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?