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!) 🙂