Unscrambling the egg: self-motivated organisms and the work of the biosphere

It is often said that you can't unscramble an egg. An egg has a wholeness or integrity, a poised arrangement of membranes and layers. You cannot reverse the breaking, mixing, and cooking, even with the most advanced technology and equipment.

But a hen can. Feed her a scrambled egg or two, and she can lay a new, whole egg. It may not be instant, but expensive technology is not required. If the egg is fertile, it can become a new hen, who can unscramble more eggs, and so on.

It's important to remember the relationship here, and who has the power. The hen wants to eat it, and produce a new egg, for reasons that are hers, not ours. Like all the biosphere's organisms, she is self-motivated. Trying to force her may cause problems for both her and us. If we want the egg unscrambled, we invite her.

We've got a scrambled egg situation on a global scale: biodiversity loss, extensive land degradation, water shortages, acidifying oceans, and too much heat-trapping carbon in the atmosphere. But we've framed it in such a way that the hen isn't even in the picture.

Of all these large problems, it was perhaps inevitable that carbon in the atmosphere took center stage in the 1970s and after. The data about rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were clear. Physical sciences were dominant in climate questions, and the scope and variability of the biological carbon cycle were only beginning to emerge.

That transparent carbon dioxide gas absorbed and emitted long-wave radiation, thus trapping heat, had been discovered in the 1800s. By the 1960s it was clear that atmospheric carbon dioxide was increasing steadily. But it took another generation, as well as a massive and varied accumulation of evidence, before most scientists and the public began to accept the possibility that climate could change as a result of human activities, and that fossil fuel burning was the main driver.

System leverage

Skeptics of anthropogenic global warming often attribute the power to change climate to solar output (astrophysics).

Most climate activists place the power for change with fossil fuel emissions (technology). But more are now recognizing that changing technology, such as emissions reductions, lacks near-term leverage on the whole system and on atmospheric carbon. Being proactive won't help much, because the system is too narrowly defined.

Reflecting more solar energy into space, or air capture of carbon using technology, is attractive to some because it corresponds to a widespread technical orientation, as well as frustration or impatience with the social, political, and leverage issues around emissions reductions. But these "geoengineering" possibilities are consistently accused of being band-aids. They do not address the causes of climate change, or the buildup of atmospheric carbon and other greenhouse gases.

The earth system, such as the biological carbon cycle, has been invisible or inscrutable as a source of change. But many are beginning to see the influence or potential influence of soil carbon or peat carbon, and forest carbon, and the tremendous power of carbon cycling.

We do not influence the biological carbon cycle as directly as we influence coal burning, but our influence is strong and immediate--though not as predictable and mechanical as international agreements, markets, or policy approaches seem to demand. The remaining divisions in science, for example into biological and physical sciences, haven't helped us understand the power of carbon cycling.

Fukuoka summarized

An excellent and trenchant summary of the principles underlying Masanobu Fukuoka's practice, which also describes biosphere process:

"Soil is created by living plants working with microorganisms, and by the plants' residues and the microorganisms' corpses after their death. Soil is drained of nutrients by cultivation, NOT by plants."


Holistic planned grazing article

RANGE magazine has a good article by Chris Gill and Allan Savory.


The work cycle of biological carbon

This animation shows the work cycle of biological carbon, driven by solar energy through photosynthesis. It is an energy graph, not a landscape.

Where's the carbon?

In the terrestrial carbon cycle, carbon moves from the atmosphere, to vegetation via photosynthesis in the form of complex carbon compounds (plain C in the animation), to litter and soil when the plants or leaves die, and back to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide via decay, oxidation, or burning.

The carbon cycle: alien to our understanding?

This is a preview of a forthcoming Flash animation about the carbon cycle and the work of the biosphere. It is an attempt to illustrate how alien the carbon cycle is to our understanding, which has typically been trained by our linear input-output systems and concepts of causation. And yet the carbon cycle is a background process to all life, and humans are increasingly influencing it.

However, change can happen, we can enhance the carbon cycle, and necessity is a powerful motivator.

Wichita, Kansas funds $100 acre for grass plantings in watershed

The City of Wichita, Kansas is now paying farmers in one of its watershed areas $100 an acre to put in grass. This is an incentive handled by the Cheney Lake Watershed to improve water quality for the city by working with watershed landowners.

This is yet another example of local policy leadership on water cycling, and an example of ecosystem services payments where cost and benefit are nearby. The article quoted below is by Lisa French.


"Like most farmers, David Friesen has a few acres of cropland that are always difficult to farm. In David’s case, his field near the Ninnescah River has a tendency to stay wet. Getting a crop planted and harvesting the crop are both a challenge. With a new program offered by the Cheney Lake Watershed, David is going to be paid $100/acre to seed a little more than 5 acres to Eastern gamagrass for hay or grazing. As David says, “It looks like it’s a no-brainer.”

"The Cheney Lake Watershed is now offering one-time incentive payments of $100/acre, funded by the City of Wichita, for crop acres seeded to permanent vegetation. The species used depend on the producer’s goals, soil types, and site condition. Eligible land must have five years of cropping history and must be located within the watershed east of Highway 14. Land in this area is more likely to contribute sediment to Cheney Reservoir than other areas of the watershed.

Performance criteria missing from US climate bill

Tim LaSalle at Rodale posted a nice piece in Treehugger pointing out the lack of performance criteria or monitoring in the US climate bill, and the high importance of monitoring.

"The best way to tell if a farmer’s fields are sequestering carbon is to measure annual changes in soil carbon."


Natural lawn mowers can benefit the carbon cycle


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