Edge, Surface Area, Boundary, and Succession
So far we have looked at the Living System on this Planet as a pattern of interactions among all the organisms alive at any given time. We have talked about that pattern of interactions generating the oxygen we breathe, much of the water that falls as rain, the organic molecules we use as food, the goods and services we buy and the information we use to navigate the pattern. In this lesson we look deeper into the pattern to examine the details of how interactions create flows.
Every interaction requires an edge between one thing and another. The flows of oxygen, water, nutrients, goods and services, and information are generated on one side of an edge and flows across the edge. Reducing the edge reduces the flows. This lession will look at how some of our most common practices reduce edge in the pattern of interactions among living things. We can also learn to increase edge in the pattern. Increasing the edge increases the flows.
Consider a living cell. On the inside of the membrane a set of processes is taking place. On the outside of the cell’s membrane there is a different set of processes. The interactions on the inside of the membrane produce certain chemical compounds. The build up of compounds on one side of the membrane creates a pressure to cross to the other side. This movement across the membrane is a flow across the edge. These flows are what we mean by the flows through the pattern of interactions. Increasing the flows requires increasing the number and variety of edges.
The edge of a living organism is its outer membrane.
The outside of an organism has surface area. The surface area is the boundary between the organism and its environment. The edge of a leaf has surface area. The surface area of a leaf exchanges oxygen, carbon dioxide and water with the air. The inside of a small intestine has surface area. The small intestine absorbs nutrients from the food and liquid flowing through it. Reducing the surface area reduces the volume exchanged. Increasing the surface area increases the volume exchanged.
Sometimes we call the edge a boundary. There is a boundary, with surface area, between biological communities. There is a boundary between a forest and prairie, between a wet land and pond, between fresh water and salt. There is a boundary between ecosystems in succession. There is a boundary between a climax forest and a burn scar, between a hillside ecosystem and a landslide down the hill, between a newly plowed field and a neighboring field in fallow. There is a boundary between human settlement and ecosystems in succession. Each boundary separates one set of interactions from another set of interactions. The different products of each set of interactions sets up a pressure for exchange across the boundary.
When we bulldoze a site for a development, or log a hill side, or till a field, we scrape away the life in that space. The result is a reduction of the surface area. These processes leave a plane of bare earth, asphalt, concrete, glass or steel. The pattern of interactions (nature, life, the living system) does its best to recolonize these spaces. That sets up a succession. Each new species participating in a space is an increase in the surface area within the space and progress of the succession. It is an increase in the complexity of the pattern of interactions. The increase in surface area increases the flow of oxygen, carbon dioxide, water and nutrients through the pattern of interactions.
There is a boundary to a group of humans. We gather as families, businesses, religious groups, service clubs, and create governmental units. Each of these has an inside and an outside. There are unique processes taking place within each group creating a pressure for exchange with other groups. This creates a flow of goods and services and information through the pattern of interactions. When we reduce the number of groups we reduce the volume and diversity of flows through the pattern. When we increase the size of groups we reduce the volume and diversity of flows through the pattern.
Each new surface area creates the potential for exchange. Each living cell is processing the materials taken into the cell. The processed material is more abundant inside the cell than it is outside the cell. That creates a pressure to exchange the material across the cell membrane. In a similar way, each biological community, each part of an ecosystem in succession and each human group, is producing something to exchange. As we increase the variety of participants, each using different processes to produce different products, the complexity of the pattern increases. We call these patterns of flow ecosystems, economies and societies.
Humans seldom consider how our actions reduce the surface area within the pattern. We don’t consider how we benefit from the flows generated through the pattern of exchanges. Common wisdom tells use that we must continue doing things the way they are done now. However, with due consideration, we might be able to preserve or even increase edge in the pattern and still produce the things humans need.
We all know that:
- Oxygen is created by plankton in the oceans and by green plants on land through the process of photosynthesis. Increasing the amount of oxygen in the system requires increasing the surface area of plankton and green leaves exposed to the sun.
- A portion of the water falling as rain is generated through the transpiration of water through green leaves. The rest is generated by evaporation. The portion generated by transpiration varies by land form and and wind direction. It is different in different climates. But, increasing the amount of water falling as rain requires increasing the surface area of green leaves exposed to the sun.
- Of the water that falls as rain, a portion is absorbed into the soil and is available for plant growth. A portion runs downhill creating erosion. A portion evaporates. We know that healthy soils absorb more rain fall than damaged soils. Healthy soils are produced through the exchanges between plant roots and soil microbes. Increasing the amount of water absorbed into the soil and available for plant growth requires that we increase the surface area of roots, fungi, bacteria and other organisms in the soil.
- Nearly all of the complex carbon-based compounds that make up living things derive from the products of photosynthesis. (There is another line based on anaerobic bacteria.) An increase in the surface area of leaves supports an increase in the surface area of roots. The plants exude substances through their roots to feed fungi and bacteria; that fuels a microbial community, that creates soil, that absorbs more rain fall, supporting more transpiration and more photosynthesis. The product of those processes is the complex carbon-based compounds that make up the bodies of living things. These are the nutrients flowing through the pattern. Increasing the flow of nutrients requires increasing the number and variety of living organisms participating.
- We humans have always formed groups to cooperate in the production of goods and services. Many small groups producing goods and services provides more places for individuals to contribute to the pattern compared to a few large groups controlling the pattern. As the production of goods and services is taken over by larger and larger organizations we reduce the surface area of groups. That leaves fewer places for individuals to fit in the pattern.
- We all speak from concern for what we need to thrive. Each group speaks from concern for what the group needs to thrive. Each profession speaks from a silo of knowledge necessary for competence in the profession. Each of these speakers knows only a portion of all the things that could be known. What we do not know is what all the other individuals, groups and professions need. The more we seek out the information from across group boundaries the more we know about what each group needs. That knowledge increases how effective we can be at increasing flows through the system.
In summary, we know that we can increase the flow of oxygen, water, nutrients, goods and services and information by increasing the surface area contained within the pattern of interactions. How do we apply that knowledge?
What do these activities have in common?
- - using pesticides - - draining wetlands - - laying sod - - putting out forest fires - - planting fields to a single crop - - channelizing a stream - - widening roads - - plowing a field - - building new subdivisions - - buying up the competition - -
Each of these activities reduces the surface area within the pattern of interactions. Reducing the surface area of green plants reduces the volume of oxygen, the volume of rain fall and the volume of water absorbed into the soil. Less water in the soil means fewer roots supporting fewer leaves and fewer soil microbes reducing the nutrients available for other living things. This creates a drain on the resources we humans need to produce goods and services. That drain on resources sets up a conflict between the different groups of humans, each seeking to fulfill their needs.
We humans engage in these activities, and others that reduce the edge in the pattern, without considering how reducing the edge impacts our own well-being (and that of our children and grandchildren). What are the things we can do when we consider these facts?
1 - Stop spreading toxins. There is no need to use insecticides or herbicides or fungicides in agriculture or in landscaping. We can be much more careful about handling the toxic byproducts of manufacturing processes.
2 – Plant polycultures not monocultures. A mix of plants supports a diversity of microbes creating a feed back loop that supports more plant growth. Nature cycles carbon by processing complex carbon based compounds through plant, animal, fungal and bacterial processes. A complex pattern of interactions, including a diversity of species, cycles more carbon compounds than a less complex pattern.
3 – Produce more at smaller scales. We do not have to give up the efficiency and innovation achieved through automation and mechanization. Some products will continue to be produced by large organization utilizing economies of scale. However, there are things that we want to be abundant such as food, shelter, learning, health, belonging and purpose. These goods and services are best produced at the scale of neighborhoods where more individual humans can be involved.
4 – Form groups of people who are doing these things to benefit themselves. It is one thing to stop spreading toxins and plant polycultures because it is the right thing to do. It is another thing to form a group working together to produce food, shelter, learning, health, belonging and purpose for themselves through the process of intentionally increasing surface area.
Lesson seven, Ending the Age of Separation, listed the projects developed at the Living Systems institute as examples of groups of humans intentionally increasing surface area within their pattern of interactions:
“Bee safe neighborhoods, gardening teams and plant propagation cooperatives are ways to get people involved in creating new relationships with other living things. Deep mulch gardening and integrated closed loop production systems are techniques for producing food for the human participants at a scale that cycles carbon locally.”
Our latest project is called the Cook and Gardener Project. In this project we pair young people who want to garden with homeowners who may not have the time or inclination to increase the diversity of species (the edge) on the property they own. By working together, the gardener and homeowner can use the property to increase the oxygen, rain fall, and nutrients generated on the property. The increase in food can then support our cooks who will prepare nutritious meals for the community.
The agreement among homeowners, cooks and gardeners is an increase in the goods and services produced at the scale of neighborhood. Cooks, gardeners and homeowners participate in the flow of information helping to drive the new consideration of the importance of edge. Through this process we can heal our ecosystem, economy and society.