Stop and Think

This sounds all too familiar. (“Enough, population doom merchants,” Dominic Lawson, Sunday Times of London).

Didn’t I write not too long ago about the reactions of the press in response to biological realities?  I said in the mainstream media their usual response, especially to big problems like AIDS and global warming, seems to be denial for a period of about ten years, during which time crises that could have been contained (if the press had fulfilled its responsibility to educate and inform) reach fairly unmanageable proportions. I’m not the first to notice this. For example, Dot Earth.

That’s what happens when we pretend that all of reality is nothing but fun and entertainment — that we should not discuss any other kind of reality.  Then they look around and wonder why the scientists never told them this was coming.

Oh, well, when I went into university teaching (thankfully now behind me) my mentor said:  “Nobody will understand you when you tell them; then when they figure it out for themselves they will come and ask why you didn’t tell them.”  That is indeed what happened, and it’s probably a good thing in an educational setting that the students should learn to think.  But it’s not an intelligent way to deal with real crises.  A much better approach is to listen to a variety of experts in different fields and pool our expertise.

Mr. Lawson’s article in the Times purports to address a report to be issued by the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission, but he never really discusses the reportand.  He gets off on Optimum Population Trust (OPT), a British organization concerned with issues of population, that held its annual conference last week.  Invitation only.  His article is basically a “bait and switch” attempt to change the subject from discussion of real population issues to the personalities of individuals at OPT for whom he apparently has little or no respect.

080420funeral_dsc6582fs-copyI happen to have it first hand — from a respected scientist who attended — that the OPT meeting was both sane and sensible.  It makes me wonder what are the credentials of this reporter that he is able to so confidently second-guess the real data.  So I looked him up on Google.  Apparently he has quite a lot of money, a cousin who is a biologist, and an iffy reputation with regard to serious journalism.   Unless he has qualifications not mentioned, I certainly would not trust his opinion with regard to scientific or economic decision making.

Think about it.  What is our best response here?  Should we just wait and see what happens?  Or might it be better to pool our expertise, discuss the issue, and make some plans just in case the scientists are not as crazy as Mr. Lawson thinks they are.

To Be Prepared

So now I see we are all in an uproar about global warming again, trying to pretend that politicians yelling at each other can change the way the ecosystem functions. (Dot Earth, BBC, BBC) But does anybody come right out and tell us how the ecosystem functions? Of course not, because it’s quite too complicated to describe in five paragraphs, and besides nobody knows all about it and we won’t until after it finishes happening. But by that time we will have lost the power to respond to the situation, and we could be talking about the basic laws of nature and life on earth that we do understand.

So what is this problem once referred to as global warming and now renamed climate change? Not surprisingly, the problem relates to energy, so it is probably best to begin with energy. One reason we worry about energy is that burning fuel to get energy causes global warming; the other is that we are worried about running out of energy. Today I have some comments about the latter. Why are some people so upset about energy shortage, while others tell us not to worry about it?

Logically, it seems like we could never run out of energy. We look around and it’s obvious to everyone, even scientists, that the universe is full of energy. The sun is almost pure energy. Radio waves are flying around, atoms are exploding, children are running and screaming, birds are flying, the heat of the day is warming the ground and the scientists are talking about kinds of energy nobody can see. There is energy everywhere. So what is all the fuss about?

The bottom line answer is that there is only one kind of energy that keeps the earth ecosystem alive, and that is chemical energy. The energy of food. When we use it, we can’t use it again. We must go back and get more from the only one source, and that is plants.

Here is how it works, according to the “laws of nature.” The “laws of nature” obviously are not “laws” that people made — people did not make nature. My guess is that God did, but however it got made — we describe the way it functions as the “laws of nature.” If it were not for the characteristics we describe as laws,  it would not function.

Energy is the ability to do work; that is it’s definition. Work, basically, is when anything moves or changes. One of the energy laws is this: Energy can change from one form to another form — from a higher (more energetic) form to a lower form, and it does this when it is used to do work. However, energy can not change back to a higher form. One example of this is — if you burn something you can use some of the chemical energy of burning to do the work of running your car or making your muscles work, or anything that happens in the living world. But at the end the chemical energy changes to heat energy that you can’t use again for more burning.

The energy of life is chemical energy. Our food provides all the vitamins and minerals that people are always talking about, but more important than that, our food provides the chemical energy that makes everything in our bodies do the work of staying alive. Lungs breath, legs move, brain thinks. All of that is “work” and so it needs energy, and chemical energy is the energy of life.

We can’t use a lower form of energy, like heat, to make a higher form, like chemical energy because the process uses up more energy than what we get back, and we end up with less than we started with. We also can not use higher forms of energy, such as light energy, for food, because our living bodies require chemical energy for food.  But Plants can change light energy into chemical energy, and that is the reason ecosystems are alive.  Plants change light energy into chemical energy and then use the chemical energy to do the work of living — technically the plant “burns” the chemical energy to do the work of living, and at the same time it stores energy in it’s plant body in the form of chemical energy – that is the energy bonds of molecules.  And then we can eat the plant and use the chemical energy to do the processes of our living. Or we can cut it down and burn it up to make heat with our fires. Or we can take fossil plants and animals (coal and oil) that are very high quality purified chemical energy and burn them to run our cars and factories.

But the bottom line fact is that we will run out of coal and oil, because it takes a few million years to make fossils. We can use green living plants to make biofuels. But those green living plants are our food. The more people we grow the more we need our corn for eating.

So what is the energy problem? The real core of the problem is that the energy for us to live requires plants — and we are now using up the plants faster than they can grow. (I’m not giving statistics here, but this is not an opinion – it is a measurable fact that can be confirmed.)

And so why do some people say we should prepare for the future and other people tell us not to worry about it? Because some people think it would be better to face facts, and other people imagine how much money they will make as the coal and oil become more and more scarce and people begin to panic.  The power of being prepared for the future argues with the power of being rich now.