Feeding Your Ecosystem like Whale Poop
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The world survives on whale poop.
Disgusting but true. That’s what this post is all about. Not poop necessarily but the potential your work has to change an entire ecosystem.
It could be the creation of an idea, the launch of an event or founding of a new business. Whatever you do ripples through your community and the world.
But first, whale poop.
Researches have recently discovered that whale poop is essential to the entire aquatic ecosystem in the world’s oceans. Although it may seem that whales would kill off fish populations (because they eat so much), the opposite is actually true. How could this be?
It all starts on the surface with algae.
Algae eat nitrogen to survive, and when the algae die they start to sink.
Fortunately in the extreme depths of the ocean you find hungry whales gobbling massive amounts of this otherwise lost nitrogen. After a big meal, the whales surface and excrete what is politely called “large fecal plumes” in the photic zone where there’s enough light to allow photosynthesis to take place. What’s more, the whale poop actually floats and stays near the surface. (Here’s a great visual of it.)
The poop is rich in nitrogen which helps feed the algae which attract more fish and increases biodiversity of the entire ocean.
As environmentalist George Monbiot explains:
…those great plumes of fertilizer stimulate the growth of phytoplankton, the plant plankton at the bottom of the food chain, which stimulate the growth of zooplankton, which feed the fish and the krill and all the rest of it.
The Gaia Hypothesis
The idea that an animal is dependent on another animal is not so hard for us to comprehend. Symbiotic relationships are found throughout the world.
However, what is a bigger stretch is the idea that an animal like a whale can not only influence other creatures around it, but its actual physical environment. This is what is known as the gaia hypothesis.
The gaia hypothesis was developed in the early 1970’s by scientist James Lovelock and microbiologist Lynn Margulis. In their book they argue that organisms co-evolve with their ecosystem. As Lovelock explains, they:
influence their abiotic environment, and that environment in turn influences the biota by Darwinian process.
In English, that means that living creatures actually change their physical environment, even though we think of a physical environment as a separate entity. In the whale’s case, their poop is fundamentally altering the composition of the atmosphere!
How Wolves Change Rivers
In his TED talk, George Monbiot builds a case for the gaia hypothesis, claiming that reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone Park after a 70 year absence actually changed the rivers.
He explains that reintroducing wolves:
radically changed the behavior of the deer. The deer started avoiding certain parts of the park, the places where they could be trapped most easily, particularly the valleys and the gorges. And immediately, those places started to regenerate. In some areas, the height of the trees quintupled in just six years. Bare valleysides quickly became forests of aspen and willow and cottonwood.
As the trees began to flourish so too did the beavers who created dams that provided habitat for reptiles, fish, duck and amphibians.
Most stunningly according to Monbiot:
The rivers began to meander less. There was less erosion. The channels narrowed. More pools formed. More riffle sections. All of which were great for wildlife habitats. The rivers changed in response to the wolves. And the reason was that the regenerating forests stabilized the banks so that they collapsed less often so that the rivers became more fixed in their course. So the wolves, small in number, transformed not just the ecosystem of the Yellowstone National Park, this huge area of land, but also its physical geography.
The Gaia Hypothesis for Your Community
What if you, your ideas and your business were a part of gaia?
What if you could change your physical environment by creating a body of work?
If we stretch our terminology slightly, many of the barriers to business success are talked about as if they were abiotic forces. We complain about access to markets, infrastructure, capitalization and market conditions.
Could we go as far to say that our presence in a physical place can fundamentally alter that ecosystem?
Biotic Change Agents
I immediately think of Greg Tehven as an example of the gaia business hypothesis. Located in Fargo, North Dakota, he seems disconnected by a physical environment that most people would just leave. Instead, Greg is co-evolving with his ecosystem.
He has hosted a crew of Misfits to the city, bringing new energy and focus for local artists. He shines a spotlight on local success which in turn brings more entrepreneurs and artists. This influx of creativity and energy has altered the physical features of Fargo in everything from new storefronts to alleys now open for business. He has created innovative events like Midnight Brunch where creatives gather and eat brunch at midnight.
What’s most inspiring is that this work not only alters his immediate ecosystem but spreads to other ecosystems.
On Thursday night we hosted the first ever Midnight Brunch in my hometown of Brookings, South Dakota. A crowd of 18 creatives met and shared drinks, conversations, food and energy. An energy that can fundamentally alter the physical features of Brookings.
Embrace Your Local Gaia
No one asked Greg to change his ecosystem and some people might even disagree with his efforts. It doesn’t matter.
No one asks a whale to poop to feed the fish. It does it because it wants to, needs to even. When it does the result is new life and new energy for the krill, fish and entire ecosystem.
No one asks or expects a wolf to change a river, but it does. Its impact spreads far beyond its immediate interactions.
You can be the Greg, (or whale poop), for your local community. Your body of work and efforts may feel small to you, but they are slowly making changes that ripple through your community like the wolves altering Yellowstone Park.
Your community is a part of gaia. The change and energy you invest will change your local ecosystem and spread throughout the region, country and world.
Who knew taking a shit in the ocean could do so much.