Veg*n Cooking and Other Random Musings: What is Food? - Food is Energy

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

What is Food? - Food is Energy

Now that I’ve attempted to make a case that culture and food are closely related, I’d like to change gears a bit while also (I hope) strengthening my case by broadening and deepening food’s relationship to the greater reality. I do this by regarding food as energy.

So, I’ll begin by giving a brief example of an energy cycle. You’ve got this big ball of gas – so big that it is a perpetual nuclear reactor, fusing hydrogen atoms into helium under its own weight. Immense quantities of energy escape this reactor, most notably, in the form of light which travels outward through “empty” space, dissipating as it goes. (You can ignore the quotes; they are there only to deflect any arguments from physics nerds insisting that space is not “empty.”)

A tiny – and I mean tiny – fraction of that light is shone upon our planet where plants, or producers, use it to fuel their own growth. Some plants are eaten by animals; others die and become food for other plants. Some animals eat only other animals, but regardless, they all pee, poop, and die – food for something in the end.

The lesson from functioning ecosystems and the proverbial food-chain is modestly simple: waste is food. Waste that is not food – pollution – is wasted energy, and wasted energy on a fixed budget of solar energy is a recipe for decline and even death for entire ecosystems. (I have to give props to William McDonough for this concept)

Clearing forests, tilling soil, and redirecting waters are but a few of the strategies employed by humans to make the environment more suitable to our needs; erosion, salinization, and desertification are but a few of the consequences of these actions. The result is the destruction of ecosystems which represent large storehouses of energy, but more importantly, they represent the opportunity for future energy income. All the while, we inundate these ecosystems with unusable wasted energy we call pollution.

Coal is the fossilized remains of old forest growth: trees, shrubs, and the like. Oil and natural gas are the fossilized remains of ancient algae which were cooked “just right” to be made into usable and recoverable resources. Together, the fossil fuels constitute a huge savings account of energy stored by ancient plant life, and the forests and other ecosystems which convert sunlight into usable energy (food) are our source of energy income.

So, every time you clear-cut some forest or till some soil, it’s like going to check-into-cash and getting a high interest loan that will keep you coming back, resulting in a continually declining income. And every time we utilize fossil fuel energy to build things, heat things, transport ourselves, or grow food, we are making a withdrawal on that massive savings – a savings we are only now coming to realize has an end and one we no longer make significant deposits into.

Viewed in this way, it’s clear what must be done: we must increase our planet’s income while decreasing our dependency on its savings if we wish to avoid getting ourselves into serious debt. We need to increase energy production, just not in the irresponsible and wasteful way that governments, corporations, and the media would have us do it – by increasing our withdrawal rate and getting more payday loans. What ought to be done may not be in the best interests of power interests, and who can blame them for looking out for themselves? Well, perhaps it’s time we take a lesson from our masters…


Cookiemouse said...

Quite right. Conservation of natural ecosystems and biodiversity is our top priority.

Bianca said...

This makes me so sad in light of Bush's decision to take away some Endangered Species Act protections that will keep people from trying to curb greenhouse gasses in order to save endangered animals, like polar bears (yea, I know run-on sentence).

It's so amazing that the Republicans are STILL denying global really? Are you that selfish that truly care more about profit than the future of the planet?!

Sorry, I know that's a bit off topic...but I just read that news story in the paper, and then I read this about conserving...and it makes me sad that people like us aren't in power but evil people who don't care about the planet are...

Jennifer (of Veg*n Cooking) said...

I think the biggest point to be made - and you did a great job - is that the Earth is a closed system. The energy is not necessarily lost, however when it is condensed into essentially unusable forms (i.e. pollution), it creates many problems, such as what we are now seeing with greenhouse gases and so on.

All these strategies that we have employed that you describe, the clear cutting of forests, tilling, trying to change the natural course of rivers, all have negative consequences, some of which we are seeing now, some might not be apparent for some time. But it brings me back to the concept that you discussed: the analogy of the Earth's energy supplies as a savings account, I think that concept could be generalized to things like soil fertility as well. Yes, by clearing land and tilling soil we get more production NOW, but it is at the expense of having production LATER. The problem with humans, as I see it, is generational "amnesia", we don't see the long-term consequences of our actions because we simply aren't around long enough to.

Reducing our dependency on this savings account is by no means an easy task. It will involve (in the West at least) fundamentally changing not only the way we do things, but the way we live our lives, and what is possible. It also likely means that, over time, we are going to have to reduce our population AND consumption (and I am not advocating sterilizing those in Third World countries, Westerners are a larger burden on the planet than they are in most respects). Otherwise there will come a time when all humans are impoverished - and there is no "away" for wealthy elites to go to escape. It would do all of us well to remember that we are, in fact, all in the same boat.

Chile said...

This is one of the reasons I really liked the Humanure book. The way we treat human poop & pee now is wasteful. If recycled through humanure composting, it ultimately can become food. In this way, we could lower the interest on that loan.

Brett said...

Cookie(Hunter;)Mouse -

Unfortunately, I believe conservation of biodiversity is only battle we have any hope of winning, and as of now, that is being accomplished by corporations like Monsanto which seek to profit from the loss of natural ecosystems and stable climates. I only hope that a shift in the power structure allows such corporations to recognize the importance of their role without anointing them as master. Frankly, though, I'm not sure how to address the problem of biodiversity being at the mercy of intellectual property laws; I just hope someone can figure that one out before it's too late to ever truly taste freedom.

The conservation of natural ecosystems runs against our collective instinct for survival as it has for some 10,000 years. While it may be the right thing to do, I cannot reasonably ask anyone to sacrifice their life for the lives of trees, monkeys, birds, bears, etc. I could be wrong, but my belief is that our best hope is in the creation of ecosystems that better compliment human activity. That is why I would argue that the conservation of biodiversity is ever-so-slightly more important than the conservation of ecosystems; it is also why I have developed an interest in permaculture. There is currently insufficient ecology to the extent that restoration is necessary to reverse our current course toward self-destruction, and I believe that restoration could (or should) be done in such a way that reduces our temptation (or need, really) to destroy it all over again.

Bianca -

I don't think that's a run-on sentence, although the comma was unnecessary. But I'm not the grammar police; your statement is clear and concise without being redundant, and that's really all one could ask for.

And I don't think you're off topic at all. In fact, you've so hit the nail on the head that I can't fully respond to your comment without giving up the premise of the final installment of the series (due out on Thursday). What I can say is that profit has less to with it than maintaining the current power structure; the proper alternatives would remove power from the hands of those who currently hold it by destroying its basis (hint: the alternatives are decentralized).

I hope that what I can say will provide some hope to get you by until the next post. But I'd like you to maintain your anger for now because I see great potential in the dialoge that might ensue. For now, I'd like to quote Jim Morrison: "They got the guns, but we got the numbers." Well, we don't have the numbers yet, but they're coming - believe me. What they need more than anything is to maintain a materialistic growth economy which is on its way out, and when it's gone, the masses will have an opportunity to realize the full potential of liberty, community, and autonomy....and the powers that be are scared as hell.

Jennifer -

All very good points. I would analogize soil fertility to the check-cashing places rather than savings as they diminish our ability to retain future income. But it all works the same, really, no matter what analogies we use so long as we realize that the Earth is a closed system on a fixed income of energy from the Sun and the core. (another good thing that came out of my conversation with Jessy last Friday: he reminded me that geothermal heat is produced - at least in part - by pressure from the weight of crust, etc. Now, if we could only calculate what the rate of production is so that we don't exceed it centuries or millenia from now and create a scenario of lost magnetism that would result in the sweeping away of the entire atmosphere.)

And you bring up a good point about the "population problem" also being a function of consumption. As consumption levels currently stand, the people of India could outbreed America on a nearly 10 to 1 basis and still make an equal contribution to the problem of human environmental impact. So, it's not so much a question of population as it is a question of collective consumption.

Chile -

We're still working towards getting comfortable with the idea of growing food with our poo; the zeitgeist of modern sewage treatment (that sewage = disease) still runs deep within us, but it's something we're surely going to have to get used to. Living in an apartment, I'm not sure how possible it is for us to do humanure composting (we're not even allowed to vermicompost - a 'rule' we should probably pretend we're unaware of), but for anyone who can make it happen, I would recommend it. We can't offer any advice on how to do this as we haven't looked into it seriously ourselves, but one can't always live by example. Anything we can do to lower our "interest rate" is worth a go.

Cookiemouse said...

The Earth is part of an open system which includes the sun, our ultimate source of energy. That is how life works against entropy. In the long run it is humans that will have to adapt to a much larger ecosystem, most of which we do not even know about, let alone understand.

Brett said...

Cookiemouse - Thanks for bringing up a good point. Earth as a closed system was more meant as a useful way of conceptualizing a limited budget of energy, but was not intended to be definitive (although it reads as though it were meant to be).

If there were only one thing worth knowing it would be that we know so little.

Don Blankenship said...

The energy value of a food indicates its value to the body as a fuel. This may be less than the heat value obtained experimentally by 'burning' the food outside .Food energy is the amount of energy obtained from food that is available through cellular respiration.
Don Blankenship