The (Boring) Carbon Cycle

August 4, 2016

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Ed. note: This post is a short introduction to Courtney’s long essay on the carbon cycle, which can be found on his website, A West that Works, here.

Carbon is the most important element on Earth and the best way to begin explaining its significance is with the terribly important carbon cycle. The trouble is whenever I see the word ‘cycle’ my eyes start to glaze over. It doesn’t matter if it is the water, mineral, energy, nutrient, or some other cycle critical to our existence, for some reason my attention begins to wander the instant I see the word. I remember attending a conference years ago where a speaker displayed an image of the nitrogen cycle on a farm he was studying. It had something like sixty-four separate arrows flowing in every possible direction, including in circles. I took one look at the image and immediately put my pen down. No amount of note-taking was going to make sense of this cycle when I tried to explain it later.

Maybe it’s something we pick up as children. When my daughter did a homework assignment on the hydrological cycle for a science project both of us struggled to stay focused. It was good stuff – don’t get me wrong – and she enjoyed drawing clouds and rain and squiggly lines flowing upward from the ocean into the sky. When it came time to explain it all, however, the fun disappeared as fast as water on a hot sidewalk. Let’s be honest, ‘evapotranspiration’ is hard to say much less describe in simple terms. Making circles in the air with my finger was the best I could do.

The problem is there’s usually no story to go with these big ideas. Take this image of the carbon cycle produced by the Quivira Coalition for one of our publications:

Image Removed

As a depiction of the never-ending cycle by which carbon dioxide (CO2) flows out of the atmosphere into the soil as carbon via photosynthesis and green plants and then back out again via decomposition and respiration, round and round, sustaining nearly all life on the planet, the image does a great job. I especially like the way it distinguishes nature from industry. The fossil-fuelled factory sits off to the side, outside the circle, pumping three hundred million year-old carbon, previously buried in the ground as coal, oil or natural gas, directly into the atmosphere as CO2. No cycle there – just a straight line up.

I like this image of the carbon cycle, but it’s boring. That’s because it doesn’t tell a story. What’s up with the cow, for instance? What is it doing there? Does it belong to someone? Did a visitor leave a gate open someplace allowing the animal to wander in? And what about that factory? What’s it making? Electricity?  Cement? Artificial fertilizer? Is it Chinese? American? Brazilian? Does its owner hire undocumented workers? Is up to code? Has it been busted for improper disposal of byproducts?

I’m being facetious, sort of. Carbon is essential to life but it’s also rather abstract which is one reason why we’re having a hard time getting our minds around CO2 pollution, carbon credits, soil organic matter, carbon sinks, carbon farming, even global warming. Carbon needs a story. Or rather, lots of stories. It isn’t enough to wave our hands in the air and say “if we damage the carbon cycle all sorts of bad things will happen!” Instead, I look at this image and think “Will someone get that lost cow back into the pasture with its herd!”  That’s the rub – how do we get important concepts across without the eyes-glazed-over effect? It ain’t easy. But it’s important to try because the issues involved are increasingly critical. I’ll see what I can do.

Courtney White

A former archaeologist and Sierra Club activist, Courtney dropped out of the 'conflict industry' in 1997 to co-found The Quivira Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to building bridges between ranchers, conservationists, public land managers, scientists and others around the idea of land health. Today, his work concentrates on building economic and ecological resilience on working landscapes, with a special emphasis on carbon ranching and the new agrarian movement. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Farming, Acres Magazine, Rangelands, and the Natural Resources Journal. His essay The Working Wilderness: a Call for a Land Health Movement" was published by Wendell Berry in 2005 in his collection of essays titled The Way of Ignorance. In 2008, Island Press published Courtney's book Revolution on the Range: the Rise of a New Ranch in the American West. He co-edited, with Dr. Rick Knight, Conservation for a New Generation, also published by Island Press in 2008. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his family and a backyard full of chickens.

Tags: building resilient food systems, carbon cycle, carbon farming