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The Forum > Article Comments > Nutrient recycling on humanity's menu > Comments

Nutrient recycling on humanity's menu : Comments

By Julian Cribb, published 20/7/2006

A society that buys new nutrients each year, then throws them away, seems to have lost its reason.

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The continual export of minerals from agricultural land is something I have been aware of for a long time, so I try to do my bit by composting every scrap of organic waste from the kitchen, which is then returned to the vegetable garden. British research has shown that nutrient value of fruit and vegetables has declined compared to the past; suggestive of impoverished soil. At my parent’s farm I’ve never worried about Kangaroos hopping around, because they are born there and die there. Sheep on the other hand, suck the life out of the soil, exporting nutrients stored in their wool, bones and meat. Another case of where we throw away nutrients is the human body. As we grow, our bodies use trace elements, like phosphorous and calcium for bones. But after we die, these nutrients are locked up in a graveyard. It sounds macabre, but recycling the dead should be given some thought. One caution, however, is the contamination of organic waste with heavy metals, which are apparently concentrated in sewerage and large animals – including humans.
Posted by Robg, Thursday, 20 July 2006 10:21:34 AM
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Ok, so there are a zillion ways in which we could improve efficiency in the way we utilise all sorts of resources, which basically mean improving nutrient efficiency.

And the motivation for doing so is fair and reasonable – to “help humanity pass the population peak into a managed decline instead of the catastrophic collapse that is the usual fate of species whose populations have outrun their resources.”

But wait, there is something drastically wrong here:

Surely if we were really successful at improving nutrient / resource usage, we would be facilitating population growth and catering for a higher peak population and a bigger crash, and with a greater negative effect on environment, climate change, extinction rates and our ability to recover afterwards.

This is our reality, in the absence of very concerted direct effort to reduce worldwide fertility rates.

Just about all of our technological advances are effectively prolonging the great population crash and increasing its magnitude.

Julian Cribb is very much aware of the population stabilisation / reduction arguments that have been bandied around this forum and indeed around Australia and the world for many years now. What I would really like to see from him – one of our foremost thinkers and writers – is a succinct article on how to address this enormous issue, in the least draconian manner possible, but also in a manner that is truly effective, if this is possible. THIS afterall is where our efforts really need to be concentrated.

The great pity is that every time we see anything written on this huge subject, it is always directed at how we can provide for this enormous and rapidly increasing population, and not how we can deal with the core of the issue – preventing the huge collapse that we can all see coming, by addressing the population issue head-on.
Posted by Ludwig, Thursday, 20 July 2006 10:49:57 AM
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The Stockman's Hall of Fame in Longreach has a statue:
Some poor devil, poorly equipped for walking; in riding boots, saddle slung over his shoulder, trudging back to the distant homestead from where his horse has carried him before dying under him.
I have empathy with it.
We have used oil for fertilisers, field preparation, transport, and now we see the prospect of its cheap availability deserting us.
Sewage and waste to the rescue! Some of the steps on the journey back are listed in the article. But they are no easy Sunday stroll, quickly accomplished.
Yes, we can re-cycle effluent from feedlots to great advantage, but the end result is more difficult: the nutrients in grain, meat, wool, from Balranald through to Dubbo - are transported to urban centres, generally to be passed through human digestive tracts. The energy costs of capturing, refining, and providing a return from passage for these nutrients from Sydney or Beijing to the agricultural fields is presently prohibitive, even while cheap oil remains available.
We have got ourselves into a fix. Quoting from Duncan Brown's "Nine Laws of Ecological Bloodymindedness" (see his book Feed or Feedback):
"For every action on a complex, interactive, dynamic system, there are unintended and unexpected consequences. In general, the unintended consequences are recognised later than those that are intended."
"For every increment in the agricultural surplus there is a corresponding increment in the volume of urban sewage."
If any species of animal should develop the mental and physical capacity consciously to manage the ecosystem of which it is a part, and proceeds to do so, then the long-term survival of that species will require, as a minimum, that it understands the rate limits of all processes essential to the functioning of that ecosystem and that it operates within those limits"
"If a population continues to grow exponentially it will eventually consume essential resources faster than they can be replenished. The provision of or access to additional resources will extend the 'life' of such resources, and hence the duration of growth of the population, only to a very small extent."
Posted by colinsett, Thursday, 20 July 2006 11:57:54 AM
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Like Robg I enjoy composting and recycling organic matter - food wastes, plant waste etc - back into the soil that sustains my garden. It gives me a more complete sense of involvement in the cycles of life (isn't that what recreational gardening is about?), and I enjoy the food I grow more. It saves landfill as well, but I couldn't pretend that such recycling is an economically viable way of producing the bulk of the food we produce today - or could it be?

Ludwig, I haven't seen earlier posts on the subject, but I reckon the key to stopping the human population explosion lies in developing the status and autonomy of women, particularly through the education of girls. The population explosion has occurred because technology has developed to allow massively increased life expectancy and survival of infants, as well as preventing mass starvation in otherwise famine prone areas. These are good things, but need to be balanced by people self regulating their fertility, which is already occuring in the first world and amongst the middle classes of places like India. Women need access to contraceptive technologies, the education to understand them, and the autonomy to be able to carry out their choices. Whew! I feel like a feminist, but I think it's common sense, really.
Posted by Snout, Thursday, 20 July 2006 12:03:15 PM
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You are right Snout, but unfortunately it is much more complex, especially when considering religious and cultural beliefs and practices, and the ‘snout in the pig-trough’ bias of big business and governments worldwide, who continue to facilitate continuous human expansion.

However, if we had the collective presence of mind, I reckon we could deal with it.

It just staggers me that the presence of mind for dealing with the material or technological side of the demand / supply equation has developed greatly over the last decade or so, but it has almost entirely failed to develop on the ever-increasing demand side of this equation
Posted by Ludwig, Thursday, 20 July 2006 12:53:13 PM
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Snout: I think you're spot on about helping women to help reduce world population growth, although I fear that Ludwig is right about his response to you.

As for producing the food we eat, yes and no. On the yes side, a quarter acre block can easily produce enough fruit and vegetables for a standard family, and then some. It can also produce eggs, honey, etc., plus also oil from sunflowers for example. The problem lies in grain and meat/fish/dairy production. Part of that is our diet (which is richer than ever before) and part of that is the setup of cities which have to move such foods (or anything else for that matter) over long distances to feed themselves. In many ways, I think cities are unsustainable.

On the no side, we ultimately can't make the backyard fruit or vegetable patch self-sustaining as long as we send our sewage elsewhere as that's a net loss of nutrients from the land. We need a more-or-less sealed feedback loop where we don't export or import anything except via nature itself. However, again, I think a large part of the obstacle here is the setup of cities as massive entities connected to the land only via long and artificial links. It would be possible to create housing developments almost as self-contained feedback loops (eg. with blackwater systems that could provide nutrients to local aquaculture), but there's a vested interest against such things. Also, I think a large part of our mindset to do with nutrient waste is our obsession with dirt equalling uncleanliness.

If you haven't already, I would suggest you do some reading on permaculture (eg. Bill Mollison). Also, ABC's Gardening Australia just put out a great little step by step DVD for the average Aussie quarter acre block. There are some really positive possibilities, we just need the will.
Posted by shorbe, Thursday, 20 July 2006 4:24:06 PM
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