The best place to start a blog about carbon, I suppose, is with the terribly important Carbon Cycle. The trouble is whenever I see the word ‘cycle’ my eyes start to glaze over. It doesn’t matter if it’s water, mineral, energy, nutrient, or some other cycle critical to our existence on Earth, for some reason my attention begins to wander the instant I see the word. Pictures don’t necessarily help. I remember attending a conference a few years ago where a speaker put up a slide of the Nitrogen Cycle on a farm he was studying. It literally had 64 different arrows flowing in every direction, including in circles. I took one look at the image and immediately put my pen down. No amount of note-taking was going to make sense of this cycle when I returned home.
Maybe it’s something we pick up as children. When my daughter did a homework assignment on the Hydrological Cycle last year for a science project, both of us struggled to stay focused. It was good stuff, don’t get me wrong, and she enjoyed drawing clouds and rain and squiggly lines flowing upward from the ocean into the sky. When we got to the part about it explaining it all, however, the fun disappeared as fast as water on a hot sidewalk. I mean, evapotranspiration is hard to say, much less explain in simple terms. The best I could do was make circles in the air with my finger.
The problem is, I’ve decided, is that there’s usually no story to go with these big ideas. Humans need stories, especially children, otherwise, it’s just a jumble of words and pictures. Take this image of the Carbon Cycle, for example, perhaps the most important cycle on the planet:
The process by which carbon dioxide flows out of the atmosphere into the soil via photosynthesis and green plants, as organic carbon, then back out again via decomposition and respiration, round and round, sustains nearly all life. That makes carbon possibly the most important element on the planet. The image does a pretty good job of showing this. I especially like the way the industrial factory sits off to the side, outside the circle, pumping CO2 directly into the air. No cycle there – just a straight line, up.
I like this image, but let’s admit it: it’s boring. That’s because it doesn’t tell a story. What’s up with the cow, for instance? What is it doing there? Where is it going? Did a visitor leave a gate open someplace, allowing the animal to wander into the picture? And what about that factory? What’s it making? Electricity? Cement? Frozen hamburgers? Is it Chinese? American? Brazilian? Does its owner hire undocumented workers? Is it up to code? Has it been busted for violating improper disposal of byproducts? Inquiring minds want to know!
I’m being facetious, sort of. Carbon is essential to life, but it’s also pretty damn abstract, which is why we’re having a hard time, in my opinion, getting our minds around things like CO2 pollution, carbon credits, soil organic matter, carbon sinks, carbon farming, even global warming. Carbon needs a story. Or rather, lots of stories. It isn’t enough to wave a finger in circles in the air and say “if we break the cycle all sorts of bad things will happen.” Danger! Instead, I look at this image of the Carbon Cycle and think “Will someone get that poor cow back into its pasture!”
That’s the rub – how to get important concepts across without the glaze-over effect? It ain’t easy. I know because glaze-over happens to me all the time, especially if I spend any time on the Internet. Talk about a jumble of words and pictures! But it’s important to try, because the issues are increasingly critical. Danger!
I’ll see what I can do.