Eco-literacy Part 2: The missing element in our connections and decision making with our environment

Could I ever convince you that the tail wags the dog?


Probably not. It is easy to observe that dogs in every country in every land known to us wag their tails, not the other way around. There are many things in our world and universe that we don’t so easily observe, and so we can get the idea that the ‘tail is wagging the dog’ if we don’t have the information we need to understand the context. These often-unexplained phenomena can be critical to our very existence. One example – you don’t easily “see” energy flow and nutrients cycling in the environment or in your own body, but you couldn’t be alive here today without these things occurring constantly.


Most people believe that technology creates wealth and energy. This is like saying that the tail wags the dog, for the reality is the exact opposite:


energy creates wealth and technology.


As we learned in the last post, the energy that created all of this wealth came from the sun.


So, why is any of this important to know?


It’s true that you don’t always need to understand what’s going on under the hood in order to drive a car. However, somebody needed to really know their stuff to build that engine, and sooner or later you will need somebody who knows how to maintain and repair it in order to keep it functioning. Okay – sure, a car is a machine, and you can purchase another one someday once it is no longer repairable. We can’t do that with living ecosystems very easily, and we only have one earth. It is time more of us understood at least the basics of what’s going on ‘under the hood’ with our home, the earth.


For starter’s think a bit more about how sunlight energy is the basis for driving earth’s systems. Let’s start with plants. Green growing plants in water and on land are the most efficient living converters of sunlight energy on earth. Even though the efficiency ratio is poor – between 1 – 3% of the total sunlight energy hitting the earth is captured and used by plants – plants also convert CO2 into fuel and oxygen. And, if a plant’s photosynthetic cell goes bad, it can repair itself – this is something a solar array can’t do. Scientists have found that climax ecosystems, typically old growth forests around the world (especially rainforests) that are hundreds to thousands of years old, are best at capturing energy and cycling the nutrients of water, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and other elements.


Let’s dig slightly deeper…


Over the course of the Mesozoic Era, millions of years before humans came on the scene, plankton populations in oceans lived and died and slowly built layer upon layer of organic matter. In places where the conditions were right, these layers were covered with sediments and slowly transformed into crude oil, natural gas, or coal. They are often referred to as fossil fuels due to the misconception that petroleum came from dead dinosaurs. Fossil fuels are also known as “Black Gold” – replay the opening scene of Jed in Beverly Hillbillies “shootin’ at some food, and up from the ground come some bubblin’ crude”

It is this “black gold” portfolio of petroleum energy sources that our global civilization runs on. It is truly amazing that the energy in a single gallon of diesel fuel can push an 80,000-pound semi fully loaded with mulch 6 miles, in only 6 minutes. If we had to use our own human muscle and a two-wheeled garden cart it would take 6 months for you and a friend working eight hours every day to move that mulch the same 6 miles as the semi tractor-trailer. That is the incredible power of petroleum. It is critical to know that all fossil fuels are simply embodied sunlight energy collected over millions of years and stored in the earth…until modern humans figured out how to unleash the concentrated power of fossil fuels.


The large majority of what took millions of years for earth’s process to make has been burned within the last 100 years – a blink of an eye. For every action, there is a reaction. The byproducts of burning fossil fuels include greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. The rapid burning of the fossil fuels stored in the earth has resulted in the exponential accumulation of greenhouse gasses in the earth’s atmosphere. This pushes an ever-escalating change in earth’s climate over a very short time frame.


“Taking the long view, petroleum is really a type of solar energy. That may sound nice, but it’s not innocuous. When we burn it, we take carbon from another age, sequestered by ancient plankton, and dump it into today’s atmosphere. There, it traps heat, causes global warming, and acidifies the oceans. In a sense, we’re adding the power of the ancient Mesozoic Sun to today’s Sun, and it’s overheating our planet.” – Dr. Kenneth Lacovara


The U.S. energy portfolio still today includes 80% fossil fuels. We’ve already burned the large majority of available petroleum-based fuels. In other words, we’ve peaked in our use of this energy resource, and are now on the descending supply side for fossil fuels. What remains is ever more difficult to obtain, requiring increasing amounts of energy and technology to extract, leaving us with much lower net energy gains. Although we are making progress, renewable energy (solar, wind, hydro, wave) is not likely to come close to replacing the energy we currently use today from fossil fuels.


So, where are we going with this?


Wouldn’t it be helpful if all of us had a better understanding of the inputs, outputs, and impacts of energy availability and use? If we all had this basic understanding, then the politicians and lawmakers would be held accountable for making decisions rooted from this knowledge. This knowledge is currently denied, dismissed, or disregarded in favor of short-term financial gain.


It turns out that there are verifiable natural laws that describe the bounds and limits of the use of energy. These laws are often referred to as the Laws of Thermodynamics. We can’t escape the results of these natural laws, no matter how many people like to deny them – or don’t want to know about them. This leads to continuing to collect and expect golden eggs from the goose while refusing to feed and care for the goose. The denial of ecological understanding and the laws of energy lead to beliefs that the golden eggs magically appear to those who are worthy and that the goose is simply an unnecessary byproduct. At its worst, this behavior leads humans to completely rape the environment in order to extract the last remaining petroleum fuels. How might we begin to lower our demands for energy while also shifting to renewable energy sources?


In the next post, we’ll delve into the natural laws governing energy and why it is critical to the future of humanity that we develop ways of making societal decisions based on the reality of these laws.


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