We're Running Out of Ancient Sunlight
Where our energy came from, how we're "living beyond our means," and what will happen to our children when we run out
It all starts with sunlight.
Sunlight pours energy on the Earth, and the energy gets converted from one form to another, in an endless cycle of life, death, and renewal. Some of the sunlight got stored underground, which has provided us with a tremendous "savings account" of energy on which we can draw. Our civilization has developed a vast thirst for this energy, as we've built billions and billions of machines large and small that all depend on fuel and electricity.
But our savings are running low, which will most likely make for some very hard times.
In Part I we'll lay out the situation as a foundation for planning our response. Topics in Part I include:
*The history of sunlight in the human story
*How can things look okay yet be so bad?
*The importance of trees--their three vital roles in a renewable environment, and some alarming statistics on what's happening as we cut them down
*The accelerating rate of species extinction as we alter the world and its climate
Let's start at the beginning, with the fuel source that gave life to this planet millions of years ago: sunlight.We're Made Out of Sunlight
The Sun, the hearth of affection and life, pours burning love on the delighted earth.
--Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891)
In a very real sense, we're all made out of sunlight.
Sunlight radiating heat, visible light, and ultraviolet light is the source of almost all life on Earth. Everything you see alive around you is there because a plant somewhere was able to capture sunlight and store it. All animals live from these plants, whether directly (as with herbivores) or indirectly (as with carnivores, which eat the herbivores). This is true of mammals, insects, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and bacteria . . . everything living. Every life-form on the surface of this planet is here because a plant was able to gather sunlight and store it, and something else was able to eat that plant and take that sunlight energy in to power its body.
In this way, the abundance or lack of abundance of our human food supply was, until the past few hundred years, largely determined by how much sunlight hit the ground. And for all non-human life- forms on the planet, this is still the case--you can see that many of the areas around the equator that are bathed in sunlight are Wlled with plant and animal life, whereas in the relatively sun-starved polar regions, where sunlight comes in at a thinned-out angle instead of straight-on, there are far fewer living creatures and less diversity among them.
The plant kingdom's method of sunlight storage is quite straightforward. Our atmosphere has billions of tons of carbon in it, most in the form of the gas carbon dioxide, or CO(2). Plants "inhale" this CO(2), and use the energy of sunlight to drive a chemical reaction called photosynthesis in their leaves, which breaks the two atoms of oxygen free from the carbon, producing free carbon (C) and oxygen (O(tm)). The carbon is then used by the plant to manufacture carbohydrates like cellulose and almost all other plant matter--roots, stems, leaves, fruits, and nuts--and the oxygen is "exhaled" as a waste gas by the plant.
Many people I've met believe that plants are made up of soil--that the tree outside your house, for example, is mostly made from the soil in which it grew. That's a common mistake. That tree is mostly made up of one of the gases in our air (carbon dioxide) and water (hydrogen and oxygen). Trees are solidified air and sunlight.
Here's how it works: plant leaves capture sunlight and use that energy to extract carbon as carbon dioxide from the air, combine it with oxygen and hydrogen from water, to form sugars and other complex carbohydrates (carbohydrates are also made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen) such as the cellulose that makes up most of the roots, leaves, and trunk.
When you burn wood, the "sunlight energy" is released in the form of light and heat (from the fire). Most of the carbon in the wood reverses the photosynthesis. The small pile of ash you're left with is all the minerals the huge tree had taken from the soil. Everything else was gas from the air: carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen.
Animals, including humans, cannot create tissues directly from sunlight, water, and air, as plants can. Thus the human population of the planet has always been limited by the amount of readily available plant food (and animals-that-eat-plants food). Because of this, from the dawn of humanity (estimated at 200,000 years ago) until about 40,000 years ago, the world probably never held more than about five million human inhabitants. That's fewer people worldwide than live in Detroit today.
I suspect the reason for this low global census is that people in that time ate only wild-growing food. If sunlight fell on a hundred acres of wild lands producing enough food to feed ten people--through edible fruits, vegetables, seeds, and wild animals that ate the plants--then the population density of that forest would stabilize at that level. Studies of all kinds of animal populations show that mammals--including humans--become less fertile and death rates increase when there is not enough food to sustain a local population. This is nature's population control system for every animal species.
Similarly, people's clothing and shelter back then were made out of plants and animal skins which themselves came to life because of "current sunlight," the sunlight that fell on the ground over the few years of their lives. We used the skins of animals and trees to construct clothing and housing.Extracting more sunlight--from other animals
Something important happened sometime around 40,000 years ago: humans figured out a way to change the patterns of nature so we could get more sunlight/food than other species did. The human food supply was determined by how many deer or rabbits the local forest could support, or the number of edible plants that could be found or grown in good soil. But in areas where the soil was too poor for farming or forest, supporting only scrub brush and grasses, humans discovered that ruminant (grazing) animals like goats, sheep, and cows could eat those plants that we couldn't, and could therefore convert the daily sunlight captured by the scrub and wild plants on that "useless" land into animal flesh, which we could eat. So if we could increase the number of the ruminant animals through herding and domestication, then we could eat more of the recent sunlight they were consuming as grasses and plants. This provided to our ancestors more usable energy, both as work animals and as food animals. And so domestication and herding were born.Extracting more sunlight--from the land
About this same time in history, we also figured out that we could replace inedible forests with edible crops. Instead of having a plot of land produce only enough food to feed ten people, that same land could now be worked to feed a hundred. The beginning of agriculture is referred to as the Agricultural Revolution, and it began to gather momentum about 10,000 years ago. Because we had discovered and begun to use these two methods (herding and agriculture) to more eficiently convert the sun's energy into human food, our food supply grew. Following the basic laws of nature, because there was more food, there could be more humans, and the human population started growing faster.
Within a few thousand years of that time we also discovered how to extract mineral ores from the Earth, to smelt pure metals from them, and to build tools from these metals. These...