Recycling Materials (Nutrients)

This is the beginning of Chapter Two of Bare Bones Ecology. New definitions are printed in red and defined here. Words that have been described and defined in Chapter One and the introduction to Bare Bones Ecology are printed in green (as soon as I figure out how to do this). You can download Bare Bones Ecology, introduction and chapter one, from the pdf links that are on the right of this blog, or from

Chapter Two is about materials (the nutrients, the chemical components of all living stuff) and how the living whole earth ecosystem is able to stay alive, in part, by recycling the nutrients that it requires to be alive. (One definition of life is the ability of living things to create the conditions that they require to be alive. For one example, your body can do metabolism.) The recycling of materials through the biosphere is one of the things that binds together all the cells and organisms of all the different levels of organization
of the living earth ecosystem into one whole living unit.

Biosphere = the living earth, the earth ecosystem.
The biggest unit of life is the whole earth ecosystem.

All of life is made of exquisitely organized chemical atoms and molecules. Inorganic molecules are provided by the earth; organic molecules are constructed by the organisms, using atoms and inorganic molecules. That’s why the atoms and inorganic molecules are referred to as nutrients for the entire ecosystem. I prefer to word “materials.” The circulation of materials is one of the ways in which cells and organisms of the same and different levels of organization interact with each other to maintain the balance of materials that their bodies are made of.

If you want to think of a comparison, your body is also a (much smaller) unit of life, and it also requires balance among its parts in order to stay alive. One way your body is able to maintain its biochemical balance (metabolism) is (also) to circulate the materials (nutrients) of food (organic energy) as they enter and leave the body. Organisms like us have circulatory systems to do this function. The biosphere has biogeochemical cycles.

Biogeochemical cycle means biological/geological/chemical cycle of materials (nutrients). It describes the way in which chemical components of life are circulated through the organic (biological) and inorganic (geological) parts of the living ecosystem.

Circulation of materials makes the nutrients available throughout the ecosystem, in a form they can be used again and again. For one example, a carbon atom might be used by a plant to make an organic molecule; then an animal eats the plant and the organic molecule is broken apart in the metabolism of the animal; the same carbon atom is then used to make carbon dioxide; the carbon dioxide is excreted into the air, where it circulates around until a plant takes it in and uses it to make another different organic molecule. This is like the physiology of the ecosystem.

This cycle would not happen without the living earth ecosystem. Life is the ability to create the conditions inside itself that are necessary to maintain life.

As an introduction to biogeochemical cycles (biological/geological/chemical) I could not do better than to quote from the classic textbook, Fundamentals of Ecology, by Eugene Odum. Chapter 4, page 86, Third edition, Princles and Concepts pertaining to biogeochemical cycles. A newer edition is available. I have added the comments in parentheses:

“Of the (more or less 100 elements different kinds of atoms) that are known to occur in nature, between 30 and 40 are known to be required by living organisms. Some elements such as carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen are needed in large quantities; others are needed in small or even minute quantities. Whatever the need may be, essential elements (as well as nonessential elements) exhibit definite biogeochemical cycles.

“The essential elements, including all the essential elements of life, tend to circulate in the biosphere in characteristic paths from environment to organisms and back to the environment. These more or less circular paths are known as biogeochemical cycles. The movement of those elements (atoms) and inorganic compounds (inorganic compounds are molecules that are not made in the body of a living organism) that are essential to life can be conveniently designated as nutrient cycling. For each cycle it is also convenient to designate two compartments or pools: (1) the reservoir pool, the large, slow-moving, generally non-biological component, and (2) the exchange or cycling pool, a smaller but more active portion that is exchanging (i.e., moving back and forth) rapidly between organisms and their immediate environment. From the standpoint of the biosphere as a whole biogeochemical cycles fall into two basic groups: (1) gaseous types, in which the reservoir is in the atmosphere or hydrosphere (ocean, lake or pond), and (2) sedimentary types, in which the reservoir is in the earth’s crust.”

We don’t need to describe every cycle in order to appreciate that all of the chemical raw materials of life do recycle in the living earth ecosystem, and they all have different, but interacting cycles. So long as the biosphere is healthy (balanced, sustainable, resilient), all of its different organisms contribute to the biogeochemical cycles that bind the entire system together.


On this blog (FFF), Bare Bones posting day rolls around twice a week like clockwork, but our Bare Bones Ecology Book requires thinking between posting days, which can be a bit of a problem. Thinking is not as reliable as time, and I don’t have a detailed materials cycle for you today, so let’s begin with a bit of background for chapter 02.

As we have emphasized, the ecosystem (and all other living things) require for their survival:

1. the flow of energy through the “body,” as the energy is converted from sunlight to food to heat in the process of doing work;

2. the cycling of materials that, unlike energy, can be used over and over again;

3. the flow of information over time to maintain and reproduce the flexibility, resilience and stability of the interacting functions that are necessary to do the work of processing energy and recycling materials.

That was in the introduction to chapter 01. We will publish the introduction and chapter 01 when we receive feedback from one more editor, and the ISBN number. But don’t wait for the book, the pdf can be downloaded from the link at the right.

Meantime, the main points of chapter 01 are:

1. Life can be defined by its ability to maintain itself and reproduce itself;

2. The earth ecosystem is a unit of life, and like all units of life it requires organic energy for its survival (to maintain and reproduce itself). All organisms require organic energy for food. Only the green ones can convert light energy to organic energy. Therefore it is the green organisms that limit the amount of energy that is available to keep the earth ecosystem alive.

3. The earth requires, for its survival, a balanced relationship between the energy that it uses to stay alive and the energy that is available. The ecosystem also requires a balanced relationship between the molecules that contain the organic energy (food and other resources) and the waste products of metabolizing the food (carbon dioxide and water and some other minerals and molecules). In addition, energy-out must balance energy-in (or vice versa) for the earth ecosystem to maintain itself over long periods of time. All the food and minerals and organic molecules and other resources must stay in balance. In other words, for life to maintain itself and reproduce itself, it must maintain a balance among all the activities that keep it alive.

4. We are living organisms. Therefore our economy is component of the earth ecosystem. Our economy is totally based on food and energy and minerals and organic molecules. Therefore, the economy must also be maintained in balance for the ecosystem to survive. Because of our technologies, that are part of the economy, we have the theoretical ability to fatally unbalance the ecosystem. Ecological balance is sustainable; Ponzi economics will either run out of resources or create too many waste products for all the interacting systems of the earth ecosystem to maintain in balance.

5. The ecosystem maintains its balance by all the interacting processes of all the levels of its organization. In other words, the ecosystem requires all the diverse species of organisms to do the work of balancing the energy, balancing the resources, and responding to the imbalance created by anything. The resilient balance of all its parts and processes is what makes the ecosystem sustainable.

Chapter 02 of Bare Bones Ecology will be about the cycling of materials. Mostly chapter two is a rather nit-picky collection of : carbon cycle, water cycle, nitrogen cycle; phosphorus cycle, and a bunch of other cycles, and a description of how each of them actually works. I don’t know about you, but I find this rather boring, and it’s easy enough to find descriptions of the cycles on line or in any ecology book. For me, the interesting part is the bottom line of how life works, and we already mentioned that life works by staying in balance. The interacting processes of all the organisms of all the levels help to cycle and recycle the materials (carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, etc.) that are required to maintain life. The water cycle, for example, is the product of living processes. It is not just something that automatically happens between the air and the rivers and oceans, but is intimately directed by the living ecosystem itself. We will talk about a few materials cycles over the next couple of weeks.

After that, we will tackle the information flow. In chapter 03. That will be fun. Genetics, cell biology, evolution.


So there I was driving around town in a downer of a mood and took a shortcut across the creek, and what did I see?

The HPJC Presentation Outline – Final

The completed HPJC outline will be filed under pdfs to the right of the blog — I have improved it a little with your feedback, and will post the newer one later today, so wait a bit before downloading.

Slide Number Twelve-Here is a thought for consideration from a DVD set that I recommend called “Crash Course.” Chris

At approximately 33.12 (playing time) of disc three, Martenson overlays the three graphs that show a) peak oil, exponential growth now leveling off; b) economic growth, exponential growth now leveling off; c) population growth, exponential growth, now leveling off. He suggests the possibility that our current lifestyle has very little to do with our fine economic model, but is almost entirely the result of the availability of organic energy that was laid down in the prehistoric past by the fossilization of organisms. He points out that the oil boom is now on the downside, and no more gas and oil are being created. Then he goes through a list of other resources that we have similarly begun to use up. A recent book by Richard Heinberg (Peak Everything) makes a similar point, and their opinions are backed by good, valid statistics (see also Earth Policy Institute).

I think we need to believe the statistics if we want to behave in a positive fashion. There is no point nit-picking the details when we could be doing something about the overall reality. So the remaining question is what to do about it, that we can do. Petitioning the President will not resolve this kind of problem, because we can not change the power base of Mother Nature nor the way she flows energy through the ecosystem (to understand this, you should download the pdf at the right side of this page, Bare Bones Ecology. The bottom line is the energy that we can use (including gas and oil) is organic energy and it comes from organisms. We can’t make energy.

Therefore, if we choose to respond to our challenge, we will have to respond using the only power that we do have — the power to change our own behaviors. That would be a very good thing to talk about.

Slide Number Thirteen-Sustainable growth is an oxymoron. That means it is impossible.
Until we can achieve balance between ourselves and the ecosystem there is no chance of curing disease or war or human depravity or starvation. Because growth requires more growth. For only one example, population growth requires more jobs – that requires economic growth – that require more resources – and to grow the economy, the corporations believe they must have more population growth. (Don’t take my word, ask an economist who can see the forest for the trees.)

The result is that people are starving because the earth ecosystem gets all of its energy from plants. And once we hit the maximum that the plants can give — that’s the maximum they can give. I will not reference an extremely disturbing recent PBS discussion of the population problem that suggests we can resolve this dilemma by more growth. NOVA should stick with physics if they don’t understand biology, or even common sense.

It is not possible to solve a problem by doing more of what caused the problem in the first place.

Slide Number Fourteen– Photograph by Zoriah.

This picture was taken in Haiti, before the earthquake.

The woman is making cakes of sand and clay and salt. To Eat.

And my question is: Why do we care about the woman now, and we didn’t care before the earthquake? Is it because now is easier — we can feel like heroes — and before was only a downer to think about people in these conditions. Well — people are living in these conditions, whether we think about them or not, and it will continue to get worse and worse so long as we continue to do the behaviors that caused the problem in the first place.

I say it is not heroic for us to create conditions that cause other people to face starvation — and then rush in to save a few of them from starvation, but certainly not from a life of suffering (earthquake or no earthquake).

I say it is not heroic to bring babies into the world — only to kill them off when they come of age. And worse, to live in a culture that rejoices fervently and openly and incessantly in the killing.

I say we should do something that is heroic. Nothing stops us from thinking about what we do and learning how it really affects the whole earth ecosystem — before we do it.

I say we should do something that is REALLY heroic and discuss these issues with all our friends and all our enemies. Try it some time. You will be amazed at the array of hostile and evasive responses — is this heroism? I say yes. Doing what is easy and people love you for it is not heroism. We need a lot of real heroes. And I said discuss, not debate.

I’m talking about actually trying to find a solution. Winning arguments does not solve problems, it just makes new ones. And the solution will have to be a change in our own behavior, because we can not change Mother Nature, and technologies are not resources. This is a problem of human behavior in response to an absolute limit of energy-related resources. Technologies can not change the fact that resources are limited.

And then call the President.


When I was growing up, it seemed like anyone could be my friend if they liked me or if there was stuff we enjoyed doing together, or both. Some of my friends were horses and cats and dogs, some were girls, and some were boys.

Then I learned that women are emotional and compassionate; and men are intellectual, but they are driven by a need to dominate that is all mixed up with sex. Horses, cats and dogs are things, like technologies and trees, that we must learn to control.

This turned out to be fairly much true, and I began to have fewer and fewer male friends because: a) they figured out they were not smarter than me, even though I tried to be dumb; and b) I craved friendship, not domination.

But it was OK because I had some women friends, some books, some trees, a camera and a horse.

Then I came to #$%^ University, where the women faculty you could count on your fingers without using your toes, and it seemed that most of the males who were in power were dominant ass-grabbers and student fuckers. And I remember one of the wives with two very black eyes. This did not seem like friendship, so I chose to not participate. When they could not dominate me, they tried to get rid of me. When they found themselves intellectually challenged, they tried to get rid of my by doing some things that were illegal, which was even more dumb, because it allowed me to win the case at law.

And the dumbest thing of all, the case never was about dominance, except in the sense of self-defense, and they never even knew it. They could have easily gotten whatever it was they wanted if they hadn’t tried to dominate it out of me. The case was about the rule of law, equal rights, and The American Way that I had been taught to believe. I thought I was bringing civil rights and the compassionate feminine values to @#$%^ University.

Was I wrong? Of course I was wrong. This win was — a win. Dominance. It was nice for me. Better than spending the rest of my life working as a secretary, but as far as any other goal — apparently everyone else believed that my win was all about permitting women to be intellectual and dominant. Just like those marvelous men that “all women wanted so desperately to emulate.” Huh?

I guess they really did, but I still don’t get it. Why are we so hung up on dominant? It’s not that much fun, because it only makes everyone mad, and it is an extremely inefficient way to work toward common goals. Because it makes everyone mad, and they all want to be dominant too. And, if you make them mad enough, they will be, and then you can spend the rest of your life finding unimportant things to fight about that you might be able to win — instead of doing something worthwhile. And what’s the big deal anyhow? Is there some law against intellectual and compassionate? Or compassionate and unemotional? Or emotional and intellectual?

It makes no sense at all, but apparently I was not, as I believed, bringing the feminine values to !@#$ University. Instead I was only helping to create an environment where men were permitted to be “feminine,” while women had the option to be “masculine.” Given only those choices, of course, it is better not to be dominated, so most people at least tried to choose intellectual and dominant and went looking for some weakling to throw sand in their face.

And me? After all that work, I still have exactly the same two choices I started with. I can be:

Intellectual and dominant. OR
Emotional and compassionate.

It is essentially impossible to secede from this American game. As an American you are required to be a winner (or a loser) at something (anything, whether or not it makes sense or does good or harm to others). Otherwise, you don’t exist at all, you are a cipher, a null, invisible, and it is better to fly yourself into the IRS building in Austin than to not exist at all. Is this progress? This is not progress. It is not even change. It is further empowerment of the same restrictive cultural imperative that I grew up with. The restrictive cultural imperative that was not good then and is not good now.

I am not interested in gender, race or all those other things that we fight over to try to gain a sense of dominance, or at least not be dominated. None of these battles will change anything, so long as we continue to battle. The battle IS THE GAME. What is more important — because it could change something — I am equally not interested in dominating anyone (unless I am again forced to defend myself, so don’t get any ideas), because domination is the evil offspring of our supposedly liberating social ethic.

So what did I really help to accomplish with my defeat of !@#$ University?

Now, instead of the male half of the population designated as intellectual and driven by the need to dominate, almost everyone chooses or aspires to that lifestyle. Compassion has been abandoned in favor of winning. And everyone I like, and even that guy I don’t like, they all see the world (and me) through a window smeared with the need to win, muddied by sex-as-power, and perverted by the belief that there is no other way but winning (or losing), and that dogs and horses and the ecosystem are only things that we can and should bring to heel.

So there is almost nothing that we can enjoy doing together.

So I guess they won after all.

But. The Mockingbird keeps on singing in our Post Oak tree.

Bare Bones Ecology is Uploaded (I think so)

Just click on the link under book chapter on the right side of this blog. Or you could try going directly to

This is a big file, but my computer seems to be able to download it on a phone connection, so probably you can to. If not, let me know, so you can have the pdf now and the book when the ISBN number and the final edit comes through.

This is very good. Now that we know how the energy balance is required to keep the ecosystem alive, we can proceed to think about how the energy balance stays in balance through the interacting information systems of the ecosystem (pssst – that’s evolution!) 🙂

HPJC Seminar, Slides 09, 10, 11

Feel free to download the whole set of notes from the PDF section of this blog and use them and share them or, if you find fault with any facts or can recommend improvements, please let me know.

Slide 09 – Biological Balance

The ecosystem is a living thing. Like all living things it must be able to maintain balance among all its parts in order to stay alive.

Life, by one definition, is the internal ability to maintain balance among all its parts. Think of your life. If it goes out of balance, for example, if your kidneys are not able to excrete all the wastes of your food, or if you have not enough food to supply your energy needs, your life is lost. That is true of all life.

Similarly, our actions can not succeed if the results of our efforts push the ecosystem farther out of balance instead of helping it to gain its balance.

We can not stop the evolution of new viruses over time or defeat epidemics by building more hospitals.

We can not stop starvation by working to increase the population (even if that is not what we believe ourselves to be doing).

We can not permanently stop a war over resources, and grow a path toward peace, by petitioning anyone when the energy needs of our societies exceed the ability of the planet to provide for them. People need food. They will fight for it.

We can not resolve these problems with energy technologies, because technology is not a resource — it is not energy. It is not food. And even if we could make food, more food would not restore the balance of the ecosystem, which at the moment seems to be having trouble disposing of the waste products of energy we are using (carbon dioxide). Making more energy, if it were possible, would only throw the earth ecosystem more out of balance.

We can not resolve any of these problems using any method of growth because our growth, and our growth ethic, are root causes of all these problems. It’s not possible to solve a problem by doing more of what caused the problem.

We can not change the laws of nature; the only thing that we do have the power to accomplish is to change our own behaviors.

Slide 10 – Economic Balance

Money is not so difficult to understand if we recognize that good money (money that is worth something) represents resources and energy that are part of the earth ecosystem — resources that were taken out of the earth.

There is no difference in our balance diagram if we are talking about the ecology or the economy. The diagram is the same if we are talking about the balance of energy consumption or of greenbacks. We can use the same diagram for gold, and lumber and horses and my life and money. All have been taken from the earth using energy; all must be rebalanced as we try to rebalance the ecosystem. If we can not live within a balanced economy, then we are living within a Ponzi Scheme.

Slide 11 – Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh

With that thought in mind, let’s watch the movie “Ancient Futures” where we will see a perfect example of the social problems that are caused by unbalancing the ecosystem in an effort to keep a Ponzi economy growing within an ecosystem that can not grow any bigger. Particularly note: when the economy and the ecology of Ladakh were in balance:

“Cultural traditions . . . limited population growth and helped to ensure that the natural carrying capacity of the land is not exceeded.”

Then please notice the parallels between the social problems, the unbalancing of the economy and the unbalancing of the ecology. Make a list of the parallels and realize that all of them relate to growth.

Growth is not balance. Whatever is your “action” the root cause of the problem is an unbalanced ecosystem. Please make sure that your “action” is not making the problem worse by unbalancing the ecosystem even more than it already is.

Elm Tree Down

Remember a few days ago I was rejoicing that the elm was burnishing up with little maroon flowers? Well, the little flowers are still there and now are within reach, but they have little future to look forward to. Good job, though, she missed the road. Only about three people use this road, but someone probably would have complained if we blocked it.

The Power of Religion

Even if we don’t care about their Godly beginnings, the religions can give us our best source of human wisdom. Both through the mistakes that have been made in the name of religion, and in the ongoing traditions, the religious injunctions have been tested through the centuries by many people in many cultures.

For example, thou shalt not kill. We know, if we go out and start a war, the result will be a long and awful hatred directed at us by the people whose parents (ancestors) and children we have killed and maimed. If we are honest, we do not blame other people for a hatred that we created, and we know it is wiser to not create it in the first place. So why do we do it? The source of most unwise behaviors is pride, arrogance and the ego-driven life.

All the religions advise against pride, arrogance and the ego-driven life. But that sounds pretty wimpy in the context of “The American Way” doesn’t it? What is wrong with me living a good life if I am not hurting anyone else?

I think that question answers itself. Pride, arrogance and the ego-driven life define our unexamined belief that our lives are nobody else’s business; that we are not hurting anyone else; and that we as individuals are more important than the community, the ecosystem, the government — more important than everything else.

The reality is otherwise. If I may introduce the wisdom of science into the discussion, the two most important things we know about the creation are:

1. All of the creation functions by natural laws, and all the natural laws relate to balance. All the different parts of the creation must stay in balance with each other or something will happen to bring them back to balance. All of nature is set up to maintain the balance of nature. Those parts of nature (things like the law of gravity, for example, or the nature of time) are not things we can not change or stop. We are not God; we are only “me.”

2. Everything in the creation does affect everything else, in one way or another, because the whole shebang is a network of interacting processes and behaviors.

Surely these two realities are reason enough that the wisdom traditions of the ages have preached against pride, arrogance and the ego driven life. Clearly, if we want to not be ego-driven we must honor the needs of the community, the ecosystem, the whole creation, above our individual needs. And so we try to do this, but we nevertheless often get the vague feeling that the world is worse because we are here — like we should be able to change something about Haiti, for example, but we can’t. And we feel bad.

Of course we feel bad. It is a human tragedy. If we didn’t feel bad there would be something inhuman about us. Still, nobody wants the world to be worse because she lived here, and that makes us ask — what can we do that will make the world a better place because we lived here? My answer to that question is very clear. We should not to do the same behaviors that caused the problems in the first place. If we want to avoid an even bigger tragedy for the future, then our prime directive must be to find a better way than what we did in the past, but we certainly should NOT do more of what caused the problem in the first place.

The tragedy of our times, as I see it, is the enormous amount of compassion that is being poured into doing more and yet more of the behaviors that are the very cause of the problems that they are trying to fix — rather than buckling down to the more difficult task of fixing the root cause of the problems. And the tragedy is compounded by the fact that we do understand what caused these problems and we do have the technologies with which to address them. Our biggest challenge is not to figure out the cause, but to come up with a solution, and we aren’t even trying to talk about that.

So what can I do?

1. The first thing we should do is recognize that we can not personally understand all of the wisdom of all of the creation. Therefore, we should question what we believe, if what I believe actually is the best thing for the community, the ecosystem and the whole creation. Even if my belief is based upon a quotation from the Bible. Probably someone else can find an opposing quote. I believe is a position of pride, and the Bible does not promote pride. Even if we love our beliefs and they define the world for us. All the more reason to question them.

2. The second thing is to do this questioning positively, that is, in a way that will lead to changes that are good for the community, the ecosystem and the creation as it continues through time. Four steps in that process are:

a. Realize that you are not responsible for the behaviors of other people in past times. The problems of Haiti are a combination of the past behaviors of other people and the natural processes of the earth. There is nothing anyone can do to change the past behaviors of other people, or of our selves for that matter, or the natural processes of the earth. The best we can do about past behaviors and natural processes is to learn from them, provide compassionate support for the victims, and dedicate ourselves now to behaviors that do not contribute to similar events in the future.

b. Recognize that our own responsibility relates to what we are doing right now. Our responsibility now is to figure out the bottom-line root causes of these disasters so that we can behave in a more helpful way. This can not be done by individual people because nobody knows enough — it requires a community of wisdoms, working together. But it must be an inclusive community, not one that is hand-picked to our personal belief system.

c. We must learn to listen together — REALLY listen to all the sources of wisdom, check them against our own wisdom traditions to see if they make sense. If they don’t seem to make sense and they do seem to be important, then discuss them with someone who is in the OTHER wisdom tradition that doesn’t make sense to us. Of course, we must choose someone who will also listen, so that we all together can make sense of — whatever seems to be contradictory.
Learn to know the difference between opinions and facts.
Understand that debates are really a form of ego confrontation, not problem solving. There is no such thing as a problem with only two answers; therefore real problem solving tries to find all the answers to every problem. That requires discussion, not debate. Debate is designed to promote ego and pride, and to sell something without talking about all the relevant facts.

d. Recognize there is no such thing as “empowerment,” outside of politics, and me-ism is neither our constitutional right, nor is it self-affirming. The only power that we control is our own behavior as we respond to whatever is happening in this moment of time, and as we plan our behaviors for the future. The most self-affirming thing that we can possibly do is help to create a better community, ecosystem, etc., for our tribe.

3. The third thing we should do is to use our tested wisdom to inform our behaviors in each moment of time according to the best interests of the community, the ecosystem and the creation as a whole.

This is more than enough responsibility for most people, especially as we compassionately try to help the victims of yesterday’s mistakes. If we ONLY clean up the mistakes — and do not take any responsibility for positive change — then we are part of the problem and not part of the solution, because we are creating more victims for the future than we are helping today.