Sunday, January 6, 2013

Thinking in Circles

Yes, this is partly a play on the title of Donella Meadows' book, Thinking in Systems.  (See my posts on Learning from Modeling, 1/31/12, and Leverage Points and Graphs of the Future, 2/15/12, for a bit more about the book.) To be able to think in systems is a wonderful thing but I do find it difficult.  On the other hand, linear thinking is easier but causes many problems.  I think the first step to system thinking is thinking in circles. Circles (or 'loops' as the systems people would say) is the way that nature works on the small scale.

The most powerful first example I can give is photosynthesis and cellular respiration.  (I've discussed these in detail in my posts on Biology 101: Photosynthesis, 5/17/12, and Biology 101: Cellular Respiration, 5/10/12.) In photosynthesis, plants take in energy (in the form of sunlight) and carbon dioxide and water, and create sugars, as well as giving off oxygen (as a 'waste' product).  In cellular respiration, our cells take in sugar and oxygen and get energy from them--as well as giving off water and carbon dioxide.  Neither process would last long without the other.  We give the plants (and other organisms that use photosynthesis) what they need (carbon dioxide and water), the plants give us (and other animals) what we need (sugars and oxygen).  Yes, this is highly simplified, but the truth is that it does form a nice circular system--and one essential to our lives.

My other three examples are all drawn from composting, a process near and dear to my heart.  At least two of them can be compared with the 'linear' process that we now use--processes that seem crazier and crazier to me the more I think about them.

The first and most basic step is what most people think of as composting.  You take table scraps and leaves and let them rot together and you get rich soil.  You can then use this soil to grow more plants.  The circular model goes like this: food is eaten but the food scraps are used for compost which creates soil which is used to grow food which can be eaten and generates more food scraps to create more compost.  It goes round and round and round.  Compare this with the linear model that many people have lived by: food comes from somewhere (the supermarket?), we eat it and the scraps go out in the garbage to somewhere (in this case, usually landfills).  Meanwhile, conventional agriculture builds the fertility of the soil with chemicals made from oil (fertilizers) and there is a growing waste problem as our landfills fill up.  Which is sustainable?

But the process of composting can go two levels deeper.  (Warning, this is not for the squeamish--I will go to levels some people don't want to think about.  I suspect it's this very squeamishness that may be at the root of some of the problems.)

The next level down of composting is what happens to the food that we do eat.  Yes, we digest it and we excrete what we can't use.  The linear model for this is that we eat food from the supermarkets and then flush what we can't use down the toilet where it goes to that magical land of 'away'.  (In reality, into septic systems and often into our oceans.) In my next post I will review The Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins, but a preview is that we can compost our feces (and urine), and use that to create even richer soil.  Again this becomes a circle where we eat food, and what our bodies can't use leaves as feces which can become composted into soil to grow more food.

But there is a deeper level of composting even more unimaginable to many people and that's composting ourselves.  Yes, our bodies after death can be composted. Natural burial is an alternative to the embalming, and metal caskets, and concrete vaults, that prevent nature from doing what it wants to do, and that's to turn our bodies back into soil.

Several authors that I've read point out that nature has no toxic waste sites.  The woods are not filled with the excrement of all the forest animals nor with their dead bodies.  Everything in nature is recycled back to the soil and from the soil grows more plants which feed the animals in the forest.  Nature acts in circles.  We need to think in circles. That's the only thing that's sustainable.

Quote of the Day: "We can't impose our will on a system. We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone." - Donella Meadows


vera said...

Well. Been meaning to post "Compost me please!" on my blog one of these days. Ya beat me to it. :-)

MoonRaven said...

Oh,please post it! I'd love to read more about the subject.