This blog essay is the third in a six part series that is based on the premise that:
- A crisis within the human population could destroy our race by the year 2050.
- We humans are engaging in a behavior of infinite growth on a planet with limited resources.
- Our children and their children have the power to save the human race from destruction.
The six blog essays are:
“Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals. … The circuit is not closed; some energy is dissipated in decay, some is added by absorption from the air, some is stored in soils, peats, and long-lived forests; but it is a sustained circuit, like a slowly augmented revolving fund of life.” — Aldo Leopold
In the previous blog essay, we explored the idea of Nature being a “living system” that is composed of a network of interconnected, hierarchal ecosystems. These networks perform a critically important role in Nature’s scheme of things. They participate in the transportation and transformation of energy. In this essay, we focus on defining energy and how it flows within living systems.
Energy Is The Dynamic Currency Of Nature
Energy is the force that drives Nature. Nothing in our Universe can happen without the existence of energy or the pathways by which that energy flows. Energy is the dynamic currency of Nature. As we will see, without energy, Nature would never be able to function. But, energy must come from somewhere and be directed to some place else in order to be a useful force. It is the hierarchal network of Nature’s living systems that direct that flow of energy. To be more accurate, the term “living system” describes the combination of ecological networks serving as conduits for the transportation and transformation of Nature’s flow of energy. A destruction or hindrance of energy pathways, whether by mankind or by Nature, can bring ecological disaster because Nature’s energy will be directed elsewhere. As we will see later on in this book, good conservation practices by human beings within Nature are defined as the preservation of Nature’s energy flow.
Author Paul R. Fleischman, in his book entitled “Wonder” , provides an excellent background for our discussion about energy and energy flow.
“Every person consists of atoms that have been sorted and arranged. The energy for this task explodes out of other atoms as they are being melted inside of suns, and then rippled down to us as sunlight. In the black space between the sun and us, the waves of sunlight convey energy that can be used on Earth to bond, communicate, create, and transform. Energy has bathed the Earth, and due to this glow, the Earth has had the power to rearrange atoms in uncountable magnitudes, over eons, until the atomic world has been reshaped into whales and women, astronomers and novelists. Everything we see and touch consists of matter rearranged by information and energy. ”
A physicist will tell you that energy is the ability to do work. Energy is not definable with any more precision. So, we humans tend to describe energy in terms of how its operates. All of Nature, living and non-living, are receivers, storehouses, and transformers of energy. Living systems contain the essential conduits for the lifeblood of energy that is vital to the functioning of Nature at all levels. Energy needs to flow for Nature to function. There are smaller flow patterns inside larger flow patterns. Electrons and protons beget atoms. Atoms beget molecules. Molecules join to form our body organs, mountains, and oceans. In the course of this journey, energy changes into different useful forms.
Energy, as the operating currency of Nature, requires two equally important activities in order to become a vital force in the process of life on our planet. First, in order to be an available force, energy must be transported within and between entities in Nature. The network structures within and between living systems are conduits that are capable of transporting energy. The movement of our sun’s energy photons from the sun’s atomic furnace to a plant leaf on Earth is an example of energy transportation.
The second essential process is that energy must be capable of transforming itself from one form to another in a way that will release useful energy and produce useful action within an organism such as a plant leaf. Western science has confirmed that matter can be transformed into energy and energy can be transformed into matter. Physics teaches us that energy is neither created nor destroyed. But, it can change from one form to another.
All of Nature on and in our Earth comes, directly or indirectly, from sunlight. Within our sun’s nuclear furnace, two hydrogen nuclei are fused together to form one helium nucleus. The energy left over from this nuclear fusion process within the sun reaches the sun’s surface. Here some of that energy is converted into electromagnetic photons of light which are radiated and reach our Earth. In this basic solar process, we see matter being transformed into energy that is used by all plants and animals on our earth. The release of energy from our sun’s photons to produce carbohydrates (sugars) from the chemicals within the leaf is an example of energy transformation where the photon’s energy participates in the production of stored chemical energy that is useful to creatures who eat the leaves. In the process of transforming energy, the chemical reaction in the photosynthetic process absorbs and uses atmospheric carbon dioxide and expels oxygen into the atmosphere. In carrying out this chemical process, photosynthesis maintains atmospheric oxygen levels and supplies all of the organic compounds and most of the energy necessary for life on Earth.
All 400,000 species of plants and a few species of bacteria use sunlight and the process of photosynthesis to obtain and store their energy. Some organisms obtain their energy by consuming other organisms. These organisms include most types of bacteria and all of the animal and fungi species. In all of these forms, life transforms and transports the basic energy received from the sun. Paul Fleishman notes:
“A small plant, say an African violet, in a little pot on my windowsill, is capable of catching sunlight, taking electromagnetic energy out of the sky, civilizing it, controlling it, and thereby sliding it into the bonds between chemicals in living green cells. Because of this skill of plants, our own bodies can eventually be made. All green plants are our ancestors and our maker… Life’s two simultaneous tasks are building large complex structures of precise and skillful molecules; and moving energy, by making and breaking chemical bonds, to build, rebuild and maintain life…Every blade of grass is touched by the light of heaven which it turns into the sugar of life. Green photosynthesizers transform the Universe because they are skillful traffic directors for the flow of electrons, by which we move energy into chemical bonds…We humans are pure energy in the form of matter. Life is structure, formed by atomic placement, and life is the flow of energy within those structures.“
Like the photosynthetic organisms, we humans and other animals also transform and store energy. We inhale the oxygen produced by plants to facilitate the transformation of our food into chemical compounds that hold energy for later use. The cells in our body parts, organs such as our lungs, blood, and liver, perform these energy transformations and store the byproducts. Because of these processes, we humans are containers of transformed energy that originated from the energy in the universe.
Energy Defines Physical Structure
From this brief description of energy flow from our sun, into our Earth, and into our bodies, we can see that energy is a flowing currency that results in life through its processes of transportation and transformation. In addition, Nature’s energy transformation processes are also the means by w
hich Her structures are defined and fabricated. These structures are self-organized by energy. They define a living system. From great rivers to the minuscule molecular bonds that form the cells in our bodies, physical structure is a product of Nature’s energy flow processes. Recently, modern science has found that energy is the creator and transformer of physical forms and shapes. The “Constructal Theory” states that Nature’s forms and shapes are created to accommodate the flow of energy.
The rippled sandy beach pattern, familiar to all beach combers, is created by the energy of the water that flows over the sand. The water molecules become flowing streams. The water’s kinetic energy pushes the sand around to create evolving physical patterns. These patterns are created because the sand accommodates the kinetic energy that causes water to flow. Without energy, there would be no rivulets or streams. Even the rivulet’s raw materials, sand and rock, would not exist without the energy that is needed for the breaking, decomposition, and erosion of mountains into sand.
Visualizing Nature’s Energy Flow In A Real World
In this chapter and the previous chapter, we have been using the worldview of modern systems science to describe Nature, her interdependencies, and her energy flow. We’ve portrayed Nature as a series of hierarchal complex systems. Hopefully, this approach has provided you with some important detail about characteristics of ecosystems that are useful to educators, conservationists, and students. Perhaps you are beginning to see why the conservation methods that we humans employ must identify, preserve, and protect the energy flow conduits in Nature’s living systems.
We now take these system concepts and portray them in terms that describe actual creatures in Nature and the habitats in which they live. Here we will classify creatures in terms of how they transfer and transform energy. We will then visualize the actual relationships each creature has with other creatures in Nature. These ideas will help us when we employ conservation methods that identify and preserve energy flow conduits in Nature. The actual conservation methods will be discussed in the chapter on conservation practices. The information presented in this section of our text is readily available on the Internet in greater detail. Try using search words such as “food chain, “food web”, or the classifications of creatures noted below. It is gratifying to find that many environmental educators are now presenting their subject (and hosting field trips into Nature) using the concepts of energy flow in Nature.
As we have noted, all of our energy comes from the sun in the form of photons of light. The energy from these photons, when they strike Earth, is transformed into forms useful to the organisms that occupy our planet. These organisms are classified below.
Producers: Plants and other photosynthetic organisms are called producers because they take a form of energy (sunlight) that most organisms can’t use (sunlight) and produce a form of energy that most organisms can use (glucose).
Consumers: Organisms that cannot transform sunlight into usable energy must eat or consume other organisms to get energy. These types of organisms are called consumers. In an estuary (wetland), consumers include fish, birds, oysters, crabs, and many forms of zooplankton. Consumers can be divided into three groups based on what they eat:
- Herbivores, such as fish and deer, eat plants and other producers.
- Carnivores, such as lions and wolves, eat other consumers.
- Omnivores, such as humans, eat both producers and consumers.
Detritivores: Organisms that get their energy by feeding on dead organisms and then excreting their wastes, detritivores break down dead organisms into smaller pieces. Common detritivores in an estuary include crabs, worms and many aquatic insects.
Decomposers: Also feed on dead organisms, but they break the organisms down even further. Decomposers take the large molecules found in the tissues of an organism (such as carbohydrates, lipids and proteins) and break them down into simpler molecules (such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen and phosphorus). In doing so, decomposers create molecules that can be reused by producers during photosynthesis. Bacteria and fungi are often decomposers. Because every organism eventually dies, every organism in a food web can also be connected with one or more decomposers or detritivores.
A food chain diagram portrays the sequence of organisms eating and being eaten within an ecosystem. The diagram shows the links through which nutrients and energy are transported and transformed within the ecosystem. A simple food chain diagram is shown below. The sun’s energy is transferred to the grass (a producer). A herbivore consumer ( the elk ) eats the grass. The lion, a carnivore consumer (eats the elk).
Food web diagrams show how food chains are interconnected. Food web diagrams are schematic portrayals of living systems. They are complex illustrations of interconnected food chains where all the possible energy pathways are displayed. The illustration shown below is a food web for an estuary. Starting with the sun, a mangrove plant is the producer. We then see various types of consumers as well as the detritovores and decomposers. Estuaries, by definition, connect to both fresh water and salt water sources. The small creatures and the decomposed material from the estuary can move to a large body of salt water ( such as a sea ) through tidal flow action. If we were to include this action in a food web diagram, we would be illustrating the impact of energy flow from the estuary to the sea. In effect, we would be illustrating the ecological importance of the estuary beyond its own geographic location. Everything is connected.
Ecologists use food web diagrams to summarize energy flow in a community. Food web diagrams are powerful conservation tools because they illustrate, in real-life terms, the potential ecological impact of the alteration of energy flow by some human action. For example, if one were to remove the mangroves from the estuary to build a marina, the food web diagram would illustrate, through the alteration of energy flow, the negative ecological impact on the entire sea to which the estuary is connected. As noted in the previous chapter, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
To use a food web diagram to develop a conservation program for a specific ecological threat:
1) Identify an ecological threat within some ecosystem.
2) Describe why it is a threat.
3) Define all components of that ecosystem by developing a list of all flora and fauna.
4) Build a food web diagram that defines the energy transportation and transformation between components in the ecosystem.
5) Define which energy links are threatened and explain why.
6) Create, present and defend your solution for preserving and protecting each threatened energy link.
This essay and the previous essay in this essay series has hopefully given you some perspective about how living systems operate and the vital importance of our Earth’s energy flow in your life. We’ve seen that, to be useful, energy needs movement from one component to another. Energy also needs to undergo transformation in order to release itself to other processes. And, energy is capable of creating physical structures.
Nature has a way of teaching us valuable lessons if only we would listen. Her lessons on energy flow start with spectacular displays like rainbows, a night sky, a fierce storm, or a sunrise. These lessons continue as we engage Nature. Perhaps walking through a forest, relaxing at a beach, climbing a mountain, or just sitting in solitude as Nature approaches us. The fundamental lesson that Nature always teaches is that She is defined by her dynamic interrelationships between everything and anything in the Universe. Within these interrelationships, Her vital flow of energy gives us, and every other creature, life. For those of you who are stewards of Nature, the dynamic flow of energy may suggest some ways that you can do your part in evangelizing and conserving our planet for future generations of humanity.
In this essay on energy flow, we have established the following important ideas:
- The sun is our primary source of energy.
- Energy is the operating currency which connects and drives all animate and inanimate objects in the Universe.
- Energy is the unifying force that defines living systems.
- Nature’s living systems are the conduits for energy flow and transformation between and within Nature’s systems.
- The job of the conservationist is to define, preserve, and protect Nature’s energy flow.
The facts are that mankind’s alteration of Nature’s living systems can impair or destroy Nature’s energy flow. The elimination of keystone predators, gaseous emissions that impair the flow of our sun’s energy, the alteration of river systems, and the destruction of forests are examples of how human beings have affected important connections in Nature that have resulted in altered energy flow. Nature’s connections that transport and transform energy can be destroyed by man resulting in his extinction and the eradication of all life as we know it. We have it within our power to avoid this destruction. Those who warn about our emissions moving into the atmosphere are not simply crazy environmentalists or doomsday fanatics. The destruction could become real. What all of this means is that any human activity within Nature needs to be done with a consciousness of how things are connected and how relationships are affected. Destroying a link within the hierarchy of an ecosystem results in the destruction of energy flow between entities within that system. Part of any consideration of a human activity within Nature should include a careful definition of all the interconnections within the subject ecosystem and an impact assessment study of those connections.
Please take some time to review the material in the resource lists for the essay on living systems as well as this essay.
In the next essay, we will use the scientific facts that we have explored to form ethical guidelines that might influence and change mankind’s current treacherous path that could lead to the ultimate destruction of the human race.
Worth Your Extra Attention :
Here is a resource list for further study of energy flow in Nature that is introduced in this essay.
Why Do I Write These Essays?
Nothing in Nature exists in isolation. The movement of life’s energy, which originates in the sun, takes place because everything is interconnected and interdependent. Your consciousness of interdependence in Nature means that, every time you engage Nature, you ask yourself how a creature, a plant, yourself, or a natural object is connected to another and to Nature’s greater scheme of things. With this awareness you are prepared to protect Nature’s environment that sustains you. And, you create your legacy by encouraging others to do likewise.
If, after reading my essays, you find yourself embracing these ideas, I am thrilled in knowing that I’ve played some small part in setting this world view in motion in your mind.
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My name is Bill Graham. As a Marine Biologist who has worked in the US and Mexico for 30 years, I am a student of Nature, a teacher, a researcher, and a nature photographer. Through my work, I have acquired an ever growing passion for how everything in Nature is connected. Today, I travel extensively contemplating about, writing about, and photographing Nature’s connections. I also work with conservation projects in the USA and Mexico and mentor talented youth.