So said Black Elk
The Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round. The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours.
The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same, and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves.
- Black Elk, great holy man of the Dakota Native American tribe, in 1930s
You don’t need to hit on the head to realise that the world we see, touch, smell and feel around us is composed of circles. From objects that are obvious and unmistakable to metaphorically abstract ideas. Circles are everywhere. In Buddhist philosophy, the mandala of Kalachakra, symbolises the entire universe in terms of planets and time cycles, as well as aspects of our body and mind, and even the practice. In Hindu philosophy time is cyclical. Just like life. Things are born, they mature and they die.
Everything tries to be round. What does it mean to try to be round? It means, among other things, that we want to be complete, as a circle is complete. Perhaps our most ancient recognition of this is the Yin and Yang symbol — comple-mentary opposites fused into one. To be complete is to be whole.
Every atom of our flesh has been taken up from somewhere in the universe. We are, materially and literally, one part of Earth and stars -the brahmand. A part within the circle that Earth makes. As the famous science writer Carl Sagan remarked “We belong to the stars.” The carbon atoms that are part of our blood and bone were, until quite recently, part of the bodies of living plants. So are we truly immortal? In some ways the Earth is also immortal; we each consist of ‘stuff’ that once flowed through other living beings, before we ate, drank and used it. We will each, in our turn, return this physical material to the system. We ourselves are recycled.
Where there is life, there are cycles. If you study any living network, then you will find that all nutrients are passed along in cycles. In an ecosystem, energy flows through a network, while vital constituents like water, oxygen, carbon, and other nutrients move in ecological cycles. The same thing withe the network of the human body. Blood, air and lymph fluid all cycles through our body. Wherever we see life we see networks; and wherever we see living networks, we see cycles.
Nature is cyclical. In science, a Gaia theory is a class of scientific models of the biosphere in which life fosters and maintains suitable conditions for itself by affecting Earth's environment. The first such theory was created by the English atmospheric scientist James Lovelock in 1969. He hypothesised that the living matter of the planet functioned like a single organism and named this self-regulating living system after the Greek goddess Gaia. In other words, the whole earth, rocks, water, plants and all, is one living being!
What to do with the surplus?
We (Warli) are a tribal people from Western India. We have been told today that the white men, and after they went away, the brown men with white masks, always want the correct things, and when they want our ‘development’, it is also the correct thing. We tribals have very little, but we miss nothing, because we desire still less. Others consider this ‘lower’ form of life, but we don’t know how to accommodate surplus, because we don’t know what to do with the surplus. We work to get our basic needs and to enjoy leisure, which for us is singing and dancing.
We are happy that you are now saying that sustainable development is what the earth needs, and we feel it is what mother nature wants...only, we are often unable to hear. We are now hearing what our elders have always said. It is not as if we have suffered in silence.
We have also fought, and we keep fighting. The central theme of all tribal upsurges, much akin to today’s Jungle Bachao, Adivasi Bachao Movement, is the protection of our resource-based survival system, not merely as biological entities in a specific historico-ecological niche. Extract from an article by Pradip Prabhu, founder of Kashtakari Sangathana, in DTE, August 15, 1995
Surplus: A rat race that runs in a straight line
Lines and limits
Nature’s cyclical production systems know no waste, everything can be used for something else. Can we imitate nature and eradicate waste?
If you had to go long distance jogging which track would you prefer: (a) An endlessly straight path where you would keep jogging and jogging till you fell flat totally tired. (b) A circular path where you would be rested and refreshed completely every time you came to the starting point, ready to move on or pass on the baton. Now if you think (b) is the better answer, then why does the modern industrial world continue sticking to (a) for all its activities? The ecology and industrialised economies are at loggerheads.
This is because, unlike nature, our industries are linear. As Paul Hawken has pointed out, our businesses take resources, transform them into products plus waste, and sell the products to consumers, who discard more waste when they have consumed the products. Profits made by consuming more and more is the only priority. The troublesome waste we produce, that poisons our air, lands and rivers, the ecological substratum from where we originally got all our material resources from is not our concern. Sustainable patterns of production and consumption need to be cyclical, imitating the cyclical processes
To achieve such cyclical patterns, we need to fundamentally redesign our businesses, our economy and our lifestyles. We need to imitate natures soft, cyclical ways. Enter, Industrial Ecology... In Industrial Ecology, Thomas Graedel and Braden Allenby provide the following definition of Industrial Ecology, the way all production systems need to head: “The concept requires that an industrial system be viewed not in isolation from its surrounding systems, but in concert with them.
It is a systems view in which one seeks to optimise the total materials cycle from virgin material, to finished material, to component, to product, to obsolete product, and to ultimate disposal. Factors to be optimised include resources, energy, and capital. Can we produce goods and services that are ecologically benign?
In nature, sunlight is converted by grass and other plants into chemical energy. Grasses are eaten by deer, which is in turn eaten by a tiger. When the tiger dies, its body is decomposed by bacteria and is converted to humus essential for the growth of grass and plants. What is waste for one, is food for another.
This process can goes on endlessly. Natures ecosystems produce food efficiently. On the other hand modern chemical intensive agriculture in humans is highly inefficient. We use lots of water, fertilisers (Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Potassium) and energy to produce crops.
Of this biomass produced we use only a small fraction. The rest we mostly waste. This depletes the nutrients in the soil. We then import more chemical fertilisers (Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Potassium) to feed the plants. In nature Nitrogen is fixed back into the soil. We humans let it be washed away contaminating
Water evaporates from the oceans, lakes and rivers, becomes clouds and comes down in the form of rain, snow and sleet as (almost) pure water and falls back onto earth. This water passes through forests and wetlands and the whole system acts like a self purification system and returns clean water back to our water bodies.
The same water drop can be recycled for thousands of years! And what do we wasteful humans do? We spend huge amounts of energy and money to extract, pump, purify and transport freshwater to our cities and homes. Only to flush all our poop into it. We essentially are experts at converting precious drinking water into sewage. This sewage is then dumped back into our lakes, rivers and groundwater, diminishing our freshwater
Living beings breathe oxygen and give out CO2. This is absorbed by plants and trees, which then give out fresh oxygen. The cycle continues. Nature also fixes carbon into a renewable energy source that we call biomass.
Factories and vehicles spew out CO2 and other greenhouse gases at alarming rates. They cannot all be absorbed by trees and the excess gases get accumulated in the atmosphere and lead to global warming. Climate could change catastrophically.
Closing the loop
Instead of dumping styrofoam packing material and plastic forks in landfill sites what about creating cutlery from potatoes and use sea-algae as packing foam?
Robert A. Frosch and Nicholas E. Gallopoulos in an article titled ‘Strategies for Manufacturing’ in Scientific American in 1989 wrote:"Why would not our industrial system behave like an
ecosystem, where the wastes of a species may be resource to another species? Why would not the outputs of an industry be the inputs of another, thus reducing use of raw materials,
pollution, and saving on waste treatment?". Industrial Ecology is essentially the science of sustainability. It is a new and exciting area of work across the world.
Industrial Ecology: The Concept
This excerpt from Industrial Ecology (Graedel and Allenby, Prentice Hall, 1994), a highly recommended work explains how Industrial Ecology is essentially the science of sustainability."
‘No firm exists in a vacuum. Every industrial activity is linked to thousands of other transactions and activities and to their environmental impacts. A large firm manufacturing high-technology / low material products will have tens of thousands of suppliers located all around the world and changing on a daily basis. It may manufacture and offer for sale hundreds of thousands of individual products to a myriad of customers, each with her or his own needs and cultural characteristics. Each customer, in turn, may treat the product very differently, a consideration when use and maintenance of the product may be a source of potential environmental impact (e.g. used oil from automobiles). When finally disposed of, the product may end up in almost any country, in a high-technology landfill, an incinerator, beside a road, or in a river that supplies drinking water to local populations."
"Industrial Ecology is the means by which humanity can deliberately and rationally approach and maintain a desirable carrying capacity, given continued economic, cultural and technological evolution. The concept requires that an industrial system be viewed not in isolation from its surrounding systems, but in concert with them."
"One of the most important concepts of industrial ecology is that, like the biological system, it rejects the concept of waste. Dictionaries define waste as useless or worthless material. In nature, however, nothing is eternally discarded; in various ways, all materials are reused, generally with great efficiency. Nature has adopted this approach because acquiring these materials from their reservoirs is costly in terms of energy and resources, and thus something to be avoided whenever possible. In our industrial world, discarding materials wrestled from the Earth System at great cost is also generally unwise. Hence, materials and products that are obsolete should be termed residues rather than wastes, and it should be recognised that wastes are merely residues that our economy has not yet learned to use efficiently.”
Waste from one industrial process can serve as the raw materials for another, thereby reducing the impact of industry on the environment.