Two things you ought to know about Carbon


With the holidays upon us, you’ll probably have plenty of social occasions coming up where a nice conversation could devolve into an argument about sustainability. If that happens, have empathy.  Also, be sure that you’re not fighting the wrong fight, turning friends into foes.

Distract, divide, and conquer seem to be the (unfortunately successful) go-to tactics used by those that place profit well above people and planet. None of us are immune. At one time or another, we’ve all been side-tracked in our forward-thinking sustainability efforts by greenwashing, celebrations of the less-bad, and in-fighting.

The more savvy among us are not easily duped by greenwashing and less-bad masquerading as sustainable, though you may have to spend precious time and resources trying to un-dupe others. That’s okay — it’s part of our job.

What I find frustrating, however, is when whole swaths of sustainability efforts are based on misunderstandings or incorrect underlying assumptions. Even the most savvy among us can’t know everything, and it’s especially hard to know what you don’t know. Because of this, it is easy for us to get distracted and spend our energy fighting the wrong fights.  One of the big ones: Blaming cows for climate change. The blaming is understandable; however, it is  based on a misunderstanding of carbon.

Here are two very simple things you ought to know about carbon

  1. Carbon is necessary for life.
  2. Not all carbon is created equal.

To elaborate, here are some things to consider:

Carbon is necessary for life.  

Roughly 96 percent of the mass of the human body is made up of just four elements: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen, with a lot of that in the form of water. Water accounts for 60% of body weight. Carbon accounts for 18% of human body weight.

Carbon is synonymous with life. Its central role is due to the fact that it has four bonding sites that allow for the building of long, complex chains of molecules. Moreover, carbon bonds can be formed and broken with a modest amount of energy, allowing for the dynamic organic chemistry that goes on in our cells.  

[The Chemistry of Life: The Human Body]

Carbon dioxide is the currency of photosynthesis, a source of Earth’s capacity for regeneration. Soil carbon is the guarantor of healthy ecosystems and food and water security. Carbon atoms are the building blocks of life.

[Carbon is not the enemy]

An estimated 30 to 60 million bison once lived in North America.

[Timeline if the American Bison]

Not all carbon is created equal.

“Living carbon” is organic, flowing in biological cycles, providing fresh food, healthy forests and fertile soil; something we want to cultivate and grow.

“Fugitive carbon” has ended up somewhere unwanted and can be toxic; includes carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, ‘waste to energy’ plants, methane leaks, deforestation, much industrial agriculture and urban development.

Climate change is the result of breakdowns in the carbon cycle caused by us: it is a design failure. Anthropogenic greenhouse gases in the atmosphere make airborne carbon a material in the wrong place, at the wrong dose and wrong duration. It is we who have made carbon a toxin—like lead in our drinking water. In the right place, carbon is a resource and tool.

[A New Language For Carbon]

What this means for sustainability efforts:

The carbon that is circulating in our atmosphere that comes from mining and burning fossil fuels shouldn’t be there, cannot be assimilated into nature’s living cycles, and is the main cause of climate change.

The carbon that is circulating in our atmosphere that comes from cows, composting, and burning biomass comes from, and is in balance with, the carbon that is embodied in living things, and is part of nature’s living systems.

There are many reasons why we might be concerned with the sustainability of raising and eating meat and dairy, managing food waste, and burning biomass, but climate change is not among those reasons.  

Sustainability requires an understanding how whole systems — including nature — work, as well as understanding of and empathy for each other. The world needs you and we all need each other.  Let’s not let ourselves get duped and divided by comparing cow pies to coal mines.

If you want to understand how whole systems, including nature, works as well as learn about how you can use empathy for leading sustainability efforts, explore or MA in Sustainable Design program.  Our next informational webinar is November 20th!

[Image courtesy of]

Denise DeLuca / Former Director

Denise DeLuca is the Director of MCAD’s Sustainable Design program. She was co-founder of BCI: Biomimicry Creative for Innovation, a network of creative professional change agents driving ecological thinking for radical transformation. Denise is author of the book Re-Aligning with Nature: Ecological Thinking for Radical Transformation, which was illustrated by MASD alum Stephanie Koehler. She also teaches with the Amani Institute.

Denise’s previous roles include Education Director for the International Living Future Institute, Project Manager for Swedish Biomimetics 3000, and Outreach Director for The Biomimicry Institute. Denise is a licensed civil engineer (PE) and holds a master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering with a focus on modeling landscape-scale surface and groundwater interactions.  In addition, Denise is a Biomimicry Fellow and a member of the Advisory Council of The Biomimicry InstituteBoard Member of the International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP), on the editorial board of the Journal of Bionic Engineering, and an Expert with Katerva. Denise is based in Oregon.

contact:  [email protected]