If a forest was a rock band, the trees would be the lead singer. They get all the attention, and for good reason. Without trees, a forest wouldn’t be a forest, just as without Bono, U2 wouldn’t be U2. When I walk through the woods here in Georgia, towering pines, oaks and magnolias invariably draw my attention upward. They hold center-stage of the forest so elegantly.
Not even Bono could put on a show without a road crew though. So much happens behind the scenes and in setup and break down for a concert, and the analogy holds true for a forest as well. Forests are teaming with life beyond just the trees, and the trees are wholly dependent on other niches of the ecosystem being healthy and functioning. And more than any other part of a thriving forest, the decomposers are the unsung heroes.
Biologically, the decomposers in an ecosystem are the bacteria, fungi and tiny critters that break down organic matter into basic molecular building blocks. When oak leaves fall to the forest floor, they don’t magically decay back into soil. Billions of tiny living things work hard to make that happen. The only reason that waste doesn’t exist in nature is because decomposers have a welcome seat at the table.
Unfortunately, humans rarely design our systems of production with decomposition in mind. Whether it’s a snow ski, a scooter or a skyscraper, the things we make often lack a clear plan for disassembly into their basic building blocks, and it’s a significant problem. Just imagine if those oak leaves I mentioned didn’t biodegrade for a thousand years. Oak trees would become a source of pollution that would threaten the long-term viability of the ecosystems in which they live.
Of all our modern human systems of production that have ignored the critical role of decomposers, the fashion industry is the exemplar. As proof for this claim, I invite you to read this recent report from our friends at The Biomimicry Institute titled “The Nature of Fashion.” It’s an excellent summary of all that is broken in the global fashion industry, and of all that we can learn from the natural world to fix it.
I enjoyed reading the whole thing, but one paragraph in particular stood out to me. Here it is from page 10 of the report:
“In a biomimetic fashion economy, the link between decomposers and primary producers is paramount. To be ‘closed loop,’ the final degradation product of any material must be of use for either natural or industrial primary production, but it needn’t be constrained to the same starting point (i.e., an old shirt does not need to become a new shirt or even textile). And because primary production always requires energy, that energy must be renewable. The second law [of thermodynamics] also means no material loop can ever be completely isolated from the biosphere, and so, to avoid bioaccumulation, any material in use must not pollute when it inevitably escapes. This means there is no alternative to the phasing out of non-compostable materials like polyester, and new fibers, however ‘recyclable,’ should not be developed if there is no natural decomposition for them.” [Emphasis in original]
The report goes on to describe several solutions to our current fashion industry problems, like utilizing regional production scales and sourcing materials from cellulosic agricultural waste. It’s worth your time to read the whole thing. For now though, I’ll leave you with this thought – the next time you walk through a forest, don’t forget to look down. There are some real rock stars doing important work down there.