We’ve all seen that graph that shows the ups and downs of carbon in the atmosphere. Vostok ice core data shows us that for the last 800,000 years, atmospheric CO2 fluctuated within a pretty steady range – between about 170 and 290 parts per million. Temperatures on the planet fluctuated along with the fluctuations in atmospheric carbon.
General Systems Theory calls this kind of steady fluctuation “homeostatis,” which the Oxford dictionary defines as “the tendency toward a relatively stable equilibrium between interdependent elements, especially as maintained by physiological processes.”
But then something happened, and suddenly the system was no longer in equilibrium. Instead of the usual ups and downs, atmospheric CO2 levels began to rise. In 2022 they reached 417.2 ppm. This change has disrupted systems planet-wide, resulting in more drought, more extreme weather events, and a rise in sea level.
It’s kind of scary. But there is reason for hope as John Wick describes in this video. It’s an excerpt of a presentation John made a few years ago to a Japanese non-profit about his discoveries that compost can rapidly increase soil carbon sequestration. (This two-article series gives more information how compost can increase forage and soil carbon sequestration.) For a good explanation of the climate science and how this gives us reason for hope, watch the 6:09 video, or check out the transcript.
Do you know General Systems Theory? Do you understand the underlying principle of homeostasis – a steady state?
OK if we go back in time, say one million years. This is a million years from here to here (draws a line something like the line in the first graph above). And if we go to the glaciers and drill down and look at the bubbles of air, we can actually detect how much carbon dioxide there was and see a change in carbon dioxide over time. And looking at the Vostock ice coring and the European Second Dome, we can get a good historical record. And what we see is a range. This is parts per million. So over time, every 100,000 years, atmospheric carbon goes up and then down, up and down.
So these are parameters. You would say this is a steady state. A range of behavior between parameters. This would go on for ever unless there is an event.
Now at a different time scale, this is 12,000 years ago (draws on board), we were going back into another ice age when humans on earth 12,000 years ago discovered agriculture, plowing, breaking the soil.
Through agriculture 12,000 years ago we learned how to break the soil and when you break the soil microbes have access to this carbon they eat it and we see a biomass response becausee of the plant available nutrients which use waste carbon from the microbes. So when we plow all of a sudden this fossil carbon is accessible for consumption by microbes, their waste product is plant available nutrients and we get a response. This is why we plow. But we’re burning up our fossil carbon.
Let me explain this top line here (the ups and downs of the line). Every 100,000 years the earth and the sun get closer and then go apart. It’s not much, but it’s enough because as the planet cools, carbon levels increase in the atmosphere, and then when it warms they lower. What’s happening? Turns out that at the same time, (he draws another line) this is carbon, this is plants. So every 100,000 years, when it gets warm the plants grow, and that’s where the carbon goes. It’s an inverse relationship.
So, 12,000 years ago as water on earth was being bound in ice to form glaciers, going into a new ice age, humans discovered agriculture and there were enough humans that it made a global impact. So in the Asias, rice was developed, the Americas it was corn and in Europe it was wheat. So we had a global phenomenon of tillage that actually altered the climate. 12,000 years ago there was a carbon management event, tillage, and rather than the atmospheric carbon being bound in ice, it started climbing and increasing. And it was because of an increase of vegetation to feed people.
Now where’s that carbon coming from? We’ve introduced a new form of carbon in terms of soil carbon which is relatively stable. Now we’re decreasing soil carbon through tillage and increasing plant production which is increasing atmospheric carbon. And then the fossil carbon. Two-hundred years ago we really figured out how to move it. So the difference between this range of carbon here (the ups and downs), 190 to 290, we’re up to 400 now. The difference between here and here, one-third of it is from biological processes, plowing. We can actually detect with isotopes in the air that the excess carbon, one-third is the result of biological processes. Two-thirds is from burning, so fossil fuel importation right?
I get excited when I see this because this shows me, humans can manage carbon and change the climate. So how do we do that constructively? Let’s manage our waste stream in a beneficial way to increase soil carbon (meaning the use of compost) , increase production of vegetation and remove carbon from the atmosphere. And stop using fossil fuels, right?
There it is. That’s the big picture.
So, I was describing General Systems theory, which is what this is. This is homeostatis, and then an event and then it’s homeo rhesis, looking for a new normal and the problem is in homeorhesis it becomes a feed back loop. The more that happens, the more happens, so it starts accelerating. So for us, what we want to do is introduce an event that has homeorhesis finding a new normal this way ( points down) and that’s what our data shows.
We knocked it once and this happened, it was the event, compost. So compost ignited a state change in the soil system and it’s actually acting differently. My disturbance from grazing was an event that knocked it in a new direction.
So that is humans having a beneficial impact as our job. And the best way to do it is to organize and synchronize and harmonize. Which is what meetings like this help us do.
I recently did a presentation with John Wick for the Oregon Forage and Grasslands Council’s Lunch With Forages. You can watch the video and check out more resources here: