Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Further complications of my simple world view

So, how do plants take nutrients from the ground? Seems they "mine" minerals from the soil. The exchange is mediated by numerous fungi in the soil whose mycelia, fine root-like structures, inject enzymes into the organic matter in the soil, breaking it down into smaller molecules that can then be absorbed by plants' roots through active transport or diffusion.

Looks like its turtles, all the way down. Everything alive mines minerals in one way or another. Non-human animals do it by eating plants that mine the minerals for them. Oceanic creatures recover minerals from seawater through other processes, and then pass the minerals along through the food chain. A super interesting take on this is the Salmon Nation, "a community of caretakers and citizens that stretches across arbitrary boundaries and bridges urban-rural divides." The boundaries of this nation trace the life cycle of the salmon, which transports minerals with its body from hatch in shallow streams to the ocean and back, where the minerals are redeposited as its carcass rots or is eaten.

So if mineral extraction underlies most processes of food and artifact production on the planet, that militates more for less disruptive or destructive methods, when ever possible. And demonstrates that it is possible to accomplish extraction in a way that yields greater benefit than it costs.

An example? How about we start "mining" our landfills for plastics and metals and other recoverables? Or formalize and humanize the recovery of strategic metals and other valuables from discarded electronics? This class of endeavors becomes cost-effective once we factor in the true costs of primary processes of mineral extraction, such as loss of watercourses, social disruption, loss of land value due to subsidence risks, and so forth. I'm not back to demonizing mining, but surely there is a better way than we have pursued in the past decades.

Evidently, that view is common to others as well, since today federal courts halted a particularly destructive form of mining called mountaintop removal. It isn't a ban or moratorium on this form of mining, but a rejection of the streamlined approval process implemented by the past administration; still, it's a start on a more thoughtful approach to the very necessary practice of resource extraction by large scale processes.

So moving all this earth around in the course of mining creates visual disturbances, water contamination and habitat loss. So does clearing sites for development. And treading renegade trails through fragile lands. Compression of the soil ruins the structure of the soil - presses out the little tiny air pockets that tender roots need to extend themselves (except for plants like garlic mustard, gooseneck loosestrife and cup-plant which could break concrete).

But what also kills soil, makes dead dirt, graveyard ground, is when the microscopic fungi are killed so that there are no mycelia to release nutrients into the soil. This can happen when fires burn through the organic matter in dirt, but can also happen via chemical warfare when plants release substances into the soil that kill the fungi that benefit their competitors. It can also happen via release of anthro-built chemicals like pesticides that are very, very good at what they do. Sterile soil can be inoculated with the appropriate fungi to foster plant life, but the system isn't well understood, with many many types of fungi present in soils, and some of them uniquely adapted to co-exist with only specific plants (think orchids). So inoculation of soils at this juncture is sort of like "creating" wetlands - it's really not the same thing as the original.

Taking resources to eat or make things or otherwise gratify ourselves is like a global game of Jenga or Pick-up Sticks. Before we select and remove something, maybe we should know what else it is supporting, so we don't topple the whole thing - then it will be a mess of turtles, turtles everywhere instead of turtles, turtles all the way down.


MarkN said...

Well stated, all the way down...

twinsetellen said...

And when we mine limestone, we are mining the bodies of sea creatures.

Kathy said...

Yes, and oil was once algae. And coal was ferns.