Seeing plants as Nature’s essential alchemists
We humans have achieved some amazing things: Harnessing fire, refining metals, and generating power from steam were all important achievements in their time. Understanding the structure of the atom and devising The Periodic Table of Elements (before many of them had even been identified) was pretty darn clever too.
Whilst not wishing to put anyone off reading further by getting bogged down in chemisty or atomic physics, it should be noted that the atomic number of each element shown here is the number of protons in its nucleus. With this in mind, I would invite you to consider that one thing we have failed to do is turn one substance into another. Unfortunately, no matter how hard we try, we cannot use heat or pressure to do this:
5 Al + Si = Au (i.e. 5 times 13 = 65, and 65+14 = 79)
Is it not therefore amazing to consider that turning one substance into another is something Nature does very well? Fortunately, without appearing to try very hard at all, plants are able to use light to do this:
6CO2 + 6H2O = C6H12O6 + 6O2 (i.e. Photosynthesis)
(C6H12O6 here being glucose = energy!)
It is just as well really, because we would not be here to wonder at their achievement if they did not do it. This is the point made in this brilliant video:
Furthermore, in the absence of sunlight, bacteria living near hydrothermal vents on the sea floor can do this sort of thing:
6CO2 + 6H2O + 3H2S → C6H12O6 + 3H2SO4 (i.e. Chemosynthesis)
Chemosynthesis may be capable of supporting life below the surface of Mars, and on Europa – one of Jupiter’s moons. Indeed, it has even been suggested that, at temperatures well below freezing, other substances in liquid form could form the basis of cryogenic ecosystems – such as liquid methane on Titan – one of Saturn’s moons.
Whatever the case may be, life on Earth would not be possible without photosynthesis, but fortunately, we humans don’t have to stand around all day extracting our energy from the Sun; we don’t even have to stand around all day extracting it from plants (although the number of humans on the planet is now beginning to make that seem attractive). We have, of course, found much more concentrated sources of energy to use:
— In order to fuel our metabolism, we have become accustomed to eating meat; and
— In order to fuel our civilisation, we have become accustomed to burning fossil fuels.
Unfortunately, because of the rate at which both are now being done, neither is now sustainable in the long term: We simply do not have enough fertile land on which to graze livestock for increasing numbers of humans to eat; and the Earth simply does not have the capacity to recycle the waste generated by our burning of fossil fuels.
There is no such thing as a free lunch – and our burning of fossil fuels is having adverse consequences. It would therefore seem that, on Earth at least, nothing lasts forever; be it fossil fuels or civilisations: Fossil fuels will run out eventually; but burning them is endangering all life on Earth. Trees cannot migrate; and neither can fertile soils. Even if CO2 were just plant food, this would not change the fact that rising temperatures; shifting climate zones; more and more unpredictable and extreme weather of all kinds; and the inundation of fertile lands by rising sea levels… are all going to reduce our ability to feed ourselves.
The only question that remains is therefore this one: