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The necessity of protecting the natural world

By Sheila Newman - posted Thursday, 1 November 2007

Humans already use most of the land on the planet.  In many places in the world the competition is between the land-poor and the land-rich.  This is a political problem which needs to be solved without further trashing the natural environment. Some systems are more equitable than others and the Anglo-Celtic system used in most English speaking countries is worse than most.  We humans have to share the land we already have more equally with each-other. If we insist on growing our population then the competition for land will be increasingly severe.  We have already taken enough from other creatures and need to give some (a lot) back.  Land for wildlife is not a luxury. The perception that it doesn't 'do' anything needs scientific countering with a thermodynamic explanation.  That explanation is that Life is the only force that can reorder spent energy.

The First Law of Thermodynamics states that energy cannot be created but is never lost. However the Second Law of Thermodynamics states that energy is transformed by use and that you can never make it how it was before. (You can't have your cake and eat it.) Industrial society provides a good example with the idea that a machine can make a sausage out of a pig, but it cannot make a pig out of a sausage. Once you have turned the pig into sausage for human consumption the energy in the sausage will never be pig again. It will be human waste.  The passage of the cake or the pig into something less coherent is part of the usual flow of chemical and physical reactions in a process known as ‘entropy increase’ or a tendency to ‘disperse’.

Otherwise the planet and the atmosphere would be completely filled with sludge and debris. This is the way that ecology and the life-cycles that make up an eco-system are able to temporarily make order from disorder. Industrial manufacturing can grossly restructure dead things, but life is the only process that is able to do this efficiently, keep the process going, and reproduce itself.


Of course if you feed a pig a pork sausage, some of that sausage will become pig again. Most people would see, however, that converting a pig into a sausage through an energy intensive industrial process and then feeding the sausage back to a pig so that the sausage contributed to a miniscule portion of pig-flesh is a pretty inefficient way to make pigs. Nonetheless pork sausages and many other processed foods do find their way back to pigs' troughs. This is quite illustrative of the circular and needlessly wasteful (and cruel) cycles that occur in consumer-industrial societies.

Modern human societies are in fact quite different from those of pre-fossil-fuel human societies and those of other animals.

We modern humans no longer just produce animal waste that is 'biodegradable' in a normal ecological cycle. Through extractive technologies we have artificially extended our bodies and amplified our activities, so that we consume quite enormous quantities of material and energy. In the process of digging up the materials and burning the energy to make things with, we also clear almost every other living thing in our paths. The waste carbon, nitrogen, phosphates, sulphur and other products which our artificial system puts out largely overwhelm the services of the remaining (shrinking) natural eco-systems. Yet the natural eco-systems are the ONLY agents capable of saving us from being buried, suffocated and burned by the physical and chemical interactions of our industrial-society waste.

That is how the second law of thermodynamics can be used to explain why it is vital to allocate increasing space to natural processes. Returning land to wild grass and forests and giving animals their freedom to live naturally is the most positive thing that we humans can do about the accelerating rate of planetary entropy that consumer society multiplied by huge human populations is causing. Entropy comes in the form of increasingly unpredictable climate and in broken, dead and dying eco-systems.

Large serviceable ecosystems like the Amazon, the great grasslands, coastal waters, coral reefs, indigenous forests, and vast regional chains of animals and plants working in harmony are deteriorating and disappearing because human society and infrastructure are consuming, clearing, fragmenting and isolating them.

In their place man-made things simplify what existed before.  Roads interrupt the living fabric of species interacting. Mines pulverize complex geological features and reduce them to their molecular components. Mines and wells extract, refine and simplify the geologically processed bodies of ancient plants and animacules (a microscopic animal such as an amoeba). From these rich sources factories mix the simplified components into soups, pastes and blocks for building and other materials or as fuel for heating, cooling, machines and transport. Factory-simplified engineered monocrops, cultivated with one-size-fits-all mass-produced fertilizers destroy living soil and the rich cloak it sustains on the planet's surface. Feedlot farming suppresses individuality by industrialized cruelty in the service of consumerism replacing the awe-inspiring herds and flocks of yore which had their own histories of migrations, navigations and evolutions. Cities have replaced the mysterious, nurturing and cooling forests, raising local temperatures without making rain. High-rise buildings burn huge amounts of energy and pollute the atmosphere just to keep their temperatures comfortable and their air breathable and to transport people within them by elevators.


These thermodynamic reasons justify the protection of wildlife and natural habitat as necessary for human survival.

People concerned about petroleum decline, pollution, poverty, homelessness, unemployment, etc., also worry that the survival-needs of vast human populations in an era of likely fossil fuel decline will be used to make life even more horrid for other species.

We can see though that there is a way that kindness to wildlife and the preservation of habitat is linked to the principles and laws of energy preservation.

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About the Author

Sheila Newman is an environmental sociologist and editor of articles on energy, population, land-use planning and resources. She co-edited the 2005 edition of The Final Energy Crisis, Pluto, UK, and is sole editor of the upcoming second edition, scheduled for August/September 2008. Her blog is at She also makes environmental and sociological films, including a series on wildlife corridors and kangaroo populations some of which are

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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