Lack of Environment

A blog on the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems

Seeing plants as Nature’s essential alchemists

with 17 comments

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.

Periodic Table of the Elements

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:

Which do we want to run out of first – fossil fuel or fertile land?

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17 Responses

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  1. What I find very impressive alongside ‘nature’s’ ability to transmute elements is the facility with which humble cell, well not so humble when their internal structure and biological history is considered, manage to carry out many chemical processes without interference between same. When we compare and contrast cells with the huge chemical plants used by industry the compact nature, versatility and efficiency of the former stand out clearly.

    Now some may consider him shrill but in actual fact Richard Dawkins is quiet and polite in the face of entrenched ignorance and ideology, check out his exchange with Wendy Wright on YouTube for example. It is hardly his fault that some do not like his message.

    Whatever people may say about Dawkins he writes with a lucidity and exactitude, but managing to maintain readability, that few can match. And yes I do have one or two candidates in mind. Thus I feel no compunction in suggesting the reading of some of his books to gain insight into how cells developed, ‘The Ancestor’s Tale’ and ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ are particularly recommended but valuable statements can be found in other books such as ‘Unweaving the Rainbow’.

    I could point to others for confirmation but that would be to over-egg at the moment.

    Lionel A

    5 September 2012 at 12:16

    • Hi Lionel. Thanks for “popping in for a chat”. Thanks also for choosing not to point out that, whereas 5Al +Si => Au would be transmutation, photosythesis is merely a chemical reaction! :-)

      As you say, metabolism and respiration and all those other things that go on at a cellular level are quite extra-ordinary; and the make the ability of females to simultaneously do the ironing, watch TV, boil an egg, and have a conversation look like mere child’s play.

      I am afraid I am not a fan of Dawkins; as I think it is intellectually dishonest to claim there are no questions science cannot answer. People like Stephen Hawking, George Smoot (Wrinkles in Time) and Paul Davies (Mind of God) do not do this. However, if you want a really interesting read, I would recommend Oracles of Science: Celebrity Scientists versus God and Religion (2007), by Karl Giberson and Mariano Artigas. In fact, thanks for prompting me, I have just submitted a review of it to Amazon.

      Martin Lack

      5 September 2012 at 13:40

  2. I am afraid I am not a fan of Dawkins; as I think it is intellectually dishonest to claim there are no questions science cannot answer.

    I did not expect you to be a fan as such but if you avoid reading him then you miss much. I doubt that Dawkins did make such a claim as charges of this nature are often made by those who get it from a third party.

    Of course if you can provide evidence then I’ll be forced to change my mind. I never put Dawkins down as ‘intellectually dishonest’ whereas as most of his critics have been. For example much of what Madeline Bunting writes should be treated with a ‘Lot’s Wife’ sized pillar of salt.

    Lionel A

    5 September 2012 at 16:02

    • Lionel, I think we can agree that there is much more intellectual dishonesty on show in the camp of those who say the Earth is only 6016 years old (Archbishop Ussher should have stuck to theology). Apart from that – and from referring you to my review of Giberson and Artigas – I can only apologise if you feel I reduced Dawkins’ position to a cliche. However, from what I have actually heard him say on TV, it seems clear to me that he (1) considers religious people to be irrational; and (2) thinks there is no worthwhile question that science cannot answer.

      Martin Lack

      5 September 2012 at 18:45

  3. I shall never cease to wonder at the endless and mind-boggling achievements of Life.

    When I first learned of “extremophiles” I can’t say I was particularly surprised but I was quite thrilled. I’ve been especially impressed by what appears to be perfectly ordinary marine Life living around “black smokers” in water having temperatures in excess of, what was it, 6 or 7 hundred degrees?

    It’s always been my understanding that simply being unaware of something is not proof it doesn’t exist. I suppose, in a sense, it’s not there until someone discovers it. Would that be in the same category as a tree falling deep in forest where nobody can hear it not making any noise? The sound waves are there regardless. I’m reasonably sure there’s lots of Life in places we can’t even imagine. We might be looking right at it unaware.

    Sometimes I think that Life is actually the source of the Universe, not vice versa. No, I don’t mean “god”.

    Now, should we fail to find any other Life in our faltering exploration of our solar system and galaxy, that would really surprise me!

    The plants on land and the phytoplankton in the oceans produce what, 90% of the oxygen we need to live?

    At the rate we’re destroying both environments, how long can we last?

    And those who are the driving force behind this suicidal process seem to be under the impression they are somehow immune to the affects of the havoc they wreak. Excuse me. I don’t care how much money you have, you still can’t breathe without oxygen!

    Fortunately there are always a few anaerobes we can probably count on to keep Life plugging along until newer and better things evolve?

    Richard William Posner

    6 September 2012 at 00:25

    • Thanks for all of those comments, Richard. Although I did not finish reading it, Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed paints many frightening pictures: One of which is the spectre of governments that spend more and more money on maintaining their control; rather than on dealing with the problems causing their instability.

      However, we are not going to run out of oxygen; and I am sure the wealthy elites know that. Furthermore, I have lived in the dry tropics of Western Australia – where office, car, and home were all air-conditioned and going outside was something one generally avoided. This has convinced me that our wealthy elites must think that life will still be worth living even if they will have to do that – or even live underground in highly fortified compounds.

      Martin Lack

      6 September 2012 at 10:10

      • I do have “Collapse” in my pdf library. I simply haven’t gotten to it yet.

        I have a tendency to collect these works much faster than I can hope to read them. The folder is now over eight gigs. If I started reading them now and did nothing else I’d probably be dead before I could finish them all.

        But, being in pdf format, they are easily searched by keywords, which is very useful for research.

        I think it’s hard to say just how far the destruction will go. The idea of the elite moving underground brings to mind one of my all-time favourite movies; THX1138. Of course, there’s always the Morlocks of Time Machine fame.

        Given facilities such as Cheyenne Mountain, and who knows how many we’ve never found out, I don’t see such a scenario as being unrealistic; so I’d have to agree with your conclusion.

        Richard William Posner

        6 September 2012 at 22:14

  4. This has convinced me that our wealthy elites must think that life will still be worth living even if they will have to… live underground in highly fortified compounds.

    Yes. Entities living surviving underground and dreaming of more power and looking for the stash they dropped somewhere. Where have I seen this before? Ah! Yes! Tolkien had it – Golum! Tolkien was more perceptive than most give him credit for.

    Persevere with Collapse Martin, also Guns, Germs & Steel and The Third Chimpanzee.

    BTW Oxygen levels are falling.

    I hope you don’t mind me dropping in for another chat and I would still like a reference to support this thought of yours about how Dawkins ‘…thinks there is no worthwhile question that science cannot answer‘.

    Lionel A

    6 September 2012 at 11:51

    • I do not see why you feel it is necessary to bait me on this subject, Lionel. Am I not already being open-minded enough for you? What I dislike about Richard Dawkins is the way he is so evangelical about his own reductionist/humanist religion philosophy. In evidence of which I would invite you to take your pick from amongst these quotes.

      Martin Lack

      6 September 2012 at 12:02

      • Strewth. I did not expect you to deploy a Gish Gallop as with that list of quotes from the ‘ready use locker’, one quote is enough, one which explicitly includes this ‘there is no worthwhile question that science cannot answer‘.

        I am not baiting you. You bated with that statement now repeated twice in response I simply asked for the source of the quote.

        As I pointed out earlier, it is hardly Dawkins’ fault if people don’t like his message.

        Lionel A

        6 September 2012 at 16:16

        • BTW Thanks for the link anyway, I have bookmarked it.

          Lionel A

          6 September 2012 at 16:23

        • OK Lionel, I think we both need to acknowledge that this discussion is off-topic. It would have been much better if you had started it on my History page. I never claimed Dawkins had ever used the precise words; I merely claimed to know what he thinks. I do not dislike his message. I dislike his method; as indeed I dislike all those that use it – some people would call it fundamentalism.

          Have you got a source for your assertion that oxygen levels are falling; and to what equivalent altitude are we all having to get accustomed to living?

          Martin Lack

          6 September 2012 at 17:09

  5. Atmospheric Oxygen depletion a page of links

    BTW this is off topic too at a guess.

    Shame on you. You cannot come up with one incidence of Dawkins to support your claim so declare it off topic. Fine its your blog. None of those quotes you linked to support your claim about what Dawkins thinks. Why don’t you ask Dawkins what he thinks about that statement?

    As for disliking his method – what is that method exactly?

    Those who follow they who preach fire and brimstone had better stand from under when accusing others of engaging in like manner, but Dawkins does not preach and that is the point.

    Lionel A

    6 September 2012 at 20:20

    • Lionel: This is the last time I will respond to you on this subject in this thread. Therefore, I am not closing down the discussion; only asking you to relocate it. Once again, I repeat, I was merely seeking to convey what I understand Dawkins position to be. I believe every single one of the quotes – and at least one of his book titles – confirms that I am right to conclude Dawkins thinks all religions are a delusion. That being the case, apart from science, maybe he would concede that philosophy has some purpose? If so, great, you have proved me wrong. Therefore, I cannot promise to respond to you if you do choose to perpetuate this discussion elsewhere, because I think it is now pointless.

      Martin Lack

      6 September 2012 at 20:42

  6. [...] highlighted the fact that the Earth receives an enormous amount of energy from the Sun.  Then, on Wednesday, I highlighted how fortunate we are that plants convert this energy into sugar, which forms the [...]

  7. …confirms that I am right to conclude Dawkins thinks all religions are a delusion.

    But that was not the point that you made that I then questioned was it? Stop wriggling.

    PS. Yes I could have added this to your History page but that would have been to make it an orphan – in the typographical sense.

    Besides if Dawkins has something relevant to say about the topic here, and he does, why should I let your attitude put others off consulting him? Thus I don’t see that it is off-topic at all.

    Lionel A

    7 September 2012 at 12:18

    • We are arguing about semantics, Lionel. When I say Dawkins believes there are no questions science cannot answer; you dispute it. But when I say he thinks all religions are a delusion; you agree. I am inclined to ask what the hell is the difference but – please don’t bother telling me – I don’t need to know.

      However, please forgive me if I may have overlooked there being some relevance to your citing Dawkins in this thread (you did not provide a link and I have no idea who Wendy Wright is; nor do I have any overriding urge to find out). Since we agree on so much, can we at least agree to disagree on the relevance of Dawkins to the subject of this thread? What other people choose to think on this matter is entirely up to them. Personally-speaking, I have better things to do with my time; like trying to find gainful employment.

      Martin Lack

      7 September 2012 at 15:44


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