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Energy Flow Systems

Richard White’s Organic Machine, and William Cronon’s Changes in the Land, both examine environments as energy flow systems. The energy flow model was utilized by the authors to explain relationships within ecosystems. Richard White’s thesis is to examine the river as an organic machine, as an energy system that, although modified by human intervention, maintains it’s natural, its unmade qualities. White emphasizes on energy because it is a useful concept that can be easily understood. He says, the flow of the river is energy, so is the electricity that comes from the dams that block that flow.

Human labor is energy; so are the calories that are stored as fat by salmon for their journey upstream. White notes that energy is as concrete as salmon, human bodies, and the Grand Coulee Dam. White wants his readers to think about nature and its relationship with humanity. White explains how the river is energy. The Columbia River works as gravity pulls it to the Pacific Ocean. The Columbia is continuously cutting into the terrain that it flows through. Over millions of years water rushed through the Columbia Basin to form the Columbia River. Water carries soil, silt, nd debris downstream.

The constant movement of material in the river cuts and shapes the river basin into the land. This movement is a slow and inefficient use of energy. According to White, only two percent of water’s potential energy results in the work of erosion. The other ninety-eight percent of water’s energy was lost as water molecules rub against themselves, the river bed, and the river banks. This energy was released as heat into the river. Often the energy of flowing water was not recognized. There are occasions when rivers do show their power is destructive ways.

Power was usually demonstrated through floods, and more so in flash floods. Thousands of years ago, an ice dam in the Columbia River, holding the glacial lake Missoula, broke and created the largest known freshwater flood in earth’s history. The flood rushed into the Columbia Channel and created the Grand Coulee and other rock channels that would have taken the Mississippi River three hundred years at full flood to create. Salmon are also a part of the Colombian energy model. As the river works its way downward to the Pacific Ocean, the salmon work their way up the Columbia to spawn.

The energy in salmon can be measured by their body fat and caloric value. Salmon start their run upstream prepared for the long hard run. Their bodies have stored fat and oil after a year worth of feeding at sea. The stored energy in salmon is used as energy as they battle head to head against the force(energy) of the Columbia River. As the salmon work upstream, they use their stored energy and their bodies become leaner. When the salmon reach their destination, they are in ill condition. The skinny salmon lay their eggs and die of exhaustion. Work and energy also link humans to the Columbia River energy model.

Alexander Ross and his crew learned how powerful the river was in 1811. They attempted to enter the mouth of the Columbia from the Pacific. Ross learned that the river’s current and the ocean’s tide work against each other creating an astonishing amount of friction. Fresh water is pushed several miles out to sea and the ocean tides can be felt one hundred and forty miles up river. The tide form sandbars at the mouth of the river and the current crashing on them produces huge waves and foaming breakers. These breakers form barriers that Alexander Ross and his crew had to cross.

Human energy challenged the energy of the river mouth in 1811. The first attempt to cross the barrier was a failure. Ross’s friend Fox and his crew were lost while battling the waves of the seemingly unapproachable mouth of the Columbia. Ross and his crew with will and muscle somehow survived the force of the tide and current and made it across the river’s mouth for the first time. Ross’s drama to enter the river was explained by White by using the energy cycle. White explains that lunar energy causes the ocean tide and the sun provides all of the remaining energy of the cycle.

The sun heats the tmosphere that heats and evaporates the ocean water and provides the wind to move the moisture to the mountains. The clouds cool and moisture is released as rain or snow that falls to the land. Gravity pulls the water to the ocean again through the rivers and the process starts over again. Man attempts to slow down the natural energy cycle to extract energy from the river by building dams. Dams are used to store and regulate water that is used to turn turbines. These turbines power generators that produce electricity. Hydroelectricity was first in abundance.

Electricity was a product ithout much demand. Soon farmers used electricity to light their homes and to run small electrical devices such as toasters, irons, and washing machines. Electricity was also used to light city homes, factories, and streets. The hydroelectric companies still needed more customers to consume the electricity being produced. Californians bought electricity and soon major industries were attracted to the Columbia area because of the abundance of electricity. Electricity was a necessity for the production of aluminum.

Aluminum and Electricity were the perfect combination for the production of airplanes. U. S. plane manufacturers are centrally located in the Colombian area because of this unique utopia of energy. Later, electric energy in the Colombian river basin was produced automatically. The Columbia River was fist a sewer for radioactive waste produced by the production of Uranium. The Columbia was also used to cool nuclear reactors. The result of waste dumping was contamination, and the result of the Columbia cooling the nuclear reactors was the river’s temperature rose after the warm water returned to the river.

White’s model of the energy cycle in the Columbia River Basin fully escribes how energy is a naturally reassuring process that is altered by man, but can never be destroyed. William Cronon also uses an energy flow cycle in his book Changes in the Land. Cronon describes how the Indians and the Colonists create different cycles with the same environment. The European farmers cleared the forest for fields to plant corn and grain. Farmers also cleared land for their animals to graze on. The corn and grain growing in the fields took energy from the rich soil and the water.

This energy was then passed to humans or animals that ate the food. The animals that razed the land, took energy from the grass and water. They to would pass energy to humans by the form of labor or in the form of food. The energy in the soil came from the trees that held the water and rich top soil in place. As the trees were cut, the valuable topsoil was washed away from the rain and snow that easily washes into the streams and rivers. Soon the soil dries and is lifeless because the energy system was disturbed. Cronon’s solution to the European’s problem was to sustain the farm land.

Wood should be cut when necessary and new trees should be replaced to preserve he soil. In farm lands, crops need to be rotated ignored to sustain sufficient minerals in the soil for the harvest. The trees will hold topsoil and importantly water in the ground. The fields being sustained avoids the need to clear other fields for farm use. American Indians manipulated their natural environment in a different way. Indian women were the farm workers. They grew their crops among the trees. The trees held the soil and water. Indian women would also grow many crops together. This created a balance of mineral replacement and water replacement.

Indian men hunted for meat instead of grazing domesticated animals. Indians would create utopias for game by burning the forest floor annually. By doing this, the Indians create growth of small shrubs for the animals to hide in without destroying the forest. The sustained yield of crops and animals supported the Indian lifestyle until it was disturbed by European influences. White and Cronon both use energy flow systems to explain environmental history. Energy is easy to look at in history because man has used it and changed it throughout time. Energy sustains life and is and ever lasting cycle.

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