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Energy: Nature’s oil

Most of us think of energy as electricity from a plug or gasoline from our favorite station. These forms of energy run our tools, toys and keep our homes at a temperature that we like. For fish and all other living things energy takes the form of food or direct conversion of sunlight. These forms of energy come from only one place, directly or indirectly, and that’s the sun. The oil and coal we use to make electricity and gasoline comes from plants that used the sun to grow and fermented for eon’s underground – kind of like an energy bank. We have been withdrawing from that energy bank pretty heavily for the last 100 years and it will be empty in another 50 years. To understand how energy is used in nature an understanding of the laws of thermodynamics is required. The first two laws are what concern us. The first and second laws thermodynamics state that “the total energy content of the universe is constant” and “entropy is continually increasing”. The first law says that when the universe was created the amount of energy was fixed and would never change for all time. The second indicates that while energy can be neither created nor destroyed, it can change form – from available to unavailable, this is called entropy. An example of entropy is when a plant or animal decays; the energy concentrated in its body, through the actions of other animals and bacteria is dispersed back into the environment. Humans try to reverse entropy through actions such as recycling but this only uses up additional energy, which increases the overall entropy of the biosphere. It may be easier to think of life as a temporary concentration of energy shifting from one area to another. An ecosystem is functionally just an energy loop where organisms move energy through the various levels of the system. When an organism stores food as fat it is just storing energy to be used at another time. It doesn’t think about storing energy, it just does it. If it doesn’t store enough energy to get it through a future hard time then it simply is unfit to live and it dies. Humans on the other hand, when there is a surplus of energy, seem to use it up and save little. As a species our energy storage is ultimately in our knowledge. We use that knowledge to reason out methods for temporarily overcoming entropy such as farming, genetically altering food sources and finding oil. All of this is until the planet’s stored energy (oil) runs out. New sources like hydrogen, when combined with wind and solar will help but it is our seemingly undying need to use as much energy as possible that may be our downfall as a species. Hey, we are even building back the homes and condos on the front beach when we know that we will be hit again and again and that it will happen sooner than 20 years year from now. History is replete will civilizations that collapsed because they used up their available energy like water, soil, animals and slaves. As a species that wants to survive perhaps a better way of using energy and measuring success is an option we should consider, soon.

Think Global – Act Local!

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