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Please address correspondence to Dr. From Population and Environment: Life on Earth is driven by energy. Autotrophs take it from solar radiation and heterotrophs take it from autotrophs. The control of fire and the exploitation of fossil fuels Things that they carried essay made it possible for Homo sapiens to release, in a short time, vast amounts of energy that accumulated long before the species appeared.
By using extrasomatic energy to modify more and more of its environment to suit human needs, the human population effectively expanded its resource base so that for long periods it has exceeded contemporary requirements.
This allowed an expansion of population similar to that of species introduced into extremely, propitious new habitats, such as rabbits in Australia or Japanese beetles in the United States.
But the exhaustion of fossil fuels, which supply three quarters of this energy, is not far off, and no other energy source is abundant and cheap enough to take their place. If there are survivors, they will not be able to carry on the cultural traditions of civilization, which require abundant, cheap energy.
It is unlikely, however, that the species itself can long persist without the energy whose exploitation is so much a part of its modus vivendi.
The human species may be seen as having evolved in the service of entropy, and it cannot be expected to outlast the dense accumulations of energy that have helped define its niche. Ever since Malthus, at least, it has been clear that means of subsistence do not grow as fast as population.
But in the same two centuries world population has grown exponentially while irreplaceable resources were used up. Some kind of adjustment is inevitable. Today, many people who are concerned about overpopulation and environmental degradation believe that human actions can avert catastrophe.
Unfortunately, worldwide implementation of a rigorous program of birth control is politically impossible. Conservation is futile as long as population continues to rise. And no resources are truly renewable. If all of nature were in perfect balance, every species would have a constant population, sustained indefinitely at carrying capacity.
But the history of life involves competition among species, with new species evolving and old ones dying out. In this context, one would expect populations to fluctuate, and for species that have been studied, they generally do ecology texts such as Odum, and Ricklefs, give examples.
The notion of balance in nature is an integral part of traditional western cosmology. But science has found no such balance. According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, energy flows from areas of greater concentration to areas of lesser concentration, and local processes run down.
Living organisms may accumulate energy temporarily but in the fullness of time entropy prevails. While the tissue of life that coats the planet Earth has been storing up energy for over three billion years, it cannot do so indefinitely.
Sooner or later, energy that accumulates must be released. This is the bioenergetic context in which Homo sapiens evolved, and it accounts for both the wild growth of human population and its imminent collapse.
There has been life on Earth for at least three and a half billion years, and over this time there has been a clear and constant evolution in the way energy is used.
The first living things may have obtained energy from organic molecules that had accumulated in their environment, but photosynthetic autotrophs, able to capture energy from sunlight, soon evolved, making it possible for life to escape this limited niche. The existence of autotrophs made a place for heterotrophs, which use energy that has already been captured by autotrophs.
It is not clear how photosynthesis got started, although it is a combination of two systems that can be found singly in some life forms that still exist.
But blue-green algae, which are among the earliest organisms documented in the fossil record, already employed the two-stage process that was eventually handed down to green plants. This is a complex sequence of events that has a simple outcome. As time passed, the sheer bulk of life increased, so that more and more energy was, at any given time, stored in living matter.
Additional energy was stored when carbon from once-living matter was buried, in ever-so-tiny increments, under the surface of the earth-in deposits that became coal, petroleum, and natural gas as well as in sedimentary rocks containing calcium and magnesium carbonates derived from shells.
Of all the carbon that has played a part in the life process, very little was separated out and held apart in this way, but over the course of millions and millions of years, it has mounted up. This separation of carbon and oxygen from a primeval atmosphere in which carbon dioxide and water were abundant represents a vast accumulation of solar energy from the past.
Independent locomotion was adaptive in the search for nutrients, although it took a little more energy than being buffeted about by the elements.
Cold-blooded fish and amphibians were followed by warm-blooded species, which reap the benefits of remaining active at lower temperatures, while using yet more energy in the process. The development of predation opened access to a supply of high-energy food with a further energy investment in procuring it.Suggested Essay Topics.
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