11. The Food Chain

Note: See the entire book here.

Our appetite for power did not slow down with just our need to survive one more day.  Evolution designed us to amass as much power as possible, because we needed it just to eek out a life.  We had a a Power gas pedal, but no Power brakes.  There was no built in mechanism of contentment for when we had enough.

The ordering had become a runaway uphill snowball of complexity and power.  

All this power needed fuel.

So we giants came to rely on food: prepackaged complexities of proteins, carbs, and fats made possible by the sacrifice of less powerful things below.  Now, we rely on a daily vortex of energy constantly sucked from the earth.

Let’s take a look at the simple food chain that keeps you and I breathing at a baseline of alive.

Plants start us off, those heroes. 

Look at you, you photosynthesizing hero.

They freakishly convert about 3-6% of SUNLIGHT into BIOMASS.  MIND=BLOWN.   If you thought all this power and order stuff was getting weird before, just realize that plants figured out how to store power—from photons.

Remember, this plant itself is like you – a fantastically complex ordered system of systems of scaled up Evolutionary Gambling Winnings.  A bank account of stored order. Power.

And you need him.  Yes, you need his fantastic molecules of B12 and Fiber and Selenium and complex carbs, don’t you?  That’s why you’re eyeballing him.  I see you.

What ensues is not a simple lunch.  It is a hostile takeover.   A coup of unfathomable power exchange between two giants.  

The original corporate merger.

Winner declared.

The plant has already done all the hard work of assembling sunlight and earth into useful molecules, and you just roll into town and swipe it on your way out the door to yoga.  Next time you eat a leafy green, thank it.

Next, your body goes through the enormously complex task of merging with the newly acquired Order called “spinach”, and assimilating the useful parts to become part of our body. Far more intricate than any corporation.

Stored power is the foundation of our life.  But then, entropy. 

So our survival depends on us locating and extracting more stored power from wherever we can find it.  Now, here we stand at the top of the food chain, committing hostile takeovers of fried chicken sandwiches,[1] funneling our 95 watts[2] of energy from Momma Earth.   

But Mother Earth pay a lot more, still.  Since each organism consumes its own energy, and digestion isn’t perfect, it takes a lot more than 2,000 calories to feed us.  To keep it simple, we use the 10% rule.  After the first level, 10 percent of the energy from each level in the pyramid makes it to the next.[3]  

Take a fox.

If you have a 4-member food chain like this one, the sun must produce a constant 3 million watts just to keep a grey fox alive at a measly 30 watts[4].  Countless photons gave energy to trillions upon trillions of living cells, which all sacrificed themselves so this fox could eat just a few chickens.  Millions of years of biological engineering through death and life, all for a meal.  The fox had better be damn thankful for that chicken. 

Also, as you might imagine, a single fox would also have to cover a lot of territory to get its 3 million watts. 

Looking down on a flat map, it may look like this:

A blade of grass can thrive in a territory of square centimeter, while a carnivore like a grey wolf may require a territory as big as over 2,000 square kilometers.[5]  Suffice it to say, it take a ton of earth to keep one top-level carnivore alive.  Its why people plead with you to be a vegetarian.[6]

The suck one fox puts on the earth is enormous.  But a human? 

It would be really really great to think that, since we’re a little bigger than Mr. Fox, it would look like this:

So, about triple – about 8-9 million watts, right?

Wrong.  That would assume that all we did was eat. 


[1] Popeye’s or Chick-Fil-A?  I will never forget where I was the week of the Great Chicken Sandwich Twitter War of 2019.

[2] Did you know you can convert watts to calories? 95 watts for 24 hours straight is 1,960 calories per day, right at the 2,000 that the FDA uses to base a normal adult diet on your nutrition labels.  A new LED bulb, if it could eat, would only eat about 190 calories, or 2 Tbsp of peanut butter. 

[3] Except the first level—the plants only convert and pass on about 1% of sunlight energy that hits them.

[4] Okay, watts?  Calories?  Aren’t those different things?  Well, sort of.  Math nerds, lets square this away.  Watts measure the amount of energy transferred per second, where as calories are the amount of energy stored in something.  But as long as there is a continuous cycle of consumption, you can consider them the same thing.  Put it like this:  If calories were like how much water were in your city’s water tower, then watts would be the rate at which it is flowing through your faucet.  Those are very different.  BUT if your water tower is continuously being refilled faster than you can drain it, then its all a wash.  See what I did there?

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wolf

[6] To be clear, I’m not pleading.  But I am pleading with you to not eat bluefin tuna or grey wolf steaks. Don’t.

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