Here's a link to the best explanation that I can find of how life, and it's predecessor the Universe, came to be. I highly recommend investing the next 18 minutes in absorbing it.
Here's some equally high quality thoughts on where in the short term we are going.
Life on earth is facing an existential challenge. To understand that one must learn or have learned some science that is not at all intuitive. That understanding will allow realistic appraisal of
public information from science or other perspectives. Not that life is not sufficiently robust but certainly many species of it will not survive our ability to change land, sea and air.
So, here goes.
Economics and accounting, with their monetary focus, were adequate when there were so few humans and our wants were so modest that resources seemed infinite compared to dollars. That simply is, unfortunately, no longer true. So it's time for us to adapt once again, as we always have, to changing reality.
An organized way in which a state or nation (or planet) allocates its (limited) resources (raw materials, energy, labor (skills and energy), and debt) and apportions goods and services in the national (global) community (markets). Things in () are my expansions.
The thing is that money is far from limited. Any bank can make more because they only need 10% cash to make a loan. The other 90% comes out of thin air. But that doesn't mean that things that money can buy are not limited.
The Universe, including life, has it's own currency, it doesn't even recognize money. Everything that is, has ever been, and will ever be, is a particular combination of energy, matter and spacetime. So they're what may be limited to us.
It may seem strange that in what's always been considered the boundless Universe anything can be limited so we need to define limited as limited to us, life, within our practical reach.
Our senses tell us that matter is substantial and robust. But there is a great deal of evidence that everything is made up of nothing. Let me explain.
If you had an infinite zoom microscope and went into the interior of an atom you’d find what would look like a dark sky with just a few stars, some called leptons and some called quarks. Mere points of something, very widely spaced. They would all be in constant motion. One of the things that’s remarkable about them is that they can control each other's behaviour though there's absolutely nothing in between them, through four fundamental forces. If this particular atom was part of what makes up a bridge that you were standing on, it would be only those forces that would be supporting you. Of course the only reason that you’d need support is because of gravity, one of the four fundamental forces, caused by your mass and the mass of the whole earth attracting each other. Of course what causes anything to have mass is a mystery.
Here are the laws that essentially run the Universe:
Matter comes in about 100 “elements”, or unique combinations of about a dozen fundamental particles. Elements in turn can be combined in almost an infinite number of ways called "compounds" through adjustments in energy.
Because virtually all human experience is on earth it just seems logical to us that things of substance weigh something. They have heft. Scientists have figured out that what we sense comes from a universal property that they call gravity.
Gravity is one of four fundamental forces that explain how the smallest indivisible particles that form all matter interact with each other though separated by space. Gravity is the tendency for all matter to be attracted to all other matter and though relatively weak at atomic scale it overwhelms the other forces over all other distances and when huge numbers of atomic particles are combined.
The other forces are stronger but get weaker much faster than gravity over distance but can hold molecules in a rigid lattice giving solids structural integrity.
Oddly enough another property, resistance by bodies to changes in motion through time, which requires energy to overcome, is proportional to gravity.
So all matter is being tugged at by all other matter over all distances by gravity as if it was directional energy. The energy that came from the Big Bang maintains separation. (Actually we don't know for sure who's winning, gravity trying to unite or energy trying to disperse.)
While we know that electromagnetic radiation is how energy moves from body to body we don't know how the energy of gravity is transmitted.
So for us humans on earth, our energy income from the sun can be invested in a great number of ways. Creating heat. Moving matter. Lifting matter against gravity. Recovering energy from water falling due to gravity. Powering machinery or bodies. Lifting satellites against gravity then speeding them up to orbital velocity.
Without our energy income earth would be a cold lifeless rock.
Energy powers everything that changes position in space over time. While it might be said that it's all the same in that respect, another respect is that it comes in many different forms as portrayed here. We have technology to convert back and forth among all forms of energy. Every conversion loses some in the process though, generally as heat.
Earth's and therefore Life's allocation of energy comes continuously by electromagnetic radiation from the temperature of the sun's surface at 10,000 degrees C and leaves us as different "color" (energy level) radiation from earth's average temperature of 15 degrees C.
A relatively constant stream of energy comes into one half of earth every second, and that half changes continuously over every 24 hours during which the entire earth gets its share of energy income.
Fish live in an ocean of water that floats on land and we live in an ocean of air that floats on everything. Both oceans and the land and life itself are the means by which earth deals with the ebb and flow of energy.
Over the very long term the carbon dioxide that we dump into our air ocean migrates to our water ocean and turns into the acid that carbonated soft drinks are well known for. Aquatic species don't fare any better when their environment changes than those of us who live in the air ocean do. What we call seafood will go through extinction risks just like we face.
Life is one of many results of combining our local matter in specific ways with energy streamed from the sun. How does that work? “Carbohydrates are produced by green plants through a process known as photosynthesis. In photosynthesis, a pigment called chlorophyll in the leaves of plants absorbs light energy from the Sun. Plants use this light energy to convert water and carbon dioxide from the environment into glucose and oxygen. Some glucose is used to form the more complex carbohydrate cellulose, the main structural component of plant cell walls. Some is used to provide immediate energy to plant cells. The rest is changed to a different chemical form, usually starch, and stored in seeds, roots, or fruits for later use.”
In other words plants do magic; they absorb energy but instead of warming they store the energy chemically (like batteries) and therefore don't spontaneously lose it like heat would be lost.
Animal life consumes those carbohydrates, or other animals who do, and digestion makes the solar energy chemically incorporated into the food available for use by animal cells in order to make heat, do the chemistry to make new or repair old cells, or power muscle cells to make motion. (Just like changing or recharging our batteries.)
When life dies what it's made from goes back into land, sea or air, where it came from, whether it's us, firewood or ethanol, so it's recycled into new life.
Of course humans, because now it's essential to, have cleverly supplemented photosynthesis with other technologies to gather, store, and make use of solar energy.
Changing gears now.
Economics tells us to consider wealth = income - expense.
One form of wealth on earth is matter because, more often than not, it can only be spent once.The trouble with matter as wealth is that there is no income. We have what we have and whatever we use and don't recycle is ultimately turned into waste and more often than not buried.
Energy, on the other hand, is income in the sense that it comes here in a steady stream continuously from the sun just like paychecks from work or water into this bathtub. The electromagnetic radiation given off by everything on earth that's warm (which is everything here) which makes it through the greenhouse gas blanket is expense sort of like the water draining from the tub. So just like our savings accounts, or the bathtub in the cartoon, the earth’s balance of warmth here is the total over all time of our energy income minus our outgoing energy expense.
Burning fossil fuels from ancient earth leads to increasing in our atmosphere their waste which has surprising and special and specific properties. That waste matter absorbs outgoing radiation and instead of letting it return to space returns much of it to earth. The problem is that these greenhouse gases do not absorb incoming radiation from the super hot sun. This is our greenhouse blanket that has always kept us warmer than say the moon which receives almost exactly the same sunight internsity as we do. As long as we keep adding more, more energy will be trapped here to be dealt with by changes in air and water processes.So more greenhouse gases, means the same energy income but less energy expense, which leaves more energy here.
Good right? More energy wealth accumulating here.
So we have two savings accounts to think about. Matter, for which we have no income, just expenses for all of the stuff that we consume, and energy, warmth, which is the balance of our continuous energy income from the sun, and our continuous energy expense as it is radiated from land and sea and life and from and through the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Like our monetary wealth here on earth our energy wealth seems adequate but it's not distributed well over earth's surface. Some falls directly on the equator, some obliquely on the poles and everything in between. Two thirds falls on water and is almost completely absorbed. Much falls on snow and ice and sand and clouds and gets almost competely reflected causing little warming. That's accomodated by nature and us because water and air currents, weather, move the energy around and plant, animal and human life locates where the weather is favorable.
Over human history those have been adequate solutions. But our increasing energy wealth due to fossil fuel waste in the atmosphere has tipped the equilibrium that we're used to.
So, extra energy means extra change in our land, sea and air resevoirs. That's such a complex system that the exact weather changes are virtually impossible to predict but trends are clear and we've seen some of them at this stage of the game. I think that the best description is more extreme weather (precipitation, drought, winds, temperature) and rising sea levels due to melting land ice and warmer oceans.
There is not a lot of area on earth that is ideal for housing and supporting mankind at the current population much less the projected future. Move the precipitation around, raise the temperatures, raise sea level, energize wind storms and each one raises havoc with some population and infrastructure. Not a problem when we lived in tents but what we have built is decidedly not portable
Difficult to get one's head around for sure, but certain. Life on earth and everything to sustain it are just combinations of our matter wealth and solar energy income causing the matter to change in spacetime.
About 200 years ago we had a windfall from old plants and
animals, fossil fuels, from long ago suns, and we’ve been wastrels ever since drunk on excess.
We’ve spent our energy inheritance in the relative blink of an eye. We could keep that up, it's not all gone yet, but the climate consquences of fossil fuel waste are unaffordable.
Now we must learn to live within our energy income and to manage our raw material wealth.
Winning the energy lottery has allowed us to, while on our bender, convert much of our material wealth into unusable waste. We’ve moved valuable materials from where they were, made and used stuff from them, then time, unless we were smart enough to recycle or recover, converted them to useless waste, and we buried them near where we live.
Time to sober up.
To continue to have a home we not only have to learn to live within our matter and energy and space-time means but now also to live within the climate that burning fossil fuels changed, is changing, and will change until and beyond the point when we stop burning them, rather than the bountiful climate nature gave us and we adapted civilization to.
We’ve challenged ourselves by our cleverness but only more cleverness can save us.
But the old world is gone and we now have to create its replacement using the same old tools: monetary wealth and debt (capital), our personal energy and skills (labor), what’s left of our material wealth, and our energy income.
Now that we have flirted with temporary we have to settle down with sustainable life.
We also appear to have used up all of the practically available monetary debt as a source of capital. We’re in over our heads for several generations at the beginning of our journey away from temporary to a permanent place that is affordable.
So, here’s what needs to be done:
Mass (matter) is a problem because we have a limited supply (often it can only be used once) and because it resists lifting and motion and sheds heat. Energy is a solution because it does our work, makes up for lost heat and it's renewed continuously.
However some solutions come with problems. If we recover energy as we have from previous suns it has the certain effect due to its waste products of delaying the exit of energy from earth and building up more here than life is adapted to and our infrastructure was built for. It's the consequence of the fact that we don't ever consume energy, we only take advantage of it over its brief stay on earth.
But that problem has a solution which is to take advantage of our incoming continuous supply as compared to the old stuff.
So let's get on with it.
Many dynamic forces deal with it but when all is said and done warmed matter needs to have radiated the same amount back into space over the same time or warming (or cooling) on the average will occur in both oceans and the land until balance is restored.
The name given to all efforts to reduce adding even more fossil fuel waste into the atmosphere and therefore increase the trapping of energy here and therefore changing our climate, is “mitigation”.
One of the consequences of mitigating too slowly is the cost of "recovery" from the impact of the changed climate. While each recovery may be expensive but affordable the slower that we mitigate the more expensive each occurance will be and they will exist at that level for probably at least a thousand years.
So each year that we fail to mitigate, to completely stop adding carbon to our air ocean, the cost of recovery will go up another notch for essentially ever.
The name given to changing our civilization to accommodate whatever climate change we cause (new weather patterns and more land under water rather than under air) by slow or unsuccessful mitigation, is “adaptation”.
Slower or less effective mitigation leads to more recovery, which is essentially for ever or until we invest in adaptation as the cheaper solution.
It's intuitively obvious that mitigation trades off upfront costs for equipment, for continuous operating savings through eliminating the use of fuels as the intermediary between solar input and use. It's also a huge business opportunity. It's also a threat to those working or invested in fossil fuels. In fact the largest expense of mitigation may be re-purposing workers who find themselves stuck in the obsolete fuels business.
The relationship between recovery costs and the rate of effective mitigation is exponential. At some slow rate of mitigation, recovery becomes prohibitively costly and chaotic.
As recovery costs grow adaptation becomes the only less expensive alternative.
Or we can just mitigate, change over to sustainable as fast as possible, and avoid all of those unaffordable expenses. It's by far the least cost option. And, we'd have to do it someday anyway as we run out of fossil fuel matter that we can afford to bring to the surface, process and transport.
We need to focus on matter, energy and spacetime economics first and foremost to drive monetary economics to our salvation and benefit.
We aren’t yet.
If we were, the first thing that we’d face down is waste. With 7B+ people all using our gifts from the Universe we simply cannot afford to throw those gifts away with no value obtained from them.
Let me give you an example: if you are not driving an electric or hybrid vehicle you consume energy every time that you accelerate (remember inertia) then throw it away as brake heat when you stop. Why not reuse it for the next start and instead of using two barrels of oil for that trip use one; or, even better, none?
Another example is making light to see at night. LED bulbs make only light. Filament bulbs make many times more heat than light. Why waste that energy?
We have lots of roofs. They all have sun shining on some part of them some of the time. That's energy.
Wind blows all of the time as our ocean of air responds to its daily gift of energy. Why waste all of that energy?
We have to replace raw consumption with informed natural and sustainable, not artificial short term uninformed, economics.
The good news is that there's no doubt that we can. But like what won the world wars we need extreme focus on the strategy and tactical solutions for every step along the way. We have to let go of what separates us and grab on to what we all need; a viable future free from the threat of running out.
Let's count what counts; our matter wealth, energy income and electromagnetic radiation expense. Only we are the cause of their imbalance and only we can fix that which threatens our future. Only we.
"References" links to other websites that describe various considerations more thoroughly. Finally, "Futures" talks about the various scenarios that we could choose among to bequeath to our progeny. "Choices" outlines some of the alternatives that we can decide among.