Saturday, May 16, 2009

Following the Money - Following the Energy

The oil we eat: Following the food chain back to Iraq—By Richard Manning (Harper's Magazine)

So many things I take for granted, like the food I eat, and the air I breathe. Then, Richard Manning points out how profoundly humanity has distorted the natural rhythms of this precious biosphere we call earth.

He starts with the observations of James Prescott Joule
(who) discovered in the nineteenth century (that) there is only so much energy. You can change it from motion to heat, from heat to light, but there will never be more of it and there will never be less of it. The conservation of energy is not an option, it is a fact. This is the first law of thermodynamics.
He then points out to us that:
Special as we humans are, we get no exemptions from the rules. All animals eat plants or eat animals that eat plants. This is the food chain, and pulling it is the unique ability of plants to turn sunlight into stored energy in the form of carbohydrates, the basic fuel of all animals. Solar-powered photosynthesis is the only way to make this fuel. There is no alternative to plant energy, just as there is no alternative to oxygen. The results of taking away our plant energy may not be as sudden as cutting off oxygen, but they are as sure...

(W)e humans, a single species among millions, consume about 40 percent of Earth's primary productivity, 40 percent of all there is. This simple number may explain why the current extinction rate is 1,000 times that which existed before human domination of the planet. We 6 billion have simply stolen the food, the rich among us a lot more than others.
Richard then leads us through an interesting history of the distinctly human development of farming, and what it has done to the earth, as we have harvested the energy of seeds.
When we say the soil is rich, it is not a metaphor. It is as rich in energy as an oil well. A prairie converts that energy to flowers and roots and stems, which in turn pass back into the ground as dead organic matter. The layers of topsoil build up into a rich repository of energy, a bank. A farm field appropriates that energy, puts it into seeds we can eat. Much of the energy moves from the earth to the rings of fat around our necks and waists. And much of the energy is simply wasted, a trail of dollars billowing from the burglar's satchel.
Farming has allowed humans to exploit the planet like no other species. We accept no limits to such activity. Limits, however, are about to be imposed on us, and it won't be the first time. Plato provides one of the earliest known records of the imposition of humanity on the planet.
What now remains of the formerly rich land is like the skeleton of a sick man. . . . Formerly, many of the mountains were arable. The plains that were full of rich soil are now marshes. Hills that were once covered with forests and produced abundant pasture now produce only food for bees. Once the land was enriched by yearly rains, which were not lost, as they are now, by flowing from the bare land into the sea. The soil was deep, it absorbed and kept the water in loamy soil, and the water that soaked into the hills fed springs and running streams everywhere. Now the abandoned shrines at spots where formerly there were springs attest that our description of the land is true.
Humans stroll about this planet with a profound sense of entitlement. Blessed with seemingly unmatched intellectual capacity we simultaneously fail to comprehend our collective destruction of the only home we have: earth. Like lemmings headed for a cliff.

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