves or it doesn’t get saved.

2. The living earth would not be here at all without the sun, but that doesn’t mean the sun is actually DOING anything that will save us. It is life that maintains life, within the suitable environment. Life sustains life by means of: (1) the flow of energy, that is metabolism; (2) the flow of information; (3) the cycling of materials. Without the sun we would have no flow of energy, but the sun energy can not be used for food. The limiting energy factor is conversion of light energy to organic energy by photosynthetic organisms.

3. The program PBS was advertising is about solar power. The answer is: Solar power can be used to generate electricity and heat but not food (organic energy). It is not the sun that can save the living earth ecosystem. The living earth ecosystem was doing fine until we unbalanced it.

4. The metabolism of the living earth ecosystem is limited by photosynthesis, not by availability of sunlight. It is limited by the availability of organisms that can convert the light energy of the sun into organic energy of food. The only thing that can save the living earth ecosystem is to restore a sustainable balance between the amount of organic energy that the ecosystem can produce and the amount of growth that goes on within the ecosystem (that includes biological and economic growth

The only way solar energy can be used to help save the ecosystem would be if we use it for heat and light and to STOP using more organic energy than the earth ecosystem can produce, and the only way that can happen is if you choose to help.

To do that we, especially our activists and politicians, voters and parents, need a much better understanding of how the metabolic processes function to maintain life. So it is time I stop watching television and explain, beginning with the simplest sort of self-sustaining living organism, the energy metabolism of the individual photosynthetic cell.


Isn’t it interesting that so many cultures have historically honored or revered the sun as the source of life — and then science found that the sun is indeed the source of the energy for our individual lives and for the life of the entire earth ecosystem. And we know it is accomplished by metabolism, and we know how metabolism functions to convert the energy from sunlight into organic energy that the ecosystem then uses for every little bit of work in every cell that it requires to stay alive.

According to Webster’s Handy College Dictionary, metabolism is: “The chemical process of absorbing food.” The computer says: “the ongoing interrelated series of chemical interactions taking place in living organisms that provide the energy and nutrients (that is food) needed to sustain life.” I don’t like either of those definitions, and it is easy to find books, videos, all sorts of information about human physiology that tell us how we eat and absorb our food and get rid of the waste products. So I also won’t discuss those in detail, for the same reason. All these resources tend to be so anthropocentric (human centered, as though the whole process is all about us) that many people imagine, as did the primitive peoples, that food is magically provided for us on this earth and the only thing we need to do is find it and eat it. This is so far from the reality that we are threatening the health of the ecosystem by our voracious finding and eating.

The reality is that our food is only a subunit, a natural part of the whole system of energy flow through the ecosystem that is and must be maintained in a delicate balance if the entire ecosystem is to be properly nourished. Because we can not survive without the ecosystem, it is important that we know as much as we can about the entire system if we are to help it maintain that balance so we can continue within it.

The whole scheme of energy flow in the ecosystem is built upon the first and second laws of thermodynamics. How was the whole system created? We have no primary data. But we do have measurable facts that describe how the flow of energy NOW maintains the life of the ecosystem minute by minute and day by day in our physical universe, and that will be my definition of metabolism.

The incredible beauty of the living process is the way in which organisms convert the light energy into organic form to circulate the energy throughout the ecosystem so that it can be used to do all the tiny and huge kinds of work that all of life requires. What I am calling organic energy consists of several sorts of energy relationships — energy bonds that join atoms together to make molecules.

A molecule is a group of atoms that are joined together by energy bonds. Big molecules have more energy bonds than small molecules. Organic molecules are big molecules. They are composed mostly of atoms of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen because of the ways in which they are capable of joining with each other. We will remember again what you probably already know, that the major organic molecules are proteins, carbohydrates, lipids and nucleic acids.

We will not try to describe all the chemistry of these reactions for two reasons:

1. That sort of information is rather easy to find in books, text books and on the web and it is usually presented more or less accurately — though out of context.

2. The context is the most important part if we want to survive within the living earth ecosystem. So that’s what we will talk about. However, we do need to know a couple things about molecules and energy. So for now, we will make one point of chemistry that matches the point we made recently about the second law of thermodynamics.

The major organic molecules are actually macromolecules. Macromolecules are big molecules that are made of smaller molecules that are joined together by energy bonds. Proteins are made of long strings of amino acids; large carbohydrates are composed of smaller carbohydrates; lipids are composed of smaller lipids; nucleic acids are made of nucleotides. Just to give you an idea of comparative sizes of these molecules, the smaller subunits might consist of 12 to 25 or 30 atoms joined together, while the larger sizes can contain hundreds or thousands of the smaller molecules. All held together with energy bonds. So there is more energy in big molecules than there is in little molecules.

When you remove or break the energy bonds of a large molecule, it comes apart. For example, when a protein is “digested” in your gut it is broken down to the amino acids of which it is composed. In organisms, both the joining together and the taking apart is controlled by other molecules in the cell. Every cell is a hotbed of molecules doing this kind of work and other kinds of work that keep the cell alive.

If that is confusing, please let me know so I can make it more clear because from now we will refer back to this idea. Living cells are able to make large organic molecules from their subunits by adding energy to the system. This requires work because it is an “uphill” process relative to the second law of thermodynamics. Living cells are also able to break down the large molecules. This is a “downhill” process according to the second law, and so of course it could happen spontaneously with the release of energy. However, these are strong bonds so it might take as long as a mountain falling down if we wait for it to fall apart by itself, and the energy would be of no use to us in that case. Living cells, therefore, also have systems to break apart large molecules into smaller molecules, in a controlled way, at the right time when the energy is needed, and save the energy and circulate it around in the cell to do whatever work is needed for the cell to stay alive.

VERY IMPORTANT POINT. At every step of using the energy that is released, about 10% of the energy is lost from the system as a byproduct in the form of heat energy that can not be used to run the metabolism of life. That’s another manifestation of the second law. The WHOLE SYSTEM — the whole ecosystem — takes energy from the sun and converts it to organic energy that it shunts around in the ecosystem to do the work of staying alive. However energy does not RECYCLE. When it is used up it goes away as heat energy and it is gone from the system forever. Light energy comes in, it gets used and converted to heat energy and it goes away. As always, this balance must be maintained if life is to be.

Energy Levels

A Question and And Answer From Our Group

“What do you mean by high energy and low energy? Isn’t the sun made of nuclear energy?”

The question from one of our group relates to the book in progress and especially the most recent posts on the subject of energy. Another reader, sent me a fine reference to understand the second law of thermodynamics, written by a chemist. Whoever wrote it thinks that the second law is: “The biggest, most powerful, most general idea in all of science.” Check it out. It’s good reading, and big ideas are great fun once we understand them.

Remember the second law says that “high energy” (we could say more concentrated energy as they do on the web site) can change to low (less concentrated) energy but not the other way around. They use the example of a hot frying pan that can release its heat energy but can not get it back again without someone doing the work of adding energy back into the system.

As always, our scientific words and laws are meant to explain the power and reality of The Creation, not the other way around. Therefore we must look at what happens in order to determine what is a higher energy or a lower energy. If a type of energy can change into a different form of energy, then the first is a higher form and the second is a lower form.

So we know which type of energy is higher energy by observation. Another way to observe is to see what kind of energy is given off when a substance degrades (for example what kind of energy is given off spontaneously as the sun burns). These include:

Light energy can not spontaneously revert to nuclear; heat energy can’t change back to either light or nuclear energy. There are many more forms of energy. We particularly focus on light energy because it is the source of organic energy — and organic energy drives the ecosystem.

The ecosystem is uniquely able to capture the energy from light, that it then uses to create organic energy. Only in the life form of the earth ecosystem, so far as we know, is energy captured in organic molecules which are then used to transfer energy throughout the system in a controlled fashion. The controlled flow of energy throughout the ecosystem is accomplished by the metabolic processes of cells, organisms and ecosystems. Light energy is a higher form than organic energy, which is a higher form than heat energy.

What’s That Got to do with People?

It is important to understand the energy relationships of the ecosystem for two reasons:

1. We are part of the ecosystem and we can not survive without it, but really our individual comfort and satisfaction are not as important as the welfare of our communities. They can’t survive either.

2. Maybe it is even more important that we realize the relationship between MONEY and ENERGY. That would be, of course, an idea of how the economy relates to the ecology. When I consider the following sequence of factual statements, I end with the conclusion that we need to do a lot more thinking on this subject before we continue to try to cure a problem by doing more and more of what caused it in the first place. What’s your conclusion?

a. Whenever we use energy to do work, the energy changes from a higher form to a lower form. Because there is no such thing as 100% efficiency, some of the energy is lost, commonly as heat, a waste product or byproduct that is released into the environment.

b. Most of our energy for doing the work of staying alive and also the work of maintaining our communities (road work, driving around town, making things for us to buy) most of this comes from burning organic molecules. What happens when we burn organic molecules? A big molecule changes into a bunch of small molecules and the chemical energy (that I referred to above as organic energy) bonds that were keeping them together is released. So, an organic molecule is burned, some of the energy is used to do work, while heat and water and carbon dioxide are the byproducts. This happens in our bodies (as metabolism, see below) and it happens in our communities.

c. Our usable energy is a resource that comes from the earth. As stated before, the SOURCE of organic energy is plants, because plants make organic molecules (proteins, carbohydrates, lipids, nucleic acids and a few other things). Plants are the only source of energy for most of the life processes of our bodies and our communities. Oil, coal, gas were generated by plants and animals that were fossilized during the carboniferous age. We will not get more from that source than whatever is already in the earth.

d. There are also other resources that come from the earth that will be discussed in a later section.

e. Money is nothing more than green paper unless it has a relationship with resources. Money has no value. The vale of money lies in its relationship with resources.

Money of value is related to resources; resources come from the earth. That is why Ponzi schemes always eventually crash.

If we want to reach a sustainable relationship with the earth, we must look to our money and consider what we do with it. Only balance is sustainable, in goods, molecules, resources of any kind, and money. Growth is not sustainable, and as the resources become exceeded – growth is impossible.

Chapter Three – Energy

“What the world needs now is energy … What if that energy comes from an energy company?” This quote is from an advertisement that Chevron is playing on public radio. It is one of the slickest lines of bullshit I have ever heard, never saying anything that isn’t true but making sure that you end up believing some things that are not — well — let me say this. A community can not lie to itself and survive. This book is dedicated to the truth — the true scientific facts about how life functions, as it is now in the ecosystem, so that you will be in a position to help to defend our community from the slick bullshit.

Life Requires Energy

Energy is the ability to do work; work can be defined as anything that changes or moves.

First, no company can create energy. Energy can not be created or destroyed. That is the first law of thermodynamics.

Second, no company can provide energy without using more energy than they provide. This fact is described by the second law of thermodynamics. The second law of thermodynamics tells us energy can change from one form to another, but it can not change from a “lower” energy type to a “higher” type.

So much for the bullshit; now let’s review how energy functions to support the life of our ecosystem, including us.

Of course every minute of life pulses with change, growth and movement, that we define as work, so it’s obvious that we need energy to be alive. (I hate to tell you obvious things, but if we leave out any of the steps we will end up just thinking about ourselves and we are likely to miss the most important point of the logic of living things, and we won’t see the whole wondrous flow of energy as it is used by the ecosystem to keep us alive.) So to make the obvious as brief as possible, I’ll just say we need energy to be alive and the energy for our life comes from the food we eat. We also get other things from our food, but this section is about energy.

Our Life Energy Comes from Food

Food is the energy source of the cell; food is the energy source of our bodies; food is the energy source of all plants and animals and almost all other organisms (an organism is an individual living thing) that make up the ecosystem. Food is the energy source of the entire ecosystem; the energy that allows the ecosystem to live comes from organic molecules.

Does that sound familiar? Of course it’s another one of those science things that you already know — you know that your body is made of proteins, carbohydrates, nucleic acids (that’s DNA and RNA) and lipids (fats and oils). You would not have muscles without proteins; you would not have parents and children without DNA and RNA that carry the code of life from one generation to another. You may think you have too much lipids in your body, but if you look at pictures of people who have not enough, you would not want to change places with them. And as for carbohydrates, you can eat them unwisely, but if you had none at all, then nothing would happen inside your cells because carbohydrates carry the most available source of energy for your life. These organic food molecules also contains the building blocks of your body, your structures, but we will talk about that in a different chapter.

Untitled-1All the energy that we need to run our bodies and most of the energy we use to run our machines comes from plants and other organic things. Organic things are those that are living or formerly were living things. This includes molecules, cells, organisms and ecosystems. We eat organic molecules. Proteins are organic molecules, so are carbohydrates and DNA and RNA and lipids and some other things like some of the vitamins and smaller molecules that are necessary for cells to stay alive.

Organic molecules are created by plants, using light energy from the sun. Almost all the energy required by the whole ecosystem is (or was) created by plants. Oil and gas and coal are fossilized organic compounds that were originally created by plants.

You also know that all things eventually decay or fall apart unless something is holding them together. Sometimes it takes a very long time, like a mountain might grow because of energy from a volcano. Then, when the volcano energy stops, the mountain gradually falls apart again. It takes energy to grow or move; without the energy, things fall apart. For another example, any plant or animal, will decay after it dies. Or cells, when they die, can no longer do the work of maintaining their tiny round shapes and they fall apart. And even molecules, like proteins, carbohydrates and etc., will eventually come apart if there is no energy to hold them together.

Organic molecules are held together by energy bonds. These energy bonds are the source energy for living things on earth. I will refer to this source of energy as organic energy. The metabolism of organisms (we will discuss in a later chapter) is able to capture the organic energy when the big organic molecules of food are broken down. Most of the cells in the whole world are capturing organic energy of their food right now — and using that energy to do the work of growing, moving, catching more food, running away from enemies, and making babies — whatever they have to do to keep their species and their ecosystem alive.

Energy Flows Through the Ecosystem
Or Nothing Happens, Not Even Life

“Flows through” means that it comes in one way and basically runs downhill until it is used up and then goes out another way. Energy can not be created or destroyed, but it can change it’s form, and when it changes its form it can do some work. So, light energy comes into the ecosystem (into green plants). This high-energy is used to do the work of making organic molecules, and it leaves some of that energy in the molecule. At every step there is some waste energy that is released as heat, a lower energy form. We people can not use light or heat as a source of food (organic energy). We can’t eat light, we can’t eat heat; we require the organic energy that is growin in the plants to maintain our own species.

If we use up all the plants to make paper — if we eat more plants than the earth can grow — if we burn up more organic molecules than the ecosystem can create — we are unbalancing the flow of energy through the ecosystem. The ecosystem does not stay alive by growing forever bigger like a cancer on the earth; the ecosystem is the balanced living earth. Energy flows to it from the sun, is captured by plants that can make organic molecules, and is distributed through the ecosystem as food, and after the energy has been degraded in the process of doing the work of life – then the energy changes to heat energy that is a waste product or a byproduct of the system.

To stay alive, the ecosystem must stay in balance. To stay in balance, the ecosystem must be able to flow the energy through itself so that the input and the outgo and the waste products are all intricately balanced with each other as the energy flows through all the living systems of the whole ecosystem. The right amount of energy is stored in organic molecules by the plants so that the plants and animals and other creatures all have the energy they require to stay alive. The right amount of energy is used up — enough to keep the organisms alive, but not so much that the plants are destroyed. The right amount of heat energy is the byproduct. Just enough heat energy to maintain the environment necessary for life — but not so much that would upset the balance of the materials (water for example, and oxygen and carbon dioxide) that cycle through the ecosystem or to upset the temperature or other environmental conditions that are necessary for life

Questions for Discussion – Energy

1. How many misleading claims, or misunderstandings, can you analyse using the above factual information?

2. While I was writing this I was listening to Sesame Street and heard a sweet young thing in conversation with an animal, a tree and a rock:
“Are animals part of nature?”
“Yes, animals are found outside, and animals are not made by man, so animals are part of nature.”
“Are trees part of nature?”
“Yes, trees are found outside, and trees are not made by man, so trees are part of nature.
“Are rocks part of nature?”
And so she went on like this for a while and ended by saying “Nature is all around us.”

So, I hate to tell you obvious things, but if we leave out any of the steps we will end up just thinking about ourselves, and we are likely to miss the most important point of the logic of living things, and we won’t see the whole wondrous flow of energy as it is used by the ecosystem to keep us alive.

What point did the sweet young thing miss that changes the whole tone and meaning of what she was teaching?
What do you think this tells us about Sesame Street as a teacher of biology?

The Ecosystem

When you see the beautiful blue earth from space you are looking at the largest unit of life as we know it, the whole earth ecosystem
March31.DSC_4400.smallEveryone is aware of the enormous differences among living things, from one-celled bacteria to the whole earth ecosystem that includes plants, animals, fungi etc., all able to maintain a viable balance within their various environments. Can a giraffe in Africa have anything in common with an acacia tree in Australia and a jellyfish that lives in the ocean? Yes, of course, they are all living things, and all living things — to be alive — have three requirements in common.

1. Energy flows through all living things. Energy is the ability to do work and work is described as anything that moves or changes. Clearly one characteristic of living things is that they move and/or change. Therefore they require energy to be alive.

2. At every level, living things must regulate interactions with the materials in the environment – that is materials such as oxygen, nitrogen, carbon and hydrogen. These are the things that living things are made of.

3. As we mention above, these interactions are too complicated even for a computer to keep track of. Somehow the living organism must find a way to keep track of all this complexity, and it does so by the flow of information through time.

On Monday we will begin with a discussion of energy.