Where parallels cross

Interesting bits of life

Cycle everything: why waste does not exist

We are stardust We are golden And we've got to get ourselves Back to the garden

Woodstock by Joni Mitchell

We are stardust. This is both romantic and scientifically reasonable. It also reassures us that we will leave something valuable behind anyway. Worst case scenario we become dust again (and maybe feed some nice plants!).

Anything alive (us included) struggles to get along with the rest sustainably.

The justification for this struggle always made me wonder: we discovered with 2nd law of thermodynamics that the universe must become more and more chaotic over time, so why do I feel the need to tidy up the house to make the world a better place? Am I not supposed to generated waste anyway as a part of this chaotic universe?

As Fritjof Capra wrote in his fascinating book The Web of Life (I recommend you to read that yourself), living systems are open systems that regulate themselves in disequilibrium. The difference between stardust and alive stardust is that the latter organizes itself to keep good things in and bad things out. Or, in other words, an alive system filters the good stuff from chaos. They expel the unnecessary stuff as new chaos.

This makes me feel better about recycling: indeed, it is a waste of which is necessary until we get smarter. According to the principle above, it is all about finding some life form that eat the stuff we discard (no more splitting between plastic and paper bins, hurrah)!

For example, let's return to our dusty destiny: fungi and plants can use dust and water to grow and they spread by feeding their fruits to faster-moving life forms.

The other famous characteristic of life is that it always starves for resources (avidity may end up be a feature). The most innovative forms of life derive from scarcity. For example a theory of human evolution is that we are just apes born prematurely, and because of our incompleteness and scarcity of natural tools (like proper hair, claws and shooting claws even) we needed to compensate through collaboration, forcing ourselves to make our own tools and emit sounds to communicate which became later writing and started our history.

So life needs scarce and external resources to survive, it ingests them, expels waste and repeats. This process is efficient and sustainable in the sense that it repeats indefinitely. The cool thing is that life reorganize itself to make this process more effective. For example, think of the complex organization that our body displays when our tongue rates something we put in our mouth as inedible.

And speaking about the tongue, it may have happened to you that when you smell something delicious you also start salivating, craving for that food to be yours as soon as possible. Well this brings us to another interesting concept of life: a signal of an alive subsystem that propagates and causes changes in the other subsystems in a circular way. In our example, the nose brings particles of air to the tongue, the tongue feels the taste, then salivation initiates, the stomach gets ready to digest, the tongue gets the saliva and, well... gets wet: do you see it? Something initiated from the tongue causes a change to the state of the tongue itself.

In summary another property of life is also connectivity. Complex life forms as plants, fungi, and us are aggregations of alive systems that react to external signals. Any reaction modifies the subsystems and the complex life form itself. The simplest example to consider is your memory: the fact that you can recollect a previous experience is an actual physical change of your body in terms of neurons and synapses, and how this change happens is totally delegated to the systems that compose you (a dream of efficiency for all managers).

Now let's get into why it is important for us and how mastering these ideas can improve your daily life. Fritjof Capra writes: "A major clash between economics and ecology derives from the fact that nature is cyclical, whereas our industrial systems are linear". If any of your manager (family included) ever pressured you to get your job done quickly, well you have an example of linear approach. Overworking is useless both for the low quality of the product and for the stress you accumulate in the process. Both the side effects require maintenance. While a business will pay the first, the latter is mostly on you: crashing on the sofa exhausted is just your body recovering and paying the price.

Instead, a periodic (i.e., cyclical) system is sustainable: you can keep doing it indefinitely because you never exhaust your energy levels. Our planet Earth is sustainable: cyclic seasons, cyclic water supply, cyclic life and death, etc...

A periodic system has also another enviable characteristic: predictability. For example, the snow-holidays business relies on the seasons cycle to get ready to host tourists with skis and snowboard.

Anyway, predictability is a sweet spot for us because it allows us to grow: if you know somebody serves lunch at midday every day, you can skip food hunting and invest that saved time in some other way.

Indeed, you may use that extra time to compound yourself: improve the quality of your work just a 0.1 % each workday and ripe the abundant fruits of your improvement after some time.

And what other way you have to improve yourself other than... creating your own cyclical system?! Indeed, you want to copy the marvellous process of life because it is sustainable, predictable and interconnected (I already wrote about that).

All in all, as alive beings we are better off standing on the shoulders of giants, and, although we often think of these us some smart people before us, I would suggest to skip the Lilliputians and hang out with Life itself: slowly creating an ecosystem which values waste as a resource 1.



one example I love is ducks slurping slugs: I spent some time collecting slugs and moving them away from my loved plants, but I could have saved time and fed some ducks at once instead!