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Necessities of Life

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    Richard Sumpter

      I apologize for the length of this post, but I couldn’t see a way to attach it as a .docx.  Robert’s riff on matter inspired me.  I did it almost 20 years ago as a “meditation” when I worked for the Environmental Protection Agency, so some of the data is dated, particularly the last section, “Behavior.”  I previously posted the portion on “Air.”

      The ancients believed that there were just four elements:  Earth, Air, Water and Fire.

      In 1987 the World Commission on Environment and Development (also known as the Brundtland Commission) described Sustainable Development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

      However, on a global basis, there is room for much discussion about what truly constitute needs and how we go about meeting them.  Economists frequently link survival to our ability to use the “factors of production,” labor, capital and materials, in the most efficient manner.  All of these are definitely important to our “standard of living.”   Ecologists see survival in different terms, and would probably identify a different set of “factors of production.”  Additionally, they would ask us not to confuse “standard of living” with “quality of life.”

      (The following quotes, as well as much of what follows, are taken from The Sacred Balance by David Suzuki.)

      “…try to stop breathing.  You will quickly find that you have no choice in the matter.  Within a few seconds your body will demand air; within a minute blood vessels in your head will bulge, your heart will pound, and your chest will heave with silent screams for air.

      “Like air, water is essential to our survival.  But whereas lack of air will kill us within minutes, water takes longer to make its necessity known to us….we might survive for as long as ten days, depending on the ambient temperature and our degree of activity.

      “…all of our food comes from the earth…every bit of the nutrition that keeps us alive was once itself alive, and all terrestrially supplied nourishment, comes directly or indirectly from the soil.  Every part of our bodies…are constructed out of building blocks absorbed from the carcasses of other life forms.  Deprived of other beings to eat, we begin to starve, and thus to consume ourselves; if starvation continues we will die within seventy days.”

      SOIL (EARTH)

      Earth is both the planet we live on and the material we live from.  In our origin stories it is the stuff of our existence: “God formed man out of the soil of the earth…”  Adam, from the Hebrew,  means earth or soil.  Throughout the ages it has been treated as precious, even sacred, because of the gifts it gives us.  Soil is a microcosm where all the relationships of the larger world play out; in this element, earth, the other three unite – air, water and energy together create the vitality of the soil.

      Soil continues to be the main source of our nutrition.  Although throughout the world consumption of fish equals that of all cows and chickens combined, most people in the world live primarily on grain.  Thus agriculture provides more than 98% of human nutrition.  It takes 500 years to build 2.5 centimeters of topsoil.

      Every cubic centimeter of soil and sediment teems with billions of microorganisms; the soil produces life because it is itself alive.  A cubic meter of soil contains the following:

      Bacteria                        10,000,000,000,000.
      Actinomycetes                1,000,000,000,000.
      Fungi                                   10,000,000,000
      Algae                                    1,000,000,000

      Protozoa                                1,000,000,000
      Nematoda                                     1,000,000
      Other fauna                                      10,000
      Earthworms                                    30 – 300


      While 99% of the air we breathe is highly active oxygen, and mildly reactive nitrogen, about 1% is made up of Argon, an inert gas.  Because it is inert, it is breathed in and out without becoming a part of our bodies or entering into metabolic transformations. Each breath contains about 30,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms of
      argon plus quintillions of molecules of carbon dioxide.  Suppose you exhale a single breath and follow those argon atoms.  Within minutes they have diffused through the air far beyond the spot where they were released, traveling into the neighborhood.  After a year, those argon atoms have been mixed up in the atmosphere and spread around the planet in such a way that each breath you take includes 15 atoms of argon released in that one breath a year earlier.  All people over the age of 20 have taken at least100 million breaths and have inhaled argon atoms that were emitted in the first breath of every child born in the world a year before!  Your next breath will contain more than 400,000 of the argon atoms that Ghandi breathed.  Argon atoms are here from the Last Supper and from the recitations of the classic poets.  The longer each of us lives, the greater the likelihood that we will absorb atoms that were once part of Joan of Arc, Jesus Christ or extinct dinosaurs.  Every breath is an affirmation of our connection with all other living things, a renewal of our link with our ancestors and a
      contribution to generations yet to come.

      Relative Proportions of Gases in the Lower Atmosphere

      Nitrogen                                   78.08%
      Oxygen                                      20.95
      Argon                                         0.93
      Carbon dioxide                          0.035
      Neon                                            0.0018
      Helium                                         0.0052
      Methane                                       0.00014
      Krypton                                        0.00010
      Nitrous oxide                                 0.00005


      We are water – about 60% by weight.  The oceans flow through our veins, and our cells are inflated by water, our metabolic reactions mediated in aqueous solution.  Water is created in the metabolism of life; we absorb it from solid food and from any liquid we imbibe.  With it we quench our thirst, cleanse our bodies, ritually purify our souls and use it to revivify our spirit.  As air is a sacred gas, so is water a sacred liquid that links us to all the oceans of the world and ties us back in time to the very birthplace of all life.

      Each year, over 113,000 billion cubic meters of water fall to Earth, enough to cover all the continents to a depth of 80 centimeters.  Two-thirds of this amount evaporates back up into the atmosphere, while surface and sub-surface waters are replenished by the rest.  Canada has more than half the planet’s fresh water by area, and 15 to 20 per cent by volume.  The Great Lakes alone contain nearly five percent of all the fresh water on earth, and serve the needs of 40 million people.  Canadians have a volume of 130,000 cubic meters of flowing river water per year per person.  Egypt has 90 cubic meters per person.  The average Canadian uses 1500 cubic meters per year; Americans use 2300 cubic meters.

      More than 97% of the earth’s water is salty – toxic for terrestrial organisms.  Of the water that is sufficiently free of salt to drink, more than 90% is locked away in glaciers and ice sheets, or is deep underground.  Only about 0.0001 per cent of fresh water is readily accessible.

      Distribution of Water on Earth
        Location                                  Volume (cubic km)                          % of Total
      Oceans                                   1,322,000,000                                       97.2
      Icecaps & Glaciers                     29,200,000                                        2.15</p>
      Groundwater                                 8,400,000                                       0.62
      Freshwater lakes                               125,000                                        0.009
      Saline lakes and Inland Seas          104,000                                        0.008
      Moisture in Soil                                    67,000                                       0.005
      Atmosphere                                           13,000                                        0.001
      Stream Channels                                     1,250                                        0.0001
      Total liquid water in Land Areas  8,630,000                                      0.535
      World Total                              1,360,000,000                                   100.00


      Physicists define energy as the capacity to do work.  They have learned that energy cannot be created out of nothing; it must be obtained from somewhere else.  One of the most fundamental principles in science – the first law of thermodynamics states: “The total amount of energy in the universe remains constant.  More energy cannot be created; existing energy cannot be destroyed.  It can only be converted from one form to another.”  That’s the good news.  Now nature drops the other shoe – the second law of thermodynamics: “The spontaneous direction of energy flow is from hig-quality to low-quality forms.  With each conversion, some energy is randomly dispersed in a form that is not readily able to do work.”  This state of randomness or disorder is called entropy.  In the vernacular, we say everything tends toward disorder or high entropy.

      Life is the organic expression of energy.  To move, to breathe, to see, to metabolize, energy is needed.  Living things have a high degree of organization that requires much high-quality energy to keep them running.  (Even when asleep, our bodies generate as much heat as a 100 watt light bulb.)

      But if everything tends toward disorder, how has life been able to go on in spite of the second law?  How does everything keep from “winding down?”  The reason is that energy from the sun is constantly flooding our planet, providing high-quality energy to compensate for the steady decay of energy.  Without the addition of sunlight, life would soon run down.  Indeed, the sun is “giving its life” for us, as the solar furnace consumes four million tons of itself every second.

      In the early stages of evolution, life learned to eat sunlight through photosynthesis to stay alive.  We are truly solar powered.  Between 2.5 billion and 700 million years ago, photosynthetic bacteria were the main occupants of the ocean.  These were the first in a developing series of life forms whose fossilized remains, containing the stored solar energy would provide the “highest” life form – homo sapiens – with the energy form we call fossil fuels.  Fossil fuels are finite, a one-time only gift from the ancient life of our planet.  During the lifetime of our species, they will never again be created.

      Out of the millions upon millions of species that currently exist, one life form – homo sapiens – is appropriating for its use alone, 40% of the planets total photosynthetic output.

      By the end of the Phanerozoic eon (about 72,000 years ago) all five of the kingdoms of life were represented in Earth’s community – bacteria, eukaryotes, plants, fungi, and animals.
      The first kingdom, the monera or bacteria, consists possibly of millions of different species of bacteria.  At the present time, around 5,000 have been identified.  A spoonful of soil has an estimated fifty billion bacteria in it.  They are the core form of life in earth’s community.
      The second kingdom is the protists or eukaryotic cells with sixty-five thousand species identified.  Protists can be divided into three basic categories: the algae such as the phytoplankton; the protozoa, such as amoeba, and the slime molds.
      The third kingdom, the fungi, are not plants because they do not harvest the sunlight.  Rather they gather their food from the surroundings by absorbing nutrients through their cell walls.  A hundred thousand species have been identified.
      The fourth kingdom, plants, contains an estimated 300,000 species.  The majority are flowering types (angiosperms) of at least 250,000 species.  The remaining species are the naked seed trees (gymnosperms), and the non-vascular plants such as mosses and liverworts.
      The fifth kingdom is that of the animals, multicellular heterotrophs, with developed capacities for digestion.  The largest subgroup of those classified is that of the insects, some 850,000 species.  There are at least 500,000 species of roundworms, and 40,000 vertebrate species.  Among the vertebrates there are 9,000 bird species, 6,000 reptile species, and 4,500 mammalian species.
      We have classified around 2,000,000 species of life.  Biologists estimate there may be 10 to 30 million altogether.  And this number represents only one percent of the species that have come into existence since the beginning of life.


      * People are on average 41/2 times richer than their great-grandparents were in 1900.

      * American parents spend 40% less time with their children than in 1965.

      * At the very time that family sizes have dropped precipitously in North America, the average house size has almost doubled from 1.100 in 1941 to 2.060 square feet in 1993.

      * 93% of teen-age American girls report store-hopping as their favorite activity.

      * In 1987, the number of shopping centers surpassed the number of high schools in the United States.

      * Americans spend an average of 6 hours a week shopping, and 40 minutes a week playing with their children.

      * We can choose from 25,000 supermarket items, 200 kinds of cereal, and more than 11,000 magazines.

      * Since 1940, Americans alone have used up as large a share of the Earth’s mineral resources as all previous generations put together.

      * In the past 200 years, the United States has lost 50% of its wetlands, 90% of its old growth forests, and 99% of its tallgrass prairies.


        Nicely written

        Quality of life vs quantity ?

        Unbridled Population growth , the height of summer solstice abundance, precipitates plagues Brings famine …(Where’s John the Baptist when we need him ?)

        The oldest mythic Story and  schema In the Book …

        History shall repeat itself till we learn our lessons …

        mythic stories and cycles survive for a reason . They have been hewn and honed by the axe and stone of time and experience. The axe works and forms the vegetation. The stone the mineral that hones the axe and masonry of the mind .

        mythically of course .


        Thank you, Pilgrim1 for the information here. Again, your post reminds me of two authors and ecologists I enjoy: Gary Snyder (ecological and eastern spirituality poet) and Brian Swimme (cosmologist and writer of new myth theories). Your posts go very well with my readings of these other two writers. It is sadly amazing how much of the earth and our resources we have destroyed in the last 200 years. I am not a scientist that can save the air by developing alternative sources of energy, but I do work with the wildlife where I live with a nature reserve (volunteer) to help save our ecosystem–as I would like to think that my granddaughter and her children and children’s children can enjoy the natural world around them. There are many less monarchs now than when I was a child, and many less frogs and natural streams around, less woods. Now most of it is “preserved” or “reserved,” and those places are not as rich with wildlife and indigenous plant varieties as there once were.

        –Mary Ann

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