Replenish the Earth: Part I 

Wednesday, January 12, 2005


In the Bible, the first instruction given to man is in Genesis 1:28, "And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth."

Now, most followers of Biblical text that I know seem to understand being fruitful and multiplying, as well as subduing the Earth, and having dominion over every living thing that moveth upon the Earth. Where is, however, the respect for replenishing the Earth?

The use of hydrocarbons (oil, coal, methane, etc.) has become an issue that is only marginally understood by most people, and the subsequent dangers of using hydrocarbons are grossly misunderstood. There are three major categories of danger in using hydrocarbons. Each danger is distinctively and independently different. That is, solving one doesn't address (or solve) the others. But each have a common thread that ties them together: Humans, especially those of the industrialized world, consume more energy than they replenish. This has been the way every Empire in history has risen, and it has been the reason every Empire has fallen. I will break down each danger in a four part series, starting with this, the first in the series, explaining the foundational knowledge required to understand each. The subsequent parts of this series will explain each danger we face in using hydrocarbons.

The three dangers are:

To begin, we must understand the basic building blocks of life. An "atom" is the basic element of all matter. That is, the stuff Earth is made of, including us! There are a little over 100 known different types of atoms. Atoms are so small that you can’t even see them with a common microscope. All life on Earth has its basis in the exchange of three types of atoms, carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen.

Imagine that atoms are Lego blocks. These Lego blocks can connect with each other to create constructions that we call molecules. A "molecule" is a combination of two or more atoms (Legos connected) that create a new super element, which creates a new substance. Our air is mostly nitrogen. Our air also contains a lot of "oxygen" or O2 molecules (an O2 molecule is two oxygen atoms connected, "oxygen" is used to mean the single atom and the O2 molecule). Our air also contains a small amount of "carbon dioxide" or CO2 molecules (a CO2 molecule is a carbon atom and two oxygen atoms connected). So imagine a whole lot of Legos floating around in the air, each chunk is either an O2 construction or a CO2 construction, and that’s the stuff in our air that matters most to life.

Plants breathe in CO2 and use the Sun's light energy in a process called photosynthesis to break off the carbon atom. Photosynthesis also takes hydrogen atoms out of water. The water molecule is H2O, and is two hydrogen atoms connected with an oxygen atom. Finally, the plant creates food with the carbon and hydrogen atoms (well really, carbohydrates). When plants are done processing CO2 and H2O (using photosynthesis), they release the left over O2 back into the air (plants use the carbon and hydrogen atoms, and some of the oxygen atoms, but don't need the left over oxygen atoms). Animals (including humans) consume carbohydrates (food that comes from plants, or animals that eat plants), and burn them by breathing in O2 from the air. The process of "burning" is also known as combustion. Combustion is the process of using oxygen to create a rapid (or sometimes slow) chemical reaction (reconstruction of atoms into new molecules) that results in heat and/or light. Combustion is combining oxygen atoms with atoms that will break from other molecules to do so. Burning carbohydrates re-connects carbon atoms with oxygen atoms (CO2) and hydrogen atoms with oxygen atoms (H2O). This process creates heat energy that our bodies use, for example, to move our muscles (that's why you warm up when you exercise). When we're done getting the heat energy out of combusting carbohydrates, we breathe out the resulting molecules, which we don't need, CO2 and H2O.

You see the cycle?

Life depends on sharing this set of "Legos" (stay with the metaphor, I mean atoms) between plants and animals. Plants take the "Lego" constructions CO2 and H20, and create O2 and varying carbohydrates using photosynthesis. Animals (including humans) take the "Lego" constructions O2 and carbohydrates to create the "Lego" constructions CO2 and H20 using combustion. Animals can't make O2 or carbohydrates, and plants can't make CO2 or H2O. Neither can live without the other replenishing the supply for the other (and neither can live without the Sun's light energy).

Combustion is the consumption of energy, photosynthesis is the replenishment of energy.

It's important to remember here, that when we say, "create," H2O and CO2, or "create" O2 and carbohydrates, that we merely mean to rearrange the existing atoms (by taking apart the molecules and reconstructing them into different molecules). This "Lego" set we share with plants doesn’t need new pieces added; it just keeps building and rebuilding constructions with the same set of atoms (or "Legos," if you will).

As it turns out, most "Lego" constructions comprised of carbon and hydrogen (e.g. hydrocarbon, carbohydrates, etc.) are good sources of energy when combusted (combined with oxygen). These carbon-hydrogen substances are thus referred to as being "combustible." The same process our bodies use to create energy can be used to create heat and light outside of our bodies.

That's why wood burning creates heat energy; it's just taking the carbohydrates that wood is made of and burning them (combustion, using the O2 in the air). The resulting molecules rising into the air are H2O (water) and CO2 (carbon dioxide). The ashes left over are merely the minerals and impurities within the wood (without the hydrogen and carbon). When fire was discovered, humans realized that plant life was a source of energy (heat and light) as well as just plain old food (which is energy too, of course).

Even the domestication of work animals (who feed on plants or other animals who feed on plants) is a source of energy resulting from this carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen exchange. Once upon a time, tree wood, domesticated animals, (and eventually slaves) were the dominant source of energy for humans. All sources were replenished by photosynthesis (Sunlight energy), and consumed by combustion. As humans used up the carbohydrates of plants as fuel to burn for heat, food for themselves, and food for their worker animals (and eventually slaves), the sun would replenish that energy with more plants, and thus more animals (and eventually slaves). It was, for the most part, an even exchange that kept things in balance (except for the slave part). As humans used the energy of plants and animals (and eventually slaves), they did so at the same rate that each was growing. When they didn't, they ran out of energy and their population naturally decreased to compensate. They had a natural communion with Earth's resources. They had to respect the circle of life, because they’d die if they didn't. They consumed at the rate of replenishment, or they paid the price.

In part two, we'll talk about hydrocarbons (finally), and introduce the Global Warming danger. Try and contemplate, based on the knowledge I provided so far, why this might be a danger.

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