The Serengeti & Cycles that Never Stop
This is the sixth installment of An Earthen Ethic. Now we launch into the first of the six Earthen principles.
Observe the way the Earth has used its elements as indefinitely circular building blocks. — Earthen Ethic №1
The Serengeti volcanic grasslands lie just south of the Tanzanian/Kenyan border and the African equator. This vast area of over 30,000 square kilometers is home to one of the most enduring large mammal ecosystems on the planet.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle migrate through the grasslands accompanied by their predators. As the grasses capture carbon from the air, they build their stalks to carpet the savanna. In so doing, the grass lays out a vast and ever regenerating banquet. As the wildebeest and other herbivores graze, they digest the grass’s cellulose, releasing molecules of glucose, proteins, lipids and other nutrients to power their roaming and build their bodies. Then, when a lagging grazer falls prey to a lurking lion, it is the carnivore that grows strong on the very same molecules. In the dung and the carcasses of all these creatures, the grasses are fertilized and grow tall once again. An atom of carbon captured out of the air by a stalk of grass can be part of a molecule that is cycled innumerable of times in the Serengeti’s circles of life.
As we saw earlier, the Earth has been using indefinitely recyclable carbon blocks since the very beginnings of life on the planet. The Serengeti grasslands is an example of a phenomenon seen not just in ecosystems, but in every organism over the last billion years. From a tree to a forest, from a plankton to an algae, from a shell to a reef, we observe the cycling of building blocks in both organisms and ecosystems ‘with no vestige of a beginning and no prospect of an end’ (i). From a billion years ago to the life of today, the Earth’s use of carbon building-blocks has laid the foundation for the biosphere itself. After all, any system without cycling quickly scatters its nutrients (ii) and must rely on outside inputs. Instead, cycling maintains its blocks within each organism and ecosystem such that it may thrive. (iii)
In the same way that the Earth used cycling to enrich the biosphere, so too must we ensure that our human processes do the same. If our households, enterprises and technologies are to be greening, they must also use their materials as indefinite building blocks. While carbon is of particular pressing relevance to us today (i.e in our plastics, fuels, organic materials, etc.), this principle applies to all the elements of a process. A process that does not have the plan nor the result of cycling fails to meet this principle and cannot be green. In other words, it fails to provide the foundation for ecological contribution. (iv)
For example, let us consider a gasoline powered car. Today, most hydrocarbon transportation does not involve the capture and the reuse of the CO2 it releases. As such, it fails to embody the principle of cycling. We see the same failure in products that have no intention for the end of their life. A plastic cup without a plan for a subsequent cycle fails to embody this principle. Such processes and products cannot be considered ecological contributions.
However, the process of turning a used product into a new product can also fail to meet this principle. For example, transforming used PET bottles into fabric, transforming used tires into sandals or adding shredded used plastic into cement bricks. Although these transformations re-use an otherwise-discarded material, it is only for one cycle. If the new creation has no plan or result of re-use, the processes fails to embody the principle of indefinite cycling.
When evaluating a process we must inquire about its end. Is there a plan for a subsequent cycle once the process comes to its first conclusion?v What about after the second, third and fourth? Only processes that have the plan and the result of indefinite carbon circulation can be considered an ecological contribution.
Such indefinite cycling can be achieved by connecting to the Earth’s well established processes of biodegradation. For example, a restaurant’s process of composting its leftovers to fertilize its garden and grow more food. Likewise, the use of fungi to make readily compostable packaging or the use of paper or wood for single-use, biodegradeable items.
The Earth’s principle of Indefinite Cycling helps us make sense of today’s industrial plastic processing — in particular industrially recycling. While it is quite obvious that ‘single-use’ and disposable plastics fail to embody this principle, the latest enterprises aim at a ‘circular economy’. William McDonough speaks nobly of ‘industrial nutrient cycles’ and the concept of ‘cradle to cradle design’ (vi).
In so far as these methods intend for the cycling of materials they are closer to the Earth’s ways. However, we must also look at the results. Just because a system can recycle something indefinitely, doesn’t mean that it does. The average rate of plastic recovery in industrial systems over the last fifty years has been only 9% (vii) — with the remainder of the plastic ending up loose in the biosphere (viii) (ix). This is despite the fact that past and current recycling technologies can, technically speaking, recycle plastic indefinitely.
As we saw earlier in the long story of plastic, the failure of industrial recycling to manage our plastic isn’t because of imperfect technology. Rather it is a consequence of being immersed in the petro-capital economy and its never ending generation of cheap new plastic.
Although more challenging, it is possible to create our own cycles of indefinite re-use
Plastic LEGO successfully embodies the principle of cycling and of indefinite reuse. By leveraging the sturdy and long-lasting properties of plastic, such blocks can be re-used endlessly. Embodied with the intention and the result of indefinite reuse, their plastic is concentrated, secure and stored — which happens to be one of our subsequent principles
As we will see, Earthen principles are inextricably connected. The failure and success of meeting the principle of cycling is often connected to the absence of another.
This is the sixth post in a series laying out a new theory of Green using Earthen Ethics. In the next segment we’ll take a look at the second Earthen principle (and perhaps most radical!).
Next Week: The Salmon’s Cycle of Biosphere Benefit
Russell Maier is based in Indonesia, where he and his partner Ani Himawati tend a food forest garden that provides their fruit and greens. Together they track their household plastic and CO2 impacts. Their monthly household plastic consumption of 0.8kg/month is 14% of the Indonesian average. In 2020 their household CO2 emissions of 2046 Kg were 46.5% of the Indonesian per capita average. Meanwhile, their trees, bamboo, ecobricking and offsetting enabled them to secure 286% more CO2 (5851 kg of CO2 ) and keep 2200% more plastic out of the biosphere than they consumed (5.5Kg). See Russell’s full household plastic disclosure which is independent of his professional work and projects. See also full green impact accounting statement of the enterprise of developing Earthen Ethics and its publication. Russell and Ani are leaders in the global regenerative ecobrick movement.
i A Theory of the Earth, Thomas Hutton, Royal Society of Edinburgh, Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Vol. 1, 1788
ii The decimation of wildebeest populations during the mid-20th century allowed ground vegetation to flourish, eventually promoting wildfires that consumed 80 percent of the ecosystem annually. This led to a net annual release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. When disease management and anti-poaching efforts helped animal populations recover, a greater share of the carbon stored in vegetation was consumed by wildebeest and released as dung, keeping it in the system and restoring the ecosystem’s vitality and returning it to a state of net-subtraction. See: Animals and the zoogeochemistry of the carbon cycle, By Oswald J. Schmitz, et al, Science, 07 Dec 2018
iii In fact we can often observe a correlation between the rate of cycling and the richness and greeness of the system. Although there is a correlation between how frequently carbon is cycled one organism to the next and its greeness, this form of quantitative evaluation is beyond the scope of this essay. Instead, this first version of Earthen ethics, takes a simple boolean evaluation of the process: is the plan and result indefinite cycling — yes or no?
iv The ecological benefit of the process can be evaluated by just how readily and frequently the carbon is cycled. However this is beyond the scope of this essay. For the moment we simply making a boolean evaluation if there is any cycling planned and resulting from the process.
v It is important to note, that this cycling of carbon. Although, there is an important limiting lesson — as we will see the rate of carbon subtraction and storage must always too much of good thing — the carboniferous age remove so much carbon so fast, that it set off an ice age!)ugh indefinite, is not infinite. At a certain point, the carbon blocks inevitably find a fate outside of these cycles. In Earthen cycles this always leads to our next principle — the long-term storage of carbon.
vi Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, Michael Braungart, William McDonough, April 22, 2002
vii Over the last fifty years, it is estimated that only 9% of plastics have been captured by the industrial recycling system, resulting in the majority of plastics reaching the biosphere. Roland Geyer, Jenna R. Jambeck and Kara Lavender,’Production, use and fate of all plastics ever made’, (Science Advances 19 Jul 2017: Vol. 3, no. 7, e1700782)
viii Once loose, plastic degrades into micro-plastics, CO2, greenhouse gases and toxins which can disrupt ecological cycles. Ansje Lohr, Heidi Savelli, Raoul Beunen, Marco Kalz, Ad Ragas, Frank Van Belleghem, ‘Solutions for global marine litter pollution’, (sciencedirect.com, Current opinion in Environmental Sustainability, Vol 28, October 2017) 90–99