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Earth, Water, Air and Fire

How the ancient mystical elements can shape your information preservation strategy


by Abed Shaheen, Managing Director at InfoFort, Dubai, UAE.



In the fifth century B.C., Empedocles, a Greek philosopher and scientist, believed and developed the premise that Earth, Water, Air and Fire are the basic elements of matter. In other words everything was made out of these. Fire and air were outwardly reaching elements, reaching up and out, whereas earth and water turn inward and downward

This theory of matter long dominated natural philosophy and was still believed in until the emergence of modern science.


Unfortunately, due to several reasons and the obvious lack of information preservation skills, much of Empedocles’ papyrus’ writing has been lost throughout history. Ironically, it is highly probable that these very four elements contributed to most of the loss.


Though digital information is on the rise, paper is not going to disappear anytime soon. Paper based information in the form of manuscripts, books, periodicals, drawings, charts, maps, etc. are all around us. These information media are mostly constituted of organic materials (paper, board, cloth, leather, ink, thread, adhesive.) which are vulnerable to natural decay and deterioration.


Taking a deeper look at Empedocles’ four elements and the factors of information deterioration can help practitioners and organizations better preserve and protect their valuable assets.

Deterioration is a change of original state of any material by interaction between the object and the factors of destruction. The different types of deterioration of the paper based materials are reflected in wear and tear, shrinkage, cracks, brittleness, warping, bio-infestation, discoloration, abrasion, hole, dust and dirt accumulation etc.


Generally the five major deterioration factors are , Environmental (climatic) factors like light, heat, humidity and moisture, dust and dirt, water, Biological factors like microorganisms, insects and rodents; Chemical ,  Human and Disasters factors


The four elements and their relation to the deterioration factors

I. EARTH, represents the solid state of matter. Earth is considered a stable substance. It manifests stability, permanence and rigidity. In our body, the parts such as bones, teeth, cells and tissue are manifestations of the earth[1]. Linking this to environmental factors, Earth also produces dust and dirt (which are also carried away by AIR).

An environmental factor, dust, is composed of soil, tar, metallic substances, fungus spores and moisture among other things. Since dust is hygroscopic in nature, high humidity transforms it to dirt which can sticks to the surface of objects (paper, books, covers)and becomes difficult to remove. Dust acts as a nucleus around which moisture collects and this moisture provides the necessary humidity for the growth of fungus and for chemical reaction, which lead to the formation of acids. [2]

Moreover biological factors and agents like micro-organisms, insects and rodents can attack paper. Fungus for example, as micro-organisms, are a large heterogeneous group of plant organisms. Their spores are present in the EARTH, WATER and AIR and remain in a dormant state for long periods. They grow when they have the required moisture and heat and they consume cellulose and also thrive on nutrients in leather, glues, pastes, binding threads etc... Hence they weaken and stain the paper and can cause discoloration. Bacteria and certain insects like silverfish, cockroaches, booklice, bookworms and termites can also do major damage. These eat glue and gelatin which are used in paper as sizing materials.


II.  WATER characterizes change and represents the liquid state. Water is necessary for the survival of all things. A large part of the human body is made up of water. Water is a substance without stability.1

Water, as an environmental deterioration factor, occurs in all the normal state of matter- solid, liquid and gas. It acts as a physical agent of deterioration by causing hygroscopic materials to undergo dimensional changes.


Sources of water can be natural disasters or simple negligence. Biologically speaking water attacks paper and this shows by the growth of fungus and the damage it causes (stains, weakness...)


III.   AIR is the gaseous form of matter which is mobile and dynamic. Within the body, air (oxygen) is the basis for all energy transfer reactions. Air is existence without form1. It is also key element required for FIRE to start.


The air of the planet has been generated by biological means, largely a process of photosynthesis, where planets take in carbon dioxide and water, oxygen as a by-product.


Light is an environmental factor that causes deterioration when paper is exposed to. Sun light, has a serious damaging effect. Here is how it happens: The ultraviolet radiations are mainly responsible for photochemical degradation of paper which takes place rapidly when paper is exposed to sun light in presence of air (oxygen). When some portion of cellulose is oxidized to oxycellulose, the long cellulose chains are broken and the paper becomes weak and brittle. Fading of ink and dye of the colored paper and yellowing of white paper also takes place due to the formation of oxycellulose.2

Another factor is Heat which is due to high atmospheric temperature. High heat with low humidity, the amount of moisture in the atmospheric air, causes dehydration of cellulose fibers and the paper becomes brittle. It loses its flexibility to the extent that it tends to crumble on touch. On the other hand, high temperature with high humidity creates the condition for the growth of molds.


This is because organic objects absorb WATER to a greater or lower extent and the water goes inside the object through surrounding air. Paper absorbs more moisture when there is high humidity. Certain amount of humidity is necessary for the flexibility of paper but in prolonged high humid condition, paper becomes soggy and the moisture weakens the fibers of paper.2


Moreover, AIR (atmosphere) also contains oxides of carbon, sulphur, nitrogen and hydrogen sulphide. These can get absorbed by the moisture absorbed by paper and are a hazard to cellulose materials. Furthermore nitrogen dioxide, which comes from automobile exhausts, turns into nitric acid when it combines with WATER and AIR and attacks ink, paper cloth and leather.


IV. FIRE is the power to transform solids into liquids, to gas, and back again. In other words, it possesses the power to transform the state of any substance. Within our bodies, the fire or energy binds the atoms together1. It is a rapid, persistent chemical reaction that releases heat and light, especially the exothermic combination of a combustible substance with oxygen.[3]

Fire is a chemical process. Three things are needed for this process: oxygen, heat and fuel. Without one of these elements a fire cannot start or continue. In a chemical process, the molecules rearrange themselves. Energy is either released or absorbed. The process in a fire is called oxidation, where oxygen atoms combine with hydrogen and carbon to form water and carbon dioxide.

Oxidation is the same chemical process that turns iron into rust. But with iron, the reaction is very slow. So, the heat energy that is released is very low. With certain things, like paper or wood, the oxidation rate of the molecules can be very fast. If the heat cannot be released faster than it is created, then combustion happens[4]. We have all seen or read about numerous historical and recent incidents where FIRE destroyed libraries, cultural heritages and other irreplaceable information.

An organization’s or a nation’s information represents its history, knowledge and intellectual capital. Some information is the priceless heritage of mankind as they preserve facts, ideas, thoughts, accomplishments and evidences of human development in diverse areas, ages and directions. The past records constitute a natural resource and are indispensable to the present generation as well as to the generations to come. Any loss to such materials is simply irreplaceable.


In Matthew Arnold's poem Empedocles on Etna, a narrative of the philosopher's last hours before he jumps to his death in the crater first published in 1852, Empedocles predicts[5]:

To the elements it came from

Everything will return.

Our bodies to earth,

Our blood to water,

Heat to fire,

            Breath to air.


Organizations and executives should be responsible and held accountable for their information governance (and preservation) strategies before their most valuable everything (information assets) return to the elements it came from.


Abed Shaheen, Managing Director of InfoFort, , the leading records and information management solution provider in the Middle East and Africa, can be reached at ; Twitter: @abedshaheen


[3] American Heritage Dictionary, 2nd College Edition