An Introduction to "Thinking In Systems" - Part Three: The Second Input - Matter
If our first input, Energy, is a straight forward process going from a concentrated source to diffuse heat, our second input, Matter tends to move in circles.
Matter doesn't just break down. Its components, be it base elements, more complex compound, all the way up to living organisms like plants and animals, as well as mechanical systems and processes, all take some sort of Matter and reprocess it into another form. This process can be pictured as circular because the original Matter we are looking at eventually returns back into the first system.
That explanation is a little vague. Lets look a specific example that explains it better.
Consider the element Nitrogen, which makes up approximately three quarters of our atmosphere. Nitrogen seeps into the ground as a gas. It is used in combination with Hydrogen and Oxygen by microbes and bacteria for energy and have a waste byproduct like ammonia and nitrate. These compounds are essential to many of the Life building process in plants, primarily photosynthesis, but also for complex molecules like starches, sugars, amino acids and especially DNA.
Nitrogen compounds build up and break down, supplying the ingredients to make the plant grown and bear fruit. Animals come along and eat the plants, taking in those Nitrogen compounds and using them to meet their own needs for food and nutrition. Later animal waste, and later still the dead remains of those animals return the Nitrogen, as other compounds back into the ground, where they are broken up by microbes and bacteria back into those earlier chemicals. Some of the Nitrogen escapes as a gas back into the atmosphere to begin the process again.
This circle is called the Nitrogen Cycle.
Plants depend on the prescience of those microbes in the soil around their roots for those Nitrogen compounds. Where the soil is lacking those microbes, plants do poorly. Some plants got smart, and evolved to provide a welcoming home in their roots with small nodules where Nitrogen fixing bacteria like rhizobia would have a safer place to grow, and in exchange reaped the waste chemical to help themselves grow. Legumes and plants like clover do just this.
This is a good example of Matter moving in a beneficiary circle. Not all ways that Matter travels though is as helpful.
Matter is Contrary
Anyone who has babysat a three year old, has a profound respect for that child's capacity for misbehavior. Matter has a similar capacity. It doesn't care if the way it circles is helpful to you or does you harm.
Consider your bathroom's medicine cabinet. How many of you have a few old drugs in there? Up until the last few years the common wisdom for disposal was to flush expired or no longer needed drugs down the toilet. Unfortunately, with over $200US million dollars worth of business there's an awful lot of unused drugs. Research has now found that many types of fish and other animals can accumulate significant concentrations of drugs in their systems out of our rivers and streams where we dump our treated (and sometime's untreated) sewage. The drugs are causing lasting damage to both the fish and the environment.
Circles again. Some of those same fish are caught for food. The drugs we thought went away, returned.
That is an important point Greer made in his original "Green Wizardry", THERE IS NO PLACE CALLED "AWAY".
We've grown up over the thousands of years thinking that we could just use the World as an easy and convenient garbage dump. First as in just dig a small hole at the edge of your village, fill it with trash and cover it up. Later dig big holes at the edge of your city and dump lots of stuff in it before covering it up. More recently, lets just barge it out into the ocean and dump it. The World has been big enough to let us. Now though, a couple of centuries of burning through our coal and oil reserves and venting the waste CO2 into the atmosphere may actually be too much for even this big old planet. If you can't figure a way to safely dispose of something, if getting rid of it harms the environment, then figure out how to do with out it or a replacement that you can dispose of properly.
That's the thing about Matter. Somewhere out there is a something, a plant, an animal or a biological or chemical process, that will concentrate it. Such concentrations can be good or bad, depending on what it is. The secret to successfully working with Matter is to understand the ways Matter circles in helpful circles and to understand the ways it circles in unhelpful circle, then getting it to do more of the first, and less of the second.
A Green Wizard must take that into consideration when they are "Thinking In Systems"
Making Poop Your Friend
Another good example when thinking about the way Matter circles is to consider your own urine and manure.
Its almost comical sometimes the ways that grown adults turn into germaphobic idiots when faced with a bit of their own or other's waste. They shouldn't be. While a vast majority of people still believe that human waste is bad and steps away from it with a big "YUCK!", knowledgeable gardeners recognize that urine makes a great fertilizer. It boasts a nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (N-P-K) ratio of 10:1:4, plus more modest amounts of the trace elements plants need to thrive. Properly diluted with simple water (even better gray water saved from going down the drain), it can be easily applied to plants in your garden that need a boost.
Plus, urine is free!
Greer has written extensively of the usefulness of composting. Here is one blog post from 2008 that specifically discusses the way we deal with human waste.
Urine has the advantage of being easily collected (a clean plastic gallon jug with a funnel, kept in your bathroom) but to really see a helpful circle of Matter, you need to take one step further and begin composing your organic waste in a backyard composting bin. Per person, we annually send about 1200 pounds of organic waste each to landfills. That's each and everyone of us. Organic waste such as cooking scraps and uneaten food, compostable paper products from the Mail and your office shredder, yard waste such as grass clippings and leaves, all make up about 20% of the trash we set on the curb each week. Think what we could do with the compost from all of that organic matter. We could surely cut back on the tens of thousands of bags of chemical fertilizers made from oil that we buy each year for our lawns and gardens, couldn't we?
We will discuss composting techniques in detail as we learn more about Green Wizardry here.
Using Matter's Tendencies To Your Advantage
Another key skill is learning how different types of Matter like to behave, then using those tendencies to your advantage.
Take fluids like Water. Fluids have this particular tendency to "wick", that is they like to spread out to the best of their ability.
Pour water on a concrete floor and it will spread out as much as it can. Part of that is just gravity and air pressure, pushing down but if instead of a slick surface like concrete, the floor is carpet, then water will spread out as far as it can BUT it will also sometimes ignore gravity to travel up a incline or even straight up. Water seems to want to travel as far as it can. Its been know to get under roof shingles and actually travel up a sharp inclined roof, until it finds a crack or hole, then descend and cause you loads of headaches as it stains your ceiling, lol.
This "wicking" action can be of use in our garden. Take a look at this forum post on "Self Watering Containers"
These types of containers use water's natural inclination to spread as a way to maintain a moist environment for garden plants.
But Matter Needs Help To Circle
As much as Matter likes to travel in Circles, its a journey that needs a bit of a push from the two other inputs of a system, Energy and Information. Both of these, help guide Matter's path.
In cases where Energy is scarce, Matter may take a different circle. To use the composting bin again, turning organic waste into useful compost needs the concentration of that waste in a small space. Typically about a cubic yard or slightly more for garden compost bins. The organic waste pile then becomes an oven of bacterial energy. Managing the oxygen to the pile and its temperature is the job of the third input to the system, Information. Manage the heat incorrectly and you can end up with a pile of smelly organic mush that won't do you a bit of good.
For a very interesting look at just what happens in a compost pile and the various bacterial, microbe and insects that work to turn last weekend's Super Bowl snacks into dark black healthy compost your garden plants will enjoy snacking on, check this article out by the University of Illinois.
We will look at the third input to Systems, Information next time.
A REMINDER TO EVERYONE
Back in January when we started this "Introduction to Thinking In Systems" I thought we wouldn't need more than a few posts to finish it out. Well I was wrong. Various other subjects have needed attention and blog posts of their own. It will probably take the rest of February to finish this series out now. With that in mind let me clue you into what's planned for the site over the next few months.
One of my own big projects this year, is to start all of my garden plants, both the vegetables and the raised bed border flowers, from seeds this year. I waste a lot of money buying already started plants at my local nursery each Spring, probably several hundred dollars if I added it up when I could be spending literally pennies to buy the seeds themselves each year's and sprouting them myself. March and April we will be doing an intensive focus on just that with tutorials and photo filled blog posts as I turn my living room into a nursery.
Before we start that though, I'd like to spend at least two posts on something I think is just as important, managing your money.
It's an understated fact of the coming Collapse and the Long Descent that YOU are going to have to make due with less. Not just less gadgets and do-dads from the local Big Box stores, but with LESS of almost everything. While your wages and salaries may not go down in actual dollars and cents, their buying power will dwindle as prices for everything slowly rise. Managing your household expenses and being able to "pinch a penny til it squeaks" isn't going to be just for comic book characters like Scrooge McDuck. We are all going to have to learn again basic money management and household accounting.
How do you know if its more efficient to have a garden, with the expense, or just buy locally at your nearby Farmer's Market, if you don't know whether you can afford it?
So if you haven't begun your own personal financial audit, please do now. You'll need at least a month's worth of expenses.
Next week we will take a bit of a side trip from normal Green Wizard skills and knowledge to discuss Storyteller Craft with a post on "Characterization in a Short Story - Creating Believable NPCs."
Writers, sharpen your pencils...