Bare Bones Biology 114 – Great Aridness

Formula books, I have called them; I don’t read them. Sometimes I buy them, if I think the cause is worthy, and I skim through, or even give them to other people, but I do not sit down and read, like I would with a serious book, written well to illustrate factually and emotionally accurate truths.

Formula books may not lie, but they do not tell you the whole circle of truth, and of course that’s one reason they are so popular. Just like the rest of the corposystem, they tell you something that you want to hear, and try not to think about the parts you would rather believe don’t exist. For example there are formula books about organic farming that pretend we could save ourselves, very simply, if everyone would turn his or her hand to a backyard organic garden. Very simply, that is not true. And even though I believe strongly in organic gardening, and I do wish everyone would turn his or her hand and pocket book and political will to promoting organic gardening – I also think we need to hear the whole sorry truth about our human tragedy and our current biological dilemma. Otherwise, how can we deal with it?

The solutions are not simple, and even though the modern formula book may be meticulously honest and accurate, it cannot tell the true story if it is so closely focused on setting down facts in simple, precise, decisive, linear outline, in words of few syllables, that it fails to discuss background, repercussions, and long-term implications from the point of view both of human realities, comparative emotional perspectives, and of unchangeable facts. If I could do that – I can see it, but I can’t say it — but I don’t need to do it for this case study, nor could I do it as well as it has been done by William deBuys.

Recently I told you of a book that I have read cover to cover (or at least I will have by the time you read this. If all goes well.). A Great Aridness, by William deBuys.

Wm deBuys is an author and historian who addresses the reality of climate change without rancor, bias or hyperbole, as though it were just what it is, a complex story of human kind. A sad story of human compassion and frailty as well as heroism, dedication and responsibility. A story that has much to teach us. I heard his excellent talk at Upaya, and I thought: “This guy really gets it.” I mean both the human and the biological dilemmas.

And so, a few days later – I’m telling you a true story here — Bitsy and I really did climb into our old pickup to chug to the top of one of the highest occupied places in North America, and I really did take the above picture along the way, to interview Wm duBuys.

Following is an excerpt from our conversation. Someone else should interview this man, someone who has more than five minutes for talking. Oh, yes, fortunately Mrs. Green has done that, and the podcast is available. In Mrs. Green’s opinion:

“When you put (climate change) in the political arena I don’t understand why it polarizes people. It’s the one thing that could unite our country to focus on the planet and the health of the earth. There’s no down side to that, and it’s not political. Why are we fighting about this?” (www.MrsGreensWorld podcast 05-12-12_DuBuysMiraval.mp3)

I hope Alise will also catch Bill for an interview on Rethinking Green KEOS FM, 98.1 before he leaves the country to begin research on his next book. Here is Bare Bones Biology’s KEOS interview:

“(LL) The research in your book shows that there’s evidence of the impact of humans on the ecosystem for thousands of years in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. People have been influencing the climate for as long as we know about. So now we have a big deal about climate change. My question is, what’s the big deal?

“(WD) Well the big deal is that civilization has only known one climate, and that’s the climate that we’re losing now. The amount of temperature change predicted for this century is roughly equal to the temperature changes between the ice ages and the present. But when the transition from the ice ages took thousands of years to accomplish, we’re now embarking into a century that’s going to see the same amount of change in a tiny period of time. Basically, human civilization has only known the climate of the Holocene, the climate that has nourished earth for the past several thousand years. We’re on the verge of losing that bracket of conditions, and plunging into a new epoch which many geologists have termed the anthropocene because it is man shaped. So that’s a very, very scary prospect, if you value our way of life today, if you value the dependence of human society on existing agriculture and the systems that keep us going.

“(LL) Why is it scary?

“(WD) Well if you rachet up the heat, basically if people in Texas, say, didn’t feel that the intense heat wave and drought of last summer, if they didn’t feel that was a wakeup call, then they’re really not paying attention. What we’re talking about with climate change is moving into a period of time when that kind of heat wave, that kind of drought, becomes normal, and additional heat waves and additional droughts are superimposed on it. The drought in Texas and Oklahoma last summer was unprecedentedly severe. Climate scientists are now saying that drought, because it doesn’t have in its intensity, clear precedents in recent centuries, that drought was by all indications caused by anthropogenic climate change. So if you don’t mind living under those conditions, and watching what those conditions do to the landscape around you, climate change shouldn’t be scary for you, but if you didn’t like it that way, you should be concerned. The Texas Department of Forestry estimates that between 2% and 10% of all the trees in Texas died last summer. The range is pretty wide because the count is imprecise, but if dry conditions persist through this year, the cumulative effect of the drought will probably lead to an even greater die-off. So this is a very large portion of the ecosystem of the State of Texas that died off in one year.

“(LL) So what should be our take-away message if we want to react positively to this serious situation?

“(WD) Well, the take-away message is that we need to begin, with all the energy we can muster, to shift from a carbon based, fossil fuel economy. We probably need to have a carbon tax. Although that’s politically a very, very tall order, and we need to change how we structure the use of energy in our society. This will be a great transformation, and actually encompasses a lot of economic opportunities. It could be a positive thing. It would be a positive thing for the United States, and for the rest of the world.”

That’s the end of the transcript. Five minutes is so short, at least two questions remain to be explained. First, what has the carbon tax and the carbon-based economy got to do with climate change? If you want to understand why carbon is important, you will need to understand some basic biology that you might find in previous editions of Bare Bones Biology. You can read them by flipping back on this blog, or listen to them at The climate change series begins with Bare Bones Biology 093 and ends at Bare Bones Biology 100. Or for a small donation to cover costs I will send you a CD containing both the podcasts and the blog posts for each of these BBBs.

If you don’t want to do that, here’s the shortest possible version of the carbon message to all of life on earth. We can’t live without energy, because energy is the ability to do work. Work is basically anything that moves, and without that, of course, there would be no life and no us. On this earth, all of our energy for food and everything else that living things use to stay alive comes from burning organic molecules such as proteins, carbohydrates, and all those organic molecules found in foods. Organic molecules are made on a base of carbon atoms. The plants make them using energy from the sun, we can’t do this, so we eat plants to get the energy for life. The energy for life on earth comes from eating plants. Or something else that ate plants. Then we burn (metabolize) the organic molecules, and the organic molecules release their metabolic energy in a form our bodies can use — and so we stay alive. When we burn anything (including in our metabolism) the organic molecules are taken apart, the energy is released, and the carbon (and other atoms) are released as waste products of the burning process. The whole earth ecosystem is a living thing, and to stay alive it needs to stay balanced. So it recycles the waste products (carbon dioxide in this case) by using them as ingredients to make more carbon-based organic molecules. The plants can do this, we cannot. Life has been doing this for millenia – life is based on this cycle staying in balance – but today we have unbalanced the life of the whole earth by burning more organic molecules than it can recycle.

The living earth is trying to rebalance, but we are also reducing the plants it needs to do this, so the earth is unbalanced. There is too much carbon dioxide in the air (and other places). Everything in the ecosystem is connected, so this imbalance has some effect on the other processes of life. In this case the effect is to raise the temperature by changing the interaction between the sun and our earth atmosphere.

The result is that the more people are breathing out carbon dioxide and the more machines also are breathing out more carbon dioxide as a waste product of burning carbon-based fuel – the harder the living earth must work to try to stay in balance. Now, after all these centuries – it has come to the time that it can’t keep up.

That’s the basic link between climate change and carbon compounds. As is true of everything it is a lot more complicated than that, but I do think it’s important to understand that there is an unchangeable, life-giving link, so we don’t fall for corposystem propaganda to the contrary. Check my facts – please.

The second question is about people who do NOT care what the climate change does to the environment because they live in cities and they honestly believe that the corposystem is providing everything they need to stay cool, well fed and clothed. This is just too sad to be real, but I think it is real. These people do not know that everything we need to stay alive comes from the healthy ecosystem. The corposystem cannot make earth, air, water or food for us without destroying the energy cycle of the ecosystem. The miracle behind life on earth is that it CAN do this process. People cannot. Not without using more energy than they generate and throwing us more out of balance. And there is no other source for life in the whole universe so far as we know.

If God made this beautiful living earth ecosystem, then he made it here. Not on the moon or Mars or anyplace else that we can reach. And he expected us to fulfill our responsibilities to not trash His Creation.

But we are trashing it, and so the outlook does look very grim. Here’s what Wm deBuys has to say about that.

“The outlook may be grim but the sunrise is always beautiful, and if you think about this blessed planet that we’re on – – – it is heartbreakingly beautiful, and there is so much beauty in the planet itself and in its creatures, and among its creatures are human beings, and our fellow human beings, that there is always and there will always be beauty to protect and defend, and the defense of beauty is a very high calling, and it’s great work, and great work is inherently optimistic. And so as long as there is that work to do, I think we should all be inspired to do it and all derive a lot of meaning for our lives from the act of doing it.” Wm deBuys, spoken at Upaya. (Look under dharma talks dp642_debuys_great-aridness-perspectives-on-environment_may-2012_dt.mp3)

Please read the book. It’s a good read and interesting, and it helps to answer the most common questions about what we can do to help ourselves and the living earth. The most important thing that we can do is to learn more about how the ecosystem functions to stay alive — including all the interacting stories that make up “A Great Aridness” — so we can discuss solutions that make good sense, and so that we will not be fooled by self-serving money-making schemers, who always abound in every crisis.

Bare Bones Biology 114 – A Great Aridness
KEOS FM 89.1, Bryan, Texas
You can download the audio portion of this post here
Or at

Recommended References:
A Great Aridness, Wm. deBuys:
Upaya Zen Center:
Mrs. Green’s World: http://www.MrsGreensWorld podcast 05-12-12_DuBuysMiraval.mp3

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.