The Salmon & Cycles of Surpluses
Observe how ecological surpluses are distributed upwards from organism to ecosystem, ecosystem to biome, biome to biosphere. -Earthen Principle №2
In the land of the Wetʼsuwetʼen people in Northwestern Canada, the Pacific Salmon’s cycle of abundance is revered. In a lifespan of seven years, these remarkable fish start their lives in small forest creeks. When they are ready, they set out on a thousand kilometer journey to the ocean. On the way, a tiny fry transforms into a magnificent fish that can thrive in the vast waters of the Pacific. Seven years later, the Salmon retrace their route, navigating ocean, river, and stream to return to very creek where their lives began. Along the way, a host of creatures benefit. Bears, eagles, ravens and humans gain an autumnal feast that prepares them for the long winter ahead. Often Salmon are brought deep into the forest to be consumed. There, the carcasses of the fish and the excrement of those that consume them, fertilize the forest with a blast of marine nutrients. Those Salmon who make it back to the waters where they were born use the last of their energy to lay and fertilize their eggs. The Salmon then die, their bodies fertilizing the rivers themselves.
The Wetʼsuwetʼen believe we have much to learn from our fellow creatures— much like a child has much to learn from its older brothers and sisters. The way in which the Salmon contribute upwards to all is, for the Wetʼsuwetʼen, an example to follow. Over its initial journey downstream, the Salmon absorb far more nutrients and calories from its environment than it burns — becoming a mighty and beautiful creature. However, the Salmon does not capture more nutrients than it needs. Nor does it become bigger, stronger or more long-lived than necessary. Instead, every nutrient and calorie goes to its full living. Carefully crafted over the eons, its parameters of life fill the Salmon’s epic annual return with epic ecological returns — nourishing the full length of the very river ecology that will nurture the next Salmon cycle.i
Tended by time, the cycle of the Salmon emerged so that in pursuing its parameters, it increasingly enriched its local web of life. Its ecology in turn enriched the Salmon itself. The Salmon dramatically exemplifies reciprocal parameters that we see in every Earthen organism— from the Wildebeest of the Serengeti, to a service berry, to the cells of our body, everywhere we observe parameters that spin their surpluses upwards towards the benefit of all.
The same principle is reflected in an organism’s ecology. Whether it is the forest of a tree, the grasslands of the Wildebeest, or the river system of the Salmon, as an ecosystem thrives, it spins its surpluses upwards to its biome. Then, as a continent of rain-forest or grasslands thrive, the biome contributes upwards to the benefit of the planet’s ecological whole. Over the last billion years, this was a fundamental principle of the Earth’s cultivation of the abundant biosphere of today.
Like the Wetʼsuwetʼen, we can be edified by the Salmon’s example — and that of the Earth.
If our processes are to be authentic contributions they must follow the Earth’s example. Where the Earth tended the surpluses of its processes to be of upwards ecological benefit, we must intend and realize the same. Surpluses in our economies are profits. Only processes that have both the intention and the result of directing profits upwards towards the biosphere’s benefit meet this principle. Processes that have parameters that concentrate downward, that seek profit for itself, profit-in-and-of-itself or profit for those behind it, fail to meet this principle and cannot be considered an ecological contribution.
For example, consider a company with the purpose of recovering plastic from the ocean. If that enterprise is structured to distribute profit downwards to its owner, it would not fulfill the principle of upwards distribution of surpluses. Nor would it, if the company has parameters of distributing profits downwards to its shareholders. Despite the good intentions of its owners or shareholders, if the enterprise is structured towards the downward concentration of profit, then it is at odds with the Earth’s way of upwards distribution.
By not prioritizing the biosphere, green-intentioned, for-profit enterprises become trapped in a paradox of principle.
An enterprise simply cannot resolve a problem that it is dependent on. For example, it is common for plastic recovery companies to sell that which they recover to manufacturers. The sale of the plastic enables the company to profit and continue its business. However, in so doing, the enterprise becomes bound to the persistence of plastic pollution. When pollution dependent, an enterprise inadvertently supports further pollution. By selling recovered plastic to manufactures, more plastic products are made. As ocean plastic is of low quality, it can only be used for single-use products (surf shorts, sneakers, polyester clothing, etc.)— leading to further plastic waste and further plastic reaching the oceans.
When evaluating our processes and enterprises we must ask: who profits from the profits? We must look at the process’s parameters and inquire: Is the plan of the enterprise the downward concentration of surpluses? Or is it the result the outward and upward benefit to the ecosystem that encompasses it?
Only if a process has the primary goal of enriching its surrounding ecology, with no other overriding goal, can it be considered to be an authentic contribution to the greening of the biosphere.
In this way, the principle of biosphere-benefit helps us to make sense of our current management of plastic. The vast majority of plastic post processing is done by for-profit enterprises. Even the most circular and green-intentioned recycling enterprise, as their pursuit of profit comes first, fails to follow the Earth’s example.
However, let us consider another plastic recovery enterprise operating without a primary profit goal. Instead, this enterprise has the priority of enriching the ocean’s ecology. When the enterprise generates surpluses, it can invest them with full authenticity to directly address the source of pollution. Such an enterprise would likely combine plastic recovery with other work that is of far greater long term consequence to its goal: i.e. plastic education, encouraging the reduction of consumption, plastic alternatives advocacy, etc.ii
In the same way that a caught Salmon represents far more ecological value than the weight of its body — so too would the plastic recovered by an Earth focused enterprise. Given the authenticity of its work, each kilogram of recovered plastic will have the additional value of preventing plastic generation in the first place, assisting ocean life, and preventing further industrial plastic processing. Whereas a for-profit company is dependent on the mere industrial value of plastic, the for-biosphere enterprise can found itself on the the ecological value of the plastic removed.iii
The same holds for other Earth-focused enterprises that are planting trees or protecting hectares of rain forest. Their work enabling a forest-tree to grow is far more valuable than any potential lumber. It has a value in terms of ecological contribution.
As we will see, such Earth Enterprises which directly meet all of the other Earthen principles, provide a deep green value in and of itself.
Just like the Salmon.
This is the seventh post in a series laying out a new theory of Green using Earthen Ethics. In the next segment we’ll take a look at how the Oyster exemplifies the third principle of Concentration and Storage.
Next Week: The Oyster
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 For the last thousand years this principle and its greening consequences were so ubiquitous and immersive we took it for granted. However, never before has its been clearer. For the last centuries, humans within petro-capital economies have gradually re-directed the surpluses of their economic activities from benefiting their surroundings to benefiting the enterprise and its owners and shareholders. With this downward and inward spiraling of profits, enterprises have become increasingly extractive of their surrounding social and ecological context. Likewise economies dominated by for-profit enterprises have come to concentrate wealth in the hands of few — rather than distribute it back to the society and ecosystems in which the enterprise operates. Today, the contrast is stark between the greying ecological consequences of for-profit processes and that of for-Earth processes that we can decisively discern the ways of the Earth.
ii Here we see Earthen principles connect with each other — in this case the raising of ecological consciousness. We’ll get to the sixth principle of “Consciousness Raising” shortly.
iii As we will see later in this essay, plastic has an additional ecological value that far surpasses its economic, material valuation. As we will also see, the capital in which human profits are measured is inextricably connected to the petro-capital economy and in-of-itself represents additive greying impact. We’ll tackle this in the forthcoming post on Petro-Capital Transition.