Circle of nitrates

I don’t suppose I’ll be making friends with this post, and I know why, due to events in the classroom about ten years ago. I was using The Lion King as my touchpoint for talking about a host of ecological variables, and noticed a certain … trauma emanating from nearly everyone present. I was used to the ordinary response, “Gee Dr. Edwards, I never thought of it that way before,” but this?

It turned out that the film had just been re-released at the OmniMax … and this class’ average age as of 2006 was about 20 years old … You get the idea. This was the original target market in the flush of their first fully-confirmed cultural validation, and I had to go into encounter-group level discussion to stem the tears.

As for right now, I just went to see The Lion King stage production for the first time, a spectacular event to be sure, and I saved my comments for those who were interested, afterwards. They hinge on these very-borked concepts and plot points.

  • Life is a quantity which is transferred creature to creature through an ecosystem, cyclically such that each step depends on each of the other steps.
  • One predator must keep another one “down” in order to avoid over-hunting, which in turn destabilizes the above cycle and turns it into a blasted moonscape.
  • The above predator must maintain its own social system properly and knowledgeably to regulate pan-species social harmony and ecological stability.

The literary and socio-political content – obey your father, father is a god, a society needs a firm titular ruler, inheritance by primogeniture is social stability, the king’s health is the kingdom’s, there’s only enough here for us, scruffy immigrants fuck it up for everyone – isn’t my direct point, but I submit that every bit of it relies on naturalism, and that is very much to my point. Let’s examine the biology on which these … interesting thematic claims, James Tudor’s (VI of Scotland, I of England James) The Divine Right of Kings almost to the letter, are allegedly built.

The first point is the circle of life itself, which … isn’t. There isn’t one. To get straight to the biological terminology, energy flows, chemicals cycle, and neither is alive.

If you’re talking about the energy flow, then never mind “cycle” – that stuff hits the earth, and radiates off the earth, poof. Whether some of it’s held as chemical bonds you like to call “life” along the way, is of no physical significance whatsoever.

The most relevant chemical cycles concern water, carbon, nitrogen (nitrates), and phosphorus (phosphates) – the elements which compose our primary macromolecules (simple carbohydrates, fatty acids, amino acids, and nucleic acids). You can see that in the water cycle, living things can be present or absent, and the cycle still occurs. Living things slow it down in spots, that’s all.

The take-home is that for all of these cycles, living things are involved as subroutines to the abiotic cycling. Although the carbon, phosphorus, and nitrogen cycles do include distinctive living-only routines, the cycles proceed with only bacteria in the mix. All larger organisms are mere piggybackers from there. Here’s the nitrogen cycle.

Keep those two images available as I explain how they’re interrelated.

Yes, complex ecoystems like savanna and forest can turn into wretched moonscapes. It’s called nitrate leaching, it happens when we drill the wrong kinds of wells and when we clearcut, and it cannot be restored.

Now for the lions as social critters. You might say this next point is quibbling, that tweaking lions’ social structure into a human mode is mere storytelling fun … but I submit it’s also about ecology. In the film, not only is it Simba’s rightful place to rule the pride in pure social terms, it’s also explicitly the linchpin of a smoothly functioning ecosystem.

Regarding agonist male-male lion behavior, as with so many things, the film nips a bit of biology into its imagery without that bit’s fundamentals, to create a naturalistic mask for the utterly human and often ethically-dubious role the bit plays in the story.

In this case too, the concept of a rightful inherited ruler toppling the wrongful usurper and restoring social order is inseparable from Scar’s “wrongness” in inviting the hyenas into the Homeland Pridelands, which in the film means that the ecosystem is overburdened by too many predators, draining the “life” from the system too rapidly at one of its cyclical steps.

You see how the film’s story works now? It’s absolutely grounded in confusing predator competition with nitrate leaching. Real-world chemical cycling doesn’t care a bit about which predator is present or absent or more prevalent; the bodies of every living creature in the region distribute nitrates into the soil no matter what, so all that matters are (i) soil and water dynamics and (ii) whether living things are present at all. If more hyenas came into an area and starting hunting there, it would only mean there’d soon be less hyenas, less lions, or less of both, with zero impact on the real/big nitrate cycle concerning plants and soil bacteria.

There goes the neighborhood.

This is a grand example of “not even wrong.” I’m generally tolerant of scientific inaccuracy in human storytelling, more so than most. I don’t like that guy sitting with his arms crossed going “that’s not the right species” any more than you do. However, in this case, the nature isn’t simply a bit of technobabble or visual spectacles, it’s presented as genuine naturalism, the “rightness” of nature supplying the audience empathy, character ethics, and thematic morality of the narrative. Which is to say, its inherent nativism and racism – that a rightful people own the land, that they “know” it and manage it in a fashion that the very land demands and relies upon, and that badly-groomed, ecologically-greedy, behaviorally-irresponsible, and socially-maladjusted foreigners might be tolerated at the margins, but cannot be included by anyone rational.

Were The Lion King to be presented in completely human form, as a cross among Hamlet, The Divine Right of Kings, and the anti-immigrant tract of your choice, that’d be one thing to critique – and I submit that thus shorn of its anthropomorphism and naturalism, it’d be much easier to critique, perhaps devastatingly so. It’s an excellent example of how naturalism provides a quick and slick pass from such scrutiny, and also of how naturalism itself frequently lies regarding nature.

Next: Little thinks


2 thoughts on “Circle of nitrates

  1. The thing that almost made me that annoying guy regarding The Lion King was thinking the moonscape was more likely to result from overgrazing/LACK of predation than from over-predation (maybe over-predation of insectivores leads to a vegetation-destroying insect boom?) And that rain – I did see rivers in the Pridelands carrying all that unprotected, nitrate-laden soil out to sea …

    But on ecology, in my mind the balancing aspect of the story was in planting the idea that we should consider the environmental implications of actions AT ALL. That short(er) term irresponsible behavior might have disastrous results, because the circle(OK, wrong)/flow-through effects MATTER.

    Nativism and racism – I see some balancing there too, but I’d agree they’re more pernicious and difficult issues, handled (even more) poorly in the story and (now that you point it out) how it depicts biology.


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