Matter cycles round and round

Energy flow generates cycling of matter on scales from cellular processes to global bio-geochemical cycles. Using this concept, topics ranging from the water cycle and carbon cycle to pollution, composting and recycling can be usefully incorporated into one simple pattern, integrating an understanding of matter into students’ world-view. Most lessons or garden activities can be filtered and presented through this pattern of matter cycles. I carry a small globe to most of my classes and use this prop either as a overt or background reminder that we live in a limited environment and that there is no such place as away.


Teaching the water cycle is usually an effective introduction to understanding the cycling of matter on our planet. This pattern is unfortunately not often generalised for all matter, missing a potential springboard from which diverse topics such as climate change, recycling, sewage systems, and geological processes could be taught using the same pattern and vocabulary. By grades 5-6, with the addition of basic biochemistry, students have the ability to integrate the consequences of large-scale human actions around resource use into their ethos.


To develop this habit of mind an exercise that I recommend doing for yourself and potentially with your students is by John Michael Greer as part of his Green Wizard project

Closing the Circle

Get a piece of paper and a pen and I’ll show you how that works. At the top of the paper, draw a picture of Santa Claus in his sleigh, surrounded by an enormous pile of gifts, and label it “infinite material resources.” In the middle, draw a picture of yourself sitting on heaps of consumer goodies; put in some twinkle dust, too, because we’ll pretend (as modern industrial societies do) that the goodies somehow got there without anybody having to work sixteen-hour days in a Third World sweatshop to produce them. Down at the bottom of the paper, draw some really exotic architecture, with a sign out in front, put up by the local Chamber of Commerce, saying “Welcome to Away.” You know, Away – the mysterious place where no one’s ever been, but where stuff goes when you don’t want it around any more. Now draw one arrow going from Santa to you, and another from you to Away.

Does this picture look familiar? It should. It has the same pattern as a very simple energy flow diagram, of the sort you sketched out last week, with Santa as the energy source and Away as the diffuse background heat where all energy ends up. That sort of diagram works perfectly well with energy. It doesn’t work worth beans with any material substance, but it’s how people in modern industrial societies are taught to think about matter.

As an antidote to that habit of thinking, after you’ve drawn this diagram, I’d like to encourage you to crumple it up with extreme prejudice and throw it across the room and now –

Homework: Take one material item or substance you currently get rid of, and figure out, as exactly as you can, where it actually goes once it leaves your possession. Don’t cheat yourself by choosing something you already know about, and don’t settle for abstractions; with the internet at your fingertips, it takes only a modest amount of work to find out which landfill gets your garbage, which river has to cope with your sewage, and so on. Your ultimate goal is to trace your chosen item or substance all the way back around to your own front door – for example, by tracing your plastic bottles to a particular landfill, the polymerizers in the bottles to the groundwater in a particular valley, the groundwater to a particular river, and the river to the particular coastal waters where the local fishing fleet caught the fresh cod you’re about to have for dinner


STORY: There is no such place as away

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