The Solar Economy

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The natural economy is solar-powered. Photons from the sun rain down upon the entire daytime surface of the planet. Many photons do nothing more useful than heat up a rock or a sandy beach. A few find their way into an eye - yours, or mine, or the compound eye of a shrimp or the parabolic reflector eye of a scallop. Some may happen to fall on a solar panel - either a man-made one like those that, in a fit of green zeal, I have just installed on my roof to heat the bathwater, or a green leaf, which is nature's solar panel. Plants use solar energy to drive 'uphill' chemical syntheses, manufacturing organic fuels, primarily sugars. 'Uphill' means that the synthesis of sugar needs energy to drive it; by the same token, the sugar can later be 'burned' in a 'downhill' reaction that releases (a fraction of) the energy again to do useful work, for example muscular work, or the work of building a great tree trunk. The 'downhill' and 'uphill' analogy is with water flowing downhill from a high tank and driving water wheels to do useful work; or being energetically pumped uphill into the high tank, so that it can later be used to drive water wheels when it flows downhill again. At every stage of the energy economy, whether uphill or downhill, some energy is lost - no energy transaction is ever perfectly efficient. That is why patent offices don't need even to look at designs for perpetual motion machines: they are implacably and forever impossible. You can't use the downhill energy from a water wheel to pump the same amount of water uphill again so that it can drive the water wheel. There must always be some energy fed in from outside to compensate for the wastage - and that is where the sun comes in. I'll return to this important theme in Chapter 13.

Much of the land surface of the Earth is covered by green leaves, which constitute a many-layered catchment for photons. If a photon is not caught by one leaf, it has a good chance of being caught by the one below. In a dense forest, not many photons make it to the ground uncaught, which is exactly why mature forests are such dark places in which to walk. Most of the photons that constitute our planet's minute share of the sun's rays hit water, and the surface layers of the sea swarm with single-celled green plants to catch them. Whether at sea or on land, the chemical process that traps photons and uses them to drive 'uphill' energy-consuming chemical reactions, manufacturing convenient energy-storage molecules such as sugars and starch, is called photosynthesis. It was invented, more than a billion years ago, by bacteria; and green bacteria still underlie most photosynthesis. I can say this because the chloroplasts -tiny green photosynthetic engines that actually do the business of photosynthesis in all leaves - are themselves the direct descendants of green bacteria. Indeed, since they still autonomously reproduce themselves after the manner of bacteria, within plant cells, we can justly say that they still are bacteria, albeit heavily dependent on the leaves that house them and to which they give their colour. It appears that originally free-living green bacteria were hijacked into plant cells, where they eventually evolved into what we now call chloroplasts.

And it is a neatly symmetrical fact that, just as the uphill chemistry of life is mostly taken care of by green bacteria thriving inside plant cells, so too the downhill chemistry of metabolism - the slow burning of sugars and other fuels to release energy in cells of both animals and plants - is the special expertise of another class of bacteria, once free-living but now reproducing themselves in larger cells, where they are known as mitochondria. Mitochondria and chloroplasts, descended from different kinds of bacteria, each built up their complementary chemical wizardries billions of years before the existence of any living organism visible to the naked eye. Both were later shanghaied for their chemical skills, and today they multiply inside the liquid interiors of the much larger and more complicated cells of creatures big enough for us to see and touch - plant cells in the case of chloroplasts, plant and animal cells in the case of mitochondria.

The solar energy captured by chloroplasts in plants lies at the base of complicated food chains, in which the energy passes from plants through herbivores, which may be insects, through carnivores, which may be insects or insectivores as well as wolves and leopards, through scavengers such as vultures and dung beetles, and eventually to agents of decay such as fungi and bacteria. At every stage of these food chains, some of the energy is wasted as heat as it passes through, while some of it is used to drive biological processes such as muscle contraction. No new energy is added after the initial input from the sun. With a few interesting but minor exceptions such as the denizens of deep ocean 'smokers' whose energy comes from volcanic sources, all the energy that drives life comes ultimately from sunlight, trapped by plants.

Look at a single tall tree standing proud in the middle of an open area. Why is it so tall? Not to be closer to the sun! That long trunk could be shortened until the crown of the tree was splayed out over the ground, with no loss in photons and huge savings in cost. So why go to all that expense of pushing the crown of the tree up towards the sky? The answer eludes us until we realize that the natural habitat of such a tree is a forest. Trees are tall to overtop rival trees - of the same and other species. Don't be misled when you see a tree in an open field or garden that has leafy branches all the way down to the ground. It has that well-rounded shape so beloved of sergeant instructors because it is in an open field or garden.* You are seeing it out of its natural habitat, which is a dense forest. The natural shape of a forest tree is tall and bare-trunked, with most of the branches and leaves near the top - in the canopy which bears the brunt of the photon rain. And now, here's an odd thought. If only all the trees in the forest could come to some agreement - like a trades union restrictive practice - to grow no higher than, say, 10 feet, every one would benefit. The entire community - the entire ecosystem - could gain from the savings in wood, and energy, which are consumed in building up those towering and costly trunks.

The difficulty of cultivating such agreements of mutual restraint is well known, even in human affairs where we can potentially deploy the gift of foresight. A familiar example is a suggested agreement to sit, rather than stand, when watching a spectacle such as a horse race. If everybody sat, tall people would still get a better view than short people, just as they would if everybody stood, but with the advantage that sitting is more comfortable for everybody. The problems start when one short person sitting behind a tall person stands, to get a better view. Immediately, the person sitting behind him stands, in order to see anything at all. A wave of standing sweeps around the field, until everybody is standing. In the end, everybody is worse off than they would be if they had all stayed sitting.

In a typical mature forest, the canopy can be thought of as an aerial meadow, just like a rolling grassland prairie, but raised on stilts. The canopy is gathering solar energy at much the same rate as a grassland prairie would. But a substantial proportion of the energy is 'wasted' by being fed straight into the stilts, which do nothing more useful than loft the 'meadow' high in the air, where it picks up exactly the same harvest of photons as it would - at far lower cost - if it were laid flat on the ground.

And this brings us face to face with the difference between a designed economy and an evolutionary economy. In a designed economy there would be no trees, or certainly no very tall trees: no forests, no canopy. Trees are a waste. Trees are extravagant. Tree trunks are standing monuments to futile competition - futile if we think in terms of a planned economy. But the natural economy is not planned. Individual plants compete with other plants, of the same and other species, and the result is that they grow taller and taller, far taller than any planner would recommend. Not indefinitely taller, however. There comes a point when growing another foot taller, although it confers a competitive advantage, costs so much that the individual tree doing it actually ends up worse off than its rivals that forgo the extra foot. It is the balance of costs and benefits to the individual trees that finally determines the height to which trees are pressed to grow, not the benefits that a rational planner could calculate for the trees as a group. And of course the balance ends up at a different maximum in different forests. The Pacific Coast redwoods (see them before you die) have probably never been exceeded.

Imagine the fate of a hypothetical forest - let's call it the Forest of Friendship - in which, by some mysterious concordat, all the trees have somehow managed to achieve the desirable aim of lowering the entire canopy to 10 feet. The canopy looks just like any other forest canopy except that it is only 10 feet high instead of 100 feet. From the point of view of a planned economy, the Forest of Friendship is more efficient as a forest than the tall forests with which we are familiar, because resources are not put into producing massive trunks that have no purpose apart from competing with other trees.

But now, suppose one mutant tree were to spring up in the middle of the Forest of Friendship. This rogue tree grows marginally taller than the 'agreed' norm of 10 feet. Immediately, this mutant secures a competitive advantage. Admittedly, it has to pay the cost of the extra length of trunk. But it is more than compensated, as long as all other trees obey the self-denying ordinance, because the extra photons gathered more than pay the extra cost of lengthening the trunk. Natural selection therefore favours the genetic tendency to break out of the self-denying ordinance and grow a bit taller, say to 11 feet. As the generations go by, more and more trees break the embargo on height. When, finally, all the trees in the forest are 11 feet tall, they are all worse off than they were before: all are paying the cost of growing the extra foot. But they are not getting any extra photons for their trouble. And now natural selection favours any mutant tendency to grow to, say 12 feet. And so the trees go on getting taller and taller. Will this futile climb towards the sun ever come to an end? Why not trees a mile high, why not Jack's beanstalk? The limit is set at the height where the marginal cost of growing another foot outweighs the gain in photons from growing that extra foot.

We are talking individual costs and benefits throughout this argument. The forest would look very different if its economy had been designed for the benefit of the forest as a whole. In fact, what we actually see is a forest in which each tree species evolved through natural selection favouring individual trees that out-competed rival individual trees, whether of their own or another species. Everything about trees is compatible with the view that they were not designed - unless, of course, they were designed to supply us with timber, or to delight our eyes and flatter our cameras in the New England Fall. And history is not short of those who would believe just that, so let's turn to a parallel case, where the benefits to humanity are harder to allege: the arms race between hunters and hunted.

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Getting Started With Solar

Getting Started With Solar

Do we really want the one thing that gives us its resources unconditionally to suffer even more than it is suffering now? Nature, is a part of our being from the earliest human days. We respect Nature and it gives us its bounty, but in the recent past greedy money hungry corporations have made us all so destructive, so wasteful.

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