As light slowly returns to the Northern Hemisphere, we anticipate brighter days ahead. It’s a good time to consider the wondrous combination of forces that make life on Earth possible.
Above all is the sun — the ultimate source of all our energy. But we rely on plants, algae and some bacteria to obtain this energy through photosynthesis. According to a Lumen Learning article, “It is the only biological process that can capture energy that originates in outer space (sunlight) and convert it into chemical compounds (carbohydrates) that every organism uses to power its metabolism.”
Photosynthesis uses solar energy to convert water and atmospheric carbon dioxide into organic compounds such as sugars. “These sugars are then used to make complex carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins, as well as the wood, leaves, and roots of plants,” University of California’s Understanding Global Change website says. As an added bonus, we get oxygen.
Photosynthesis powers 99 per cent of Earth’s ecosystems. Even coal, oil and gas were created when plants (and sometimes the animals that ate them) were buried, their captured solar energy transformed and concentrated though heat, pressure and hundreds of millions of years.
Although it’s tempting to see this massive, fiery, life-giving entity as some kind of deity, we have to remember the sun is indifferent. What it does to or for us is up to us. If we choose to go out into its heat unprotected, we’ll burn and possibly get skin cancer. If we put solar panels on our home or office building, we’ll capture its energy.
Existing and new ways to use its power more directly, perhaps even through artificial photosynthesis, are clearly better than wasting the valuable, concentrated stores that have taken more than 300 million years to form. But unlike solar radiation, coal, oil and gas can be “commodities.” Under our human systems, someone can “own” these and exploit, trade, sell and profit from them. As profit and wealth concentration became primary drivers of economic agendas in the industrialized world, rampant exploitation and waste became the norm, rather than careful and beneficial use.
Most early automobiles used plant-based ethanol for fuel, but as more oil was discovered, the two industries worked together to create a sprawling car culture that would deliberately burn and waste excessive amounts of fuels to keep profits flowing. It was likely the biggest overall mistake humans have ever made.
For a time, it worked like a dream — the American Dream perhaps — increased prosperity and mobility, shopping malls, drive-throughs, suburbs, middle class jobs, a wide variety of food and products and consumerism as a virtue. We can see now that we’ve been borrowing from the future to pay for our excessive lifestyles, and the bill has come due.
It never made sense to burn precious energy stores in such a wasteful and polluting way, to put enormous amounts of money and energy into developing a culture and infrastructure around empowering and encouraging a massive number of people to each have a two-tonne machine to move them around.
To resolve the climate and related crises, we have to change our ways. And we have to help those who haven’t enjoyed the same privileges and benefits of our fossil-fuelled economies to ensure they can prosper without contributing more to the damage.
I once asked renowned ecologist E.O. Wilson, who died on December 26, how many people the planet could sustain indefinitely. He responded, “If you want to live like North Americans, 200 million.” That’s because North Americans, Europeans, Japanese and Australians, who make up 20 percent of the world’s population, are consuming more than 80 percent of its resources.
So maybe we shouldn’t think of transformative change as sacrifice. It’s more about realizing what’s truly important, that the persistent race to acquire more stuff or more money is an illusory path to well-being. We simply can’t continue consuming in the same way we have been for the past hundred years or so. Freed from those pointless pursuits, we might actually discover that family, friends, community and nature bring us more happiness and satisfaction than any material goods.
So, as the days grow longer with the promise of the sun, let’s all do what we can to spread light and joy in the world.
David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Writer and Editor Ian Hanington.