A Theology of Compost

The Druid order I head hosts an email list for its members and friends, and the conversations there cover a dizzying range of topics. Some months ago, as I recall, composting became the subject du jour. In the course of the discussion, one listmember reminisced about the day she decided to marry the man who is now her husband. It was Valentine’s day, romantically enough, and he arrived with a very special gift: a new compost bin. Anyone might have brought flowers or chocolates, she explained, but the fact that he realized how much a compost bin would mean to her defined him, in her eyes, as Mr. Right.

Nobody on the list laughed, because it made perfect sense to the rest of us, too. Composting is a curious thing; people get very passionate about it. In one of its dimensions, of course, it’s a simple, practical, and ecologically elegant way of boosting and maintaining soil fertility. Still, as I suggested toward the end of last week’s Archdruid Report post, it has other dimensions that go well beyond that comfortably pragmatic focus. I’d like to explore a few of those in this week’s post, because they offer a useful guide to some of the core elements of the ecotechnic society that could well be our species’ best bet in the postpetroleum future.

What makes composting such a useful template for an ecotechnic society is precisely that it highlights the ways such a society would have to differ from the way things are done in today’s industrial civilization. Some of the crucial points of difference that come to mind are these:

First, where industrial civilization converts resources into waste, composting converts waste into resources. The core dynamic of today’s industrial economies is a one-way process in which fossil fuels, other energy sources, mineral deposits, soil, water, air, and human beings, among many other things, are transformed into waste products – directly, in the form of pollution, or indirectly, in the form of goods and services that go into the waste stream after the briefest possible useful life. This same dynamic drives the emerging crisis of industrial civilization; no matter how much lipstick you put on this particular pig, a society that burns through its supply of necessary resources while heaping up progressively larger volumes of toxic wastes is going to run into trouble sooner or later. Composting reverses the equation by turning waste into a resource and meeting crucial needs – and there are few needs more crucial to a human society than food production – using wastes that would otherwise be part of the problem.

Second, where industrial civilization works against natural processes, composting works with them. At the center of contemporary Western ideology is the vision of progress as the conquest of nature, and this way of thinking has backed industrial societies into an approach to natural processes that sees them as obstacles to be overcome – or even enemies to be crushed. The result is the sort of massive misuse of resources visible in, say, modern agriculture, where conventional farming methods convert soil into something approaching a sterile mineral medium, and farmers then have to buy and apply an ever-increasing volume of fertilizers and soil additives to make up for the fertility that natural cycles in healthy soil provide all by themselves. Composting, by contrast, works because it fosters the natural processes that break down organic matter into healthy humus. There’s no need to add anything extra, or to go shopping for the lively mix of bacteria, fungi, and soil fauna that makes the miracle of compost happen. To borrow a Hollywood slogan, if you build it, they will come.

Third, where industrial civilization requires complex, delicate, and expensive technologies to function at all, composting – because it relies on natural processes that have evolved over countless millions of years – thrives on a much simpler and sturdier technological basis. Once again, industrial agriculture is the poster child for this comparison. Set the factory complexes, energy inputs, and resource flows needed to manufacture NPK fertilizer using conventional methods with the simple bin and shovel needed to produce compost from kitchen and garden waste, and the difference is hard to miss. Imagine that your small town or urban neighborhood had to build and provide energy and raw materials for one or the other from scratch, using the resources available locally right now, and the difference becomes even more noticeable.

Fourth, where industrial civilization is inherently centralized, and thus can only function on a geographic and political scale large enough to make its infrastructure economically viable, composting is inherently decentralized and can function on any scale from a backyard to a continent. Among the many reasons why a small town or an urban neighborhood would be stark staring nuts to try to build a factory to produce NPK fertilizer is that the investment demanded by the factory equipment, energy supply, and raw materials would be far greater than the return. A backyard fertilizer factory for every home would be even more absurd, but a backyard compost bin for every home is arguably the most efficient way to put composting technology to use.

Fifth, where industrial civilization degrades exactly those factors in its environment that support its existence, composting increases the factors in its environment that support its existence. In a finite environment, the more of a nonrenewable resource you extract, the more energy and raw materials you have to invest in order to extract the remaining resource, and the more of a persistent pollutant you dump into the environment, the more energy and raw materials you have to invest in order to keep the pollutant from interfering with economic activities. Thus industrial civilization, in the course of its history, has to climb a steepening slope of its own making, until it finally falls off and crashes back to earth. By contrast, the closed loop that runs from composting bin to garden plot to kitchen and back around to composting bin again becomes more effective, not less, as the cycle turns: rising nutrient levels and soil biota in the garden plot lead to increased harvest, and thus to increased input to the compost bin.

Finally, all these factors mean that where industrial civilization is brittle, composting – and future ecotechnic societies modeled on the composting process – are resilient. One of the lessons of deep time opened up by geologists and paleontologists over the last decade or two is that the Earth is not a safe place. One of the lessons that historians have been pointing out for centuries, usually in vain, is that history is not particularly safe, either. It’s a common lesson taught by all these fields of study, and more, that the intricate arrangements made possible by periods of stability tend to shred like cobwebs in a gale once stability breaks down and the environment (natural, social, or both) lurches its way unsteadily to a new equilibrium. In a time of turbulence, systems that are dependent on uninterrupted access to concentrated resources, unimpeded maintenance of intricate technologies, and undisturbed control over geographical areas of the necessary scale to make them economical face a much higher risk of collapse than systems that have none of these vulnerabilities.

Now of course many other sustainable technologies embrace one or more of these same factors. As yet, however, not many of them embrace all of them. Even technologies as promising as metal recycling – a crucial ingredient in any ecotechnic society, especially now that current industrial societies have extracted most of the world’s easily accessible metal ores from within the Earth – have a long way to go before they become as scalable, self-sustaining, and resilient as composting. Comparisons of this sort point up the way that such highly sustainable techniques as composting can be used as touchstones and sources of inspiration for a much wider range of approaches. Equally, of course, other technologies that achieve particular types of ecological harmony composting can’t yet manage – and some of those will be explored here later on – can become a resource for refining the composting process as well.

Still, as ecotechnic methods go, composting deserves a distinguished place, and as a source of inspiration and fruitful comparison, its uses are by no means limited to the purely technical. In Druid circles, at least, talk about composting almost always seems to blend practicalities with deeper issues. So far, at least, the romantic dimension of composting seems to be limited to stories like the one with which I began this post, but the philosophical dimension is always close by – as is the theological.

From the contrast between the monumental absurdity of industrial society’s linear transformation of resource to waste, on the one hand, and the elegant cycle of resource to resource manifested in the humble compost bin on the other, it’s hard to avoid moving on to challenging questions about the nature of human existence, the shape of history, the meaning of the cycles of life and death, and the relationship of humanity to the source of its existence, however that may be defined. The practicalities of composting can’t be neglected in any sense – nor, of course, should the romantic dimension, when that shows up! – but the insights made available by a philosophy and a theology of compost may yet turn out to be at least as valuable as either.