Thursday, February 21, 2008

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.


LJR said...

Wonderful post!

Spot on.

Composting puts us back in the circle of life. Psychologically I can't think of a better grounding.

micheal said...

Yes, absolutely, I agree 100%, yesseree bob, however…

Why must we continually attempt to validate the natural flows of the universe and life against the absurdity of the content of industrial society [a condition that is on the brink of expiration]? Composting is not an abstract notion - it merely is one of the natural ways of life. There simply is no alternative.

And it is not, I would add as an additional two cents worth, any part of any hope for salvation for the species. We, in our current configuration, are doomed. No amount of quick fiddling is going to prevent a species dieoff.

John Michael Greer said...

Ljr, thanks for the vote of confidence.

Micheal, you know, everybody I've ever met who insisted that we're on our way toward inevitable extinction used that belief as an excuse to do nothing about the real challenges we face. Maybe you're the exception to the rule -- but then neither you nor anyone else has the omniscience necessary to know whether or not Homo sapiens will be around in the future. That being the case, it seems to me, it makes more sense to let go of the dubious pleasures of futilitarianism, embrace the possibility that something constructive may come of the present mess, and get to work.

bryant said...


I sure wish I had thought of that...almost as good as insinuendo!

The funny thing about composting is that it seems addictive. I started with the run-of-the-mill kitchen and garden waste. I even followed the admonition not to include animal products, animal wastes and fat.

Gradually I abandoned most of the silly compost goes the fat, spoiled meat, animal manure(including mine). Now I look for ways to divert existing waste streams into the compost. A few years ago I asked my wife to switch to organic cotton tampons and to dispose of them in the compost. Mostly she uses glad rags, but for those "tampon times" into the compost it goes.

You know you've got the compost bug bad, when you bring food waste home with you after visiting non-composting friends.

Thanks for another thoughtful and thought-provoking essay.

green with a gun said...

All those who think we're doomed, along with all those who think we have a population problem, I have invited to live according to their principles and beliefs and go shoot themselves. Interestingly, none appear to have taken my invitation, suggesting that their beliefs are not very deeply-felt.

A good future awaits us, if we choose it and work for it.

One nitpick, really a question of emphasis: I would say that while the industrial process turns resources into waste, nature doesn't turn waste into resources, but turns resources into resources; there is no waste.

I realise the piece wouldn't be as neat without that little rhetorical mirror, but still... :)

yooper said...

Excellent John! Waste not, want not, eh? I'll perhaps put yet another "spin" on you're fine logic here, later.

micheal, there is a difference between die-off and extinction. We are probably one of the best adapted of species. Not everybody is going to die. Sure, a great deal will and there's no guarantee that you'll make it. However, life is for the living, how bad do you want it?

Thanks, yooper

Sam Norton said...

Good post (not unusually) but an even better neologism: 'futilitarianism'! Love it.

Bill Pulliam said...

A decade or more ago, I was putting on a little "mysteries initiation" for a college pagan group to which I was the faculty advisor. A mystery initiation, of course, generally consists of ceremoniously taking the initiates into some sort of special place, imparting some teaching about the fundamental nature of life, death, etc. to them, and revealing some sacred, magical object that embodies the teaching. The object I chose to reveal to them in our mystical cavern (the crawlspace under our house...) was a small pile of compost. After all, *this* is the magical place in which the remains of death are transformed into the stuff of new life. I'm sure they were hoping for something more Tolkien-esque (Harry Potter hadn't been published yet) involving waving sharp objects around and flashes of lightning, but I prefer to deal with the real magic in the world around us.

I also remember an episode of "Northern Exposure" where Maurice and Chris were truffle hunting. Chris was waxing on and on about things like delicacies arising from damp decay and death, etc. Maurice said something like "Isn't anything simple for you?" Chris answered "Life and death all wrapped up in one fungus? What could be more simple?"

Bill Pulliam said...

Michael -- all species are ultimately doomed to oblivion, whether they evolve into the next thing or fade away as a dead end. So what? All individual humans are born to die, someday, somehow. We as individuals still live the days we have the best we can. And humans as a species should continue to live the years, centuries, or millenia we still have the best we can.

In some billions of years, the earth will be fried to a crisp as the sun continues its life cycle. Should we therefore just hang it all and use it all up now?

Indeed, eventually the entire known universe may well come to a slow, silent, cold entropy death. Is this a basis for planning our own lives or political choices?

"We're doomed" is a uselessly vague tautology.

As for the end of civilization in its current configuration, yeehaw! Bring it on!

robertmp said...

Dear John, Thanks for your excellent style and content. We garden, therefore we compost.
Perhaps a middle ground between the cabin with ammo and beans, and the pantry with a couple extra cans of peaches is with the year food storage program advocated by Mormons. Grains, pulses, dairy and oils are mainstays, store well and easily purchased in bulk.
We live in the lentil growing area, and they are still inexpensive, not being suitable for fermenting into fuel (yet).
Best regards,

dZed said...

Great post, yep, yep. I found the end of JMG's comment (The third in this thread) even better.

I've been doing some reading on terra preta or Amazonian dark earths or whatever you choose to call them, and wonder if you've heard of them, John. Seems the cultures of the Amazon basin farmed on them for over a thousand years. The details are beyond this comment box (See this for a pleasant and not TOO technical discussion: ) but the ideas of controlled charcoaling as a soil base is fascinating to me.

The "Finally..." section of your post this week made me think of all of this reading I've been doing on the subject in a different light -- the soil must have been good forever (And you can still grow on it today, surrounded by nutrient deficient acid soils across the rest of the continent), but they as a civilization still disappeared into the jungles so completely that it's only recently that "we" have understood how massive of a peoples they were. And if they were in full possession of sustainable agriculture? Aiee.

I guess I don't know exactly what this new point of view says to me -- I never thought good soil/agriculture was the only key to our survival -- but it is prompting me to break out my still-unread copy of Charles Mann's 1491 to get some cultural and societal perspective.

Lydia said...

Great post and great title, too. I remember a talk by Thich Nat Hahn in which he talks about "the rose and the garbage," as a way of getting people to see how ephemeral are the boundaries we impose on and within the world and the limiting value judgments that result therefrom. I think Buddhist literature (the dharma? not sure I'd call it a theology in this case) has a lot to add to this conversation as well.

John Michael Greer said...

Bryant and Sam, I wish I could claim "futilitarianism" as my own work, but it's from a Roger Zelazny novel.

Green, granted, in nature there's no waste, but the focus of this post is the human side of the human-nature interface.

Bill, now that sounds like a ceremony I'd enjoy -- reminiscent of the old claim that the central revelation of the Eleusinian mysteries took place when the chief priest held up a single ear of grain.

Robert, good to hear.

Dzed, I've been looking into terra preta and it's potentially a very useful tool. As for the fate of the culture that invented it, remember that no society is immortal, and there are plenty of reasons for collapse that have nothing to do with ecology.

Lydia, from my perspective every spiritual tradition has something of value to offer the present conversation -- Buddhism among many others.

John Michael Greer said...

Note to all -- I had to reject an otherwise good comment due to profanity. Yes, I know I'm hopelessly old-fashioned in requiring civil discourse here; live with it. If the author would like to rewrite it without the profanity and resubmit, I'd be glad to put it through.

Robert Magill said...

At least after the old Romans packed it in and left the field our hapless ancestors had a pretty good chance of surviving. Granted things were not great for a while, say 500 years. But on the bright side. The old boys left some decent roads (nobody had anything much that rolled on wheels but at least they had a dry place to walk the goats) and if they were in need of some stones for refurbishing the hut or to lob at a foe, well, lots of that by quarrying out the old arenas.
If there was any knowledge of hydraulics left behind, plenty of good watercourses were still standing. (They stand to this day!)
So most of the abandoned technology was useful or at least benign.

Not so with our detritus. When the current experiment in modern living goes the way of the Maya, the Pharaohs and the rest of those benighted souls our rubbish will kill the folks dead. The more odiferous ruins will be avoided instinctively; the chemical plants, refineries and that foul smelling ilk. Distance will provide a buffer they can live with. Trail and error should teach the folks to avoid most of the obvious ordnance middens over time.

What worries me to distraction is the tens of thousand of nuclear devices and applications which will surely be abandoned when the Homer Simpsons of the future leave off ministering as the tide rises and the sun sets on our way of life. For without the expertise and TLC of the Homers all the nukes will someday go fizz.
If you happen at the time to live in a small island place like say, Japan, you will have no chance at all (About one nuke site about every couple of miles, is it?). Even a larger area, France maybe, better mend fences with the neighbors because that is where they will all be living when les nukes go les critical. The folks won't even know what's hitting them.

So if we want to do the kids' kids' kids a big favor we will stop building any more of the bloody things. At the first hint of a general systemic failure in technical sustainability, we must spend whatever it takes to dismantle, decommission and stash away as best we know how every single nuclear machine on the planet. Nothing less will even begin to redeem the lack of foresight in a reckless, feckless tribe like ours.

LJR said...


I appreciate your efforts to maintain civility in these posts!

Asturchale y Chulo said...

>>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.

I hope you don`t mind if I drop a humorous note on this subject:
Have you read "Earth to earth"? It`s a tale from Robert Graves, collected in his "Chimney-Corner Tales". It is a gruesome yet hilarating story about a couple of compost fanatics. Anytime I hear about compost I can`t help recalling the tale.
I am very happy that you are back, the Net was not the same without the man who has taken "insightfulness" into a new dimension.
Serious, no one deserved a holiday more than you but anyway, I needed you back.

tst said...


Whether or not humanity is doomed to extinction is, at least in some ways, beside the point. None of us will be around in a thousand years, or, for that matter, in a hundred. The only real question is how we react to the choices before us. Will we choose to lead meaningful lives, or will we succumb to the temptations of a society that inevitably promises more than it can deliver? Will we settle for fear, or will we gravitate toward stewardship and respect for the planet?

To frame things in a different way, why worry about all the stuff we can’t control? Why not work on the things we can? After all, there’s something profoundly - and I don’t ordinarily use this word, but in this case it’s quite appropriate - empowering about accepting responsibility for our own lives. We may not be able to change the entire world, but we, as individuals, certainly have the ability to act as caretakers, and to help heal at least some of the imbalances around us.

I agree with John. There’s no point dwelling on our long-term survival, or bemoaning the cruel hand of fate. It’s time to get to work.

And as a non-composter, I have a question for all you experienced souls. I live with constant blacks and the occasional griz. Any suggestions? We’ve got a very young son, and I’d rather not be pulling bears out of the woods and into the yard.

John Michael Greer said...

Robert, thanks for reposting. I certainly agree that nukes are very nearly the worst possible option for the long term, but one question keeps coming to mind: what do you propose to do to keep them from being built, or to decommission the ones that already exist? I expect a mad rush into nuclear about the time it becomes clear that the mad rush into ethanol won't work; I'm not happy about it, but I see no way to stop it. Do you have any suggestions?

Ljr, thanks. If we're ever to have a meaningful conversation in this society about the issues that matter, we have to start by learning how to have a civil conversation about anything -- and that's practically a lost art these days. One blog may not be able to do much, but you gotta start somewhere.

Asturchale, I haven't read the story! I'll have to look it up; Graves is always worth reading.

TST, I'll have to leave that to those who live in bear country; we get the occasional black bear here in Ashland, but I've never heard of them getting into compost. (Raccoons are another matter.) Any suggestions on bruin management?

RAS said...

Composting is rather addictive -I just wish I had a better set-up! It's hard enough to get a way with what I do all ready here in this town.

As for the die-off/extinction question, I agree with what tst said. This has always been one of my favorite quotes: "All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us." (Tolkein, The Fellowship of the Ring)

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG -- actually that was one of my inspirations...

About nukes: I'm hoping that the economics will put the brakes on the pro-nuke stampede. After biofuels crash and burn, and every other alternative replacement for cheap fossil fuel energy proves to be in fact terribly expensive without cheap fossil fuel subsidies, I doubt we'll really have the financial resources as a civilization to suddenly encrust the planet with nuke facilities. We'll not really even be able to maintain the existing transportation and energy infrastructure, much less undertake a massive expansion and reconfiguration of it.

Robert Magill said...


I suppose the greatest challenge is to convince a species who has never done much of anything for future generations to suddenly care enough to scrap an entire industry and way of life so that unborn others would have a chance to survive.

Having said that, I still feel we must make the effort. Many socially responsible and caring people can be persuaded that somehow the right technology will come along just in time and save the day. The problem lies in our failure to endow future generations with the ability and the means required for the care and feeding of such lethal creatures as nuclear devices and installations. If the technology is not available to them they will have no chance of survival.

In an issue of National Geographic at the time India was installing her first nuclear reactor a photo appeared showing an enormous bamboo scaffolding teeming with workers engaged in hauling up the containment vessel for placement. India didn't possess a large enough crane for the job so a bunch of guys had to drag it up with ropes!

To me at the time it suggested a form of madness that any culture so primitive would be in the nuke business in the first place. Of course, this installation was a by product of the cold war when we and the other side vied for clients. Now, the same picture suggests to me a future scenario as guys with ropes try to cope with deadly souvenirs left behind by wealthy, advanced cultures who have had several major disasters of their own despite all the resources and knowledge at their disposal.

As for my own suggestions as what can be done, I am afraid what I have to offer is mostly ad hoc and cautionary. After Three Mile Island we were on the barricades long enough and strong enough to keep new nuclear installations from being built until this day. It can happen again if enough people are alert and concerned. We should be wary, however, of certain celebrity gurus and front running politicians who appear green and hector us on the risk of additional coal burning facilities. Often a nuclear agenda and covert backing of the industry lurks unseen and unacknowledged.

If, someday, the fire goes out forever at a conventional power plant what remains is a very tall pile of bricks and mortar. Better dozens of these dotting the horizon than one abandoned nuclear plant or one rusting out fissionable weapons cache.

yooper said...

Hello John, Micheal and all!
Many years ago when I was a young pup, still wet behind the ears my days were filled with sunshine. This was when my needs were met for me and any thoughts of die-off were off in a distant dark future.

I was told to go down the trail to the old house where my great aunt lived and have lunch with her. I skipped past the tree where someone had nailed a civil war union belt buckle on it and then went underneath a heavy limb from a virgin white pine were I had been assured by the aunt a man was once hung from. Then there it was the old house in all it's glory, basking in the sun.

After having a lunch that was cooked on the wood fired oven, she scrapped the scraps that were left over unto one plate and ordered me to throw it on the compost pile. "Waste not, want not" I can remember her saying to me.

My aunt was fond of antique bottles and I was to help her dig for them.

A short distance from the compost pile, just inside the woods was her dump. It had been the family dump, since she was a little girl. I can remember my folks being half mad at her for still using it, and not being more civilized and have the trash brought to the town dump.

Anyway, every kind of can laid on top, soup cans, oil cans and bottles from the 50's and 60's era. Digging a little deeper we were in the 30's and 40's era, the cans were somewhat rusted and becoming undistinguishable, very few oil cans. She told me back then they pretty much sucked oil from the barrel into Kern's jars and little tin spouts were made to screw on them. It seemed like more bottles could be found at this level, but these did'nt interest her as there were seamed from top to bottom with screw tops.

Digging down a little further very few cans or tins could be found, only those that were isolated from the elements survived, some old "Prince Albert" tobbacco boxes. The bottles from this era, 1900's to the 20's, did'nt seem to interest her either as these had seams that ran up to the neck, the neck was later put on she told me.

Digging down even further yet, only shoe soles, horse harnesses and hand blown bottles could be found. These were the bottles she was looking for.

How much we enjoyed going through a chronology of family history! The funny looking thing-amajigs, that only she knew what they once were. According to her, boots sizes were much smaller back then, because people were much smaller..

That was over 40 years ago. The stories she would tell are burned into my memory.

Micheal, if one can only invision how we got where we are today from the recent past, perhaps this might be a glimsp of the future? In an environment of declining energy, perhaps our society will actually reverse in a similar fashion?

You're right, the current configuration of this environment is doomed. I suspect, you're also right about there will be no amount of quick fiddling that will prevent die-off. At least that's the message, that I'm trying to get across here also. However, that might take 150 years, as suggested, by the old family dump.

Thanks, yooper

Danby said...

Nukes do not "someday go fizz." In fact, nuclear fuel, if left to it's own devices, fairly quickly goes stale, and loses the ability to go critical. The life of a nuclear warhead is from 30-50 years, after which the fissionable material has to be removed and reprocessed in order to assure detonation. Nuclear reactor fuel is much less refined, and with actual production reactor designs cannot develop into a nuclear weapon-type explosion. Even a Chernyobl-style steam explosion/meltdown is extremely unlikely in any reactor now in production.
Also, keep in mind that generation of power with a reactor uses up the fissionable material in the fuel. That means that when the plants shut down (because of a lack of fuel, which is already in short supply worldwide), the remaining nuclear material will be incapable of going bang, pop, fizz or thwunk.

What it can do is leak out of containment vessels and slowly poison the soil and groundwater. Provided there's no highly-concentrated U235 left, the effect of that will be similar to those areas that have asbestos in the groundwater, provided you're far enough away. It probaly reduces the life expectancy, but the effect is very difficult to descern from background noise. Already waste dumped on the ground in the 40s at Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington is in the Columbia River and exposing the populations of Vancouver and Portland. Once it disperses widely enough it will vanish into the background radiation.

What you will see, I think, is eventually, when the uranium is used up and there's no point maintaining a storage pit any longer, the reactors and associated waste will be loaded onto barges and sunk in deep ocean tranches, as is currently done with the reactors from decommissioned US Naval vessels. Shame for the tubeworms and the Giant Radioactive Fire-Breathing Tyrannosaurs, etc, but probably the safest for us.

As Robert Frost said, "I can only do the best I can, with what I have, where I am."

marielar said...

First, I will say I thoroughly enjoyed the last post.

The University of Maine has an excellent program on composting via their extention service. Its about a week long and its very hands-on with many field trips. Its worth every penny if one can attend.

Here a trick for the bears and other critters: use sawdust or woodchips to cover meat and other tempting snacks. It completely masks the smell. Its a practice done for fish waste and carcass composting. I saw whole cows composted that way which attracted no predator whatsoever.

Composting always reminded me of the black phase of the alchemical Great Work. The compost pile is like a crucible where lives come to their terms while preparing a new cycle. Its certainly help becoming at peace with mortality. I just finished the pile in which I buried my oldest ewe, which passed away a few days ago. Eventually, her daughters and grand-daughters will pasture the field where she lays. There is a beautiful short story by Kawabata where the main character prefer imagining his death lover in the leaves of a cherry tree than as a ghost.

Are we on our way to extinction? Well, I tend to believe that there is a big, bad iceberg looming on the horizon. Will it be avoided? Maybe. It may be wise to try to stack the odds in favor of our survival and paddle in the opposite direction of the iceberg, the sooner the better.

For me it boils down to the a dialog from "Thief of Time" by Terry Pratchett:

-In order to have a change of fortune at the last minute you have to take your fortune to the last minute. We must do what we can.
-And if that doesnt work?
-Then we did what we could, until we could not.

A seed germinates even with all the odds stacked against it. A seed does not ponder if its worth living, growing, it just strives for the light. We are a bizarre species in the sense that we look for a "raison d'etre" for life, as it does not worth something in itself.

John Michael Greer said...

Ras, that's a challenge for many people, of course. I know of people who live in apartments who keep a worm bin in a closet, put their kitchen scraps there, and get good potted plant soil out of it, but that takes chutzpah (and a well-ventilated closet), of course.

Bill, I don't expect the mad rush into nuclear power to get far, simply because reactors are hugely expensive to build. Still, it'll likely happen.

Robert, I think you're overstating the risk factor by more than a little bit -- nuclear waste is a major problem, but you're talking as though it's an inevitable ticket to extinction. Still, anything that might decrease the total amount of it that our descendants have to deal with will probably be a good thing.

Yooper, thank you for a marvelous story!

Dan, my main worry when it comes to old nukes is used fuel rods stored outside the containment vessels -- some forms of "temporary" storage run the risk of chemical explosion if abandoned, and that could result in some very ugly if localized messes. As for ocean dumping of radioactive wastes, wasn't that what produced the giant radioactive fire-breathing tyrannosaurs in the first place? ;-)

Marielar, thanks for the info!

Panidaho said...

My main concern with nuclear energy, aside from the waste disposal issues, is that nuclear power plants can take a decade or longer to get through the red tape, plan, build, test, and bring up to full production. In that time, projected costs usually inflate tremendously, often to the point where it's just not feasible to even finish the project.

What this means is a lot of time, money, energy and hopes might be wasted trying to revive the nuclear power industry when putting all that effort into something else could yield good results in a lot less time with fewer environmental and safety issues. I just don't see we have a lot of either time or money to waste at this point if we hope to cushion a hard landing.

Mike said...


Yes, compost and composting has great practical value. The spiritual dimension you and others speak of escapes me. I understand the cyclical (or more a helical movement through time) nature of it all, and all of us being a part of a greater web of life, but somehow the greater enlightenment that you allude to escapes me. Perhaps I'm reading too much into the post and the allusion to a greater enlightenment isn't there.

Speaking of compost, that reminds me of a Thoreau quote:

"But men labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon ploughed into the soil for compost. By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in the old book, laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal. It is a fool's life, as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before."

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854

Timothy Arthur O'Brien said...

Thanks. I keep waiting for someone to mistake the compost can in the fridge for food, or for me to accidentally think it's coffee (I use a folger's container) when I'm barely woken up in the morning. Keeping it in the fridge means I only have to go out to the pile in the yard once a week or so.

I think it also makes a big difference in the overall ability of other animals to survive in a city environment. Everybody shrieks and complains about the crickets, rodents, snakes, but they turn all starry eyed when they catch a big majestic bird in the sky. Sometimes I think we suffer the disdain many urban people feel for things like big piles of rotting food and soil in the back yard so that more of those animals won't starve.

After composting and recycling, I'm left with one challenge that keeps me from reaching a halfway decent stable state. What to do with the plastic? I've been saving all the wrappers, labels, caps, everything that isn't recyclable in a car roof carrier for almost two years, and the space is finally all gone. I really don't want to bury it, but I'm thinking I'll have to take it to the landfill. How long before it can be safely burned as fuel, being essentially modified oil?

Robert Magill said...


Yours is a most sanguine scenario of our nuclear world. Why does it not make me feel better? Perhaps with this refreshing outlook the industry will be able to get liability insurance instead of we, the public, having to indemnify them as has been the case since inception. Also your argument should convince the people digging under Yucca Flats for decades that all is well. That they should start loading the trainloads of waste in their leaking drums right away. They present no danger.

Or maybe your vision is a tad poly-annish?

My point, and it is the only point I'm raising, is that it took all the resources and funds of extremely well off, advanced societies to create this industry and that PERHAPS the grandkiddies won't be able to cope with the leavings and it will kill them. If so, we will have proved to be the most reckless, holicidal bunch to ever walk the earth.

And please don't dump anything off the coast of West Florida where I live

John Michael Greer said...

I'm finding it very interesting, you know, that a discussion that started out focused on composting veered off so quickly along the tracks of the well-worn debate about the safety, value, etc. of nuclear power. It may not be out of place to point out that nobody commenting here -- no, nor all of us together, even if we had a common view of the matter -- can decide, by ourselves, whether the US or any other country is going to launch a program to build new nuclear reactors.

The point I've been trying to make on this blog in recent months is that it's the small things we can actually choose to do ourselves that provide us with the major field of action available to us just now. Can you stop nuclear power by yourself? No -- any more than you could build the backyard fertilizer plant I imagined in the post. Can you start a compost pile by yourself? You bet.

Now it's easy to claim that the nuclear issue is so much bigger than whether or not you compost your kitchen waste, and so it's much more important to spend time arguing about nuclear reactors than it is to spend the same time building a compost bin. Yet this misses a crucial point -- building the compost bin actually accomplishes something, while arguing about nuclear energy does not.

That being the case, I'm going to draw a line under the nuclear issue here. There are plenty of other forums where people can debate that to their heart's content, if that interests them, but this blog has a different purpose and I'd like to redirect it back on topic.

John Michael Greer said...

Mike, I think it was Robert Heinlein who said that one man's theology is another man's belly laugh. If you don't get the spiritual dimension of composting, don't worry -- just keep composting, and if you're meant to get it, you'll get it eventually.

Timothy, don't burn the plastic! That carbon needs to stay out of the atmosphere, and I'm sorry to say a landfill is probably the best place for it under current conditions. My spouse and I minimize the plastic in our lives by buying in bulk, using reusable containers a lot, but as things are, it's impossible to avoid it all -- and it might as well go back underground where it came from.

Panidaho said...

Well, aside from my brief jaunt into the nuclear zone, the past two posts have gotten me thinking about how we can step up our composting efforts over here. We already have a compost pile, and the great shape our garden soil is in is due to four years of composted fall leaves and assorted yard debris piled on every spring and tilled in. But we don't compost as much of our kitchen waste as I'd like, so we're going to be making an effort as a family to do better on that.

To that end, I'm digging out all my composting books and having a refresher on proportions and such. Right now I'm reading a copy of "Let it Rot" that I rescued from our local library's book sale when they decided to dump nearly all their gardening section a few years ago.

Dwig said...

I'm going to beg your indulgence for one more off-topic post, although I do think it's more in the vein of things we can deal with than the nuclear waste issue:

I've finally gotten my Community project pulled together and online, at least in a nascent state. You're all invited to visit it at -- I'm definitely interested in getting feedback on it.

Altern8Life said...


My first time commenting here, but I've been reading for over a year. I wanted to ask your opinion on something relevant to this post. Specifically, I am considering the long term implications of permaculture when manures are used for compost vs. biodigesters.

Obviously, compost heaps are relatively simple, whereas anaerobic biodigesters require some design and maintenance to be useful. However, the upside of this is that a when using a biodigester you can capture the methane which can be used as a source of fuel for cooking or other activities that support us. Capturing the methane and converting it to C02 and H20 is also arguably better for the environment, as these are less potent greenhouse gasses. In a typical compost heap methane will simply escape into the atmosphere. The liquid effluent from a biodigester can be applied as a soil ammendment in the same way compost can.

Based on your experience, are there any long term effects on the environment that would argue in favor of a compost heap over a biodigester, assuming one was willing to invest the space and effort to build one?

Thank you for this blog. There is nothing else on the web that even begins to reach the level of consideration you have put into this effort. You do all of us a great service.

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG: Can you stop nuclear power by yourself? No -- any more than you could build the backyard fertilizer plant I imagined in the post. Can you start a compost pile by yourself? You bet.

Exactly! I wrote a little essay about this very concept using the context of electoral politics back on October '04, on the eve of a US presidential election that many people seemed to fear would tip the fate of all western civilization. It's over on my own blog, at:

These are also the reasons I ultimately left Academia, where we pondered the great questions and the grand arc of civilization within climate-controlled office buildings, and refocused my life on the things I can control and accomplish for real, in the here and now.

marielar said...

Hello again,

Here is a very rough outline of the conditions for a rapid aerobic composting:

*C:N = 20 to 40:1
*moisture: 40-65%
*Oxygen: greater than 5% (the smell the pile give is indicative of the level of O2, if it start smelling fermented, there is not enough.
*particle size: 0.2 to 1.25 cm
pH: 5.5-9
temperature: 43 to 65 degree

Roughly, you can divide feedstocks in two categories:
High carbon
High nitrogen/protein or oily

One of my trick for animals carcass and manure is too keep a pile of dry, C rich material handy (sawdust or woodchip in my case). Most of the stuff coming of the kitchen on a daily basis is fairly dense, protein rich and wet, so it needs to be "cut" with dryer, carbon rich feedstock like straw, dry leaves, paper...). I used shredded paper from the office and it worked quite well too.

For our set-up, the match made in heaven was coupling the chicken flock with the kitchen pile as they will eat all the good stuff and do the mixing. The pile remains very small and never go through a thermophilic phase. Technically, it is not really composting, its rather an accelerated decomposition. And we get, in addition of the humus, the eggs, the meat, the insect control and the entertainement (chicken are the masters of the soap opera, IMO).

But if somebody cannot accomodate chicken, then keeping a pile of high C/ dry stuff works very well to compost the more problematic, high protein kitchen wastes.

Now, I will try avoid being too preachy but I am not big on attracting the wildlife close to the house as it is, more often than not, a loosing proposition for the wildlife. Over time, the animals shake off an healty fear of humans and get in troubles. I lived nearby a national park where every year, because tourists find entertaining to feed the bears, some poor guys are shot or relocated. It really is heart breaking. The locals can be fairly tolerant. But if there is a mauling, in the following public hysteria, the animals always pay the bill.

I think a lot of city folks have a rather romantic view of animals, especially large predators. They just dont realize that they can be dangerous, and that harmonious cohabitation is based in a large part on avoidance. Anyway, wild animals dont feel the urge to communicate with us. Their sense of kinship do not extend much farther then their own species, if that, because many are solitary creatures. Even domesticated animals much prefer to hang out with their own species. Its not fair to trick them for our quick "fix" of nature when they are the one dealing with the end of the gun when they dont fullfil our expectations of "brotherly" love. There are ways to help them by reducing our footprints on the lanscape, by restoring habitats, by creating wildlife corridors, planting hedgerows etc..But fostering a connection in their heads between food and humans is not the way to go. Of course there is exceptions, like birds, but they must be carefully thought of.

The other issue is that some "urban" wildlife, such as rats, carry diseases, so it is better if they dont come in too close contact.

To come back to the topic, when composting potentially smelly stuff (oils, meat etc..), the most important thing to avoid uninvited guests is reducing odor emission which is easily done with woodchips or sawdust. It also keeps the neighbours happy. One thing which also keep neighbourly complaints at bay is the following: for some reason, people tend to smell what they can see. So location of the pile out of sight, behind a tree, a building etc. usually diminish the crabby neighbour sense of smell :>).

Hope this help a bit

John Michael Greer said...

Teresa, good for you! "Let It Rot!" has been my composting bible for years now.

Dwig, your project is hands-on and scalable, thus always welcome here. I'll make time to have a look sometime soon.

Altern8, I don't know of a significant difference in ecological impact, so the choice between a compost bin and a methane digester should probably be made on the basis of other factors -- notably scale, since methane digesters don't seem to work well with less than a certain minimum input that's well above what most households generate. My guess is that in the ecotechnic future, we'll see some of each.

Bill, exactly.

Marie, thank you for a useful theological -- er, technical summary! I use dry leaves for the dry carbon input, adding a handful with each round of kitchen waste -- it seems to work well.

FARfetched said...

I've been sitting back & lurking this week, because I haven't had anything to add. But now I do! :-)

Altern8Life, composting is an aerobic process, and produces ammonia — a digester is anaerobic, and produces methane. I too am keenly interested in digesters; they scale well to larger systems and it's much easier to capture & use the methane by-product from a sealed container than to grab ammonia from a compost heap (great fertilizer if you could catch it).

The problem with digesters is that they can develop a "mat" that essentially stops methane production and has to be removed (periodic maintenance). I understand that a two-stage system, created by dividing the chamber with a low wall, can reduce that problem. Since the mat floats on top, the material simply slops over into the second chamber and becomes part of the effluent before becoming a problem.

Panidaho said...

JMG said:
Teresa, good for you! "Let It Rot!" has been my composting bible for years now.

Cool! Frankly, it's such a "composting classic" that I don't have a clue why the local library (well, it was local when I was still living in Texas!) decided to get rid of it.

Here are the composting books I have, for anyone who is looking for more potential composting tomes to add to their gardening library:

Let it Rot, The Gardener's Guide to Composting. Stu Campbell, 1990 edition.

Make Compost in 14 Days, by Organic Gardening Magazine. (more a booklet than a real book, but it's got some fair basic info on getting started.)

The Mulch Book, A Complete Guide for Gardeners (related topic). Stu Campbell, 1991 edition.

The Rodale Guide to Composting. Jerry Minnich, Marjorie Hunt and the Editors of Organic Gardening Magazine, 1979.

The Humanure Handbook, A Guide to Composting Human Manure. J.C. Jenkins, 1999 edition.

If you (or anyone else) have any suggestions for additions to this lot, please suggest away!

bryant said...

Hey Farfetched

I like all of your suggested reading but I think people should stick with the second edition of The Humanure Handbook, A Guide to Composting Human Manure. J.C. Jenkins, 1999 edition.

The third edition out in 2005 or 2006 is toned down and lacks a lot of Joe's great sense of humor...i.e. poop puns.

Danby said...

I will not reopen the nuclear discussion, but I will say that the nuclear waste debate is very local and personal for me. I'm not at all sanguine or pollyannaish about it. I live in the valley of the Columbia, and am currently trying to put together an offer to purchase a farm directly on the river in Skamokawa.

Regarding the relative values of digested vs composted waste: What you lose with digesting the waste is the carbon. Carbon in the compost is not itself a nutrient. Carbon is far more readily available to a plant from the atmosphere than from the soil. The carbon however does have an important effect. Carbon improves the tilth or texture of the soil, in the same way that plowing under a cover crop of a cereal grain does.
In fact it's the main benefit of compost, outside the micronutrients. As pointed out above, most of the nitrogen in compost is released into the air as ammonia or gaseous N2. Some small amount is retained, but not enough to even be called a fertilizer.

When reading books on soil management, you will often see the phrase "organic matter." The relative abundance of organic matter has a marked effect on the ability of the soil to support both the crop, and the soil ecosystem on which the crop depends. That organic matter is mostly the carbon left behind by aerobic decomposition.

Stephen Heyer said...

John Michael Greer : “I certainly agree that nukes are very nearly the worst possible option for the long term, but one question keeps coming to mind: what do you propose to do to keep them from being built, or to decommission the ones that already exist? I expect a mad rush into nuclear about the time it becomes clear that the mad rush into ethanol won't work; I'm not happy about it, but I see no way to stop it. Do you have any suggestions?”

I have!

1. Agitate politically that all the new reactors be the smaller, failsafe designs (they don’t melt down even if you cut off the coolant and walk away). Even the mad USA nuclear industry is starting to go off their love of huge reactors and think this way.

Note: For a really lovely design see pebble bed nuclear reactor at : .

2. Also, that all new reactors or banks of the new, small, mass produced, sealed reactors be situated in heavily concrete lined holes in, preferably, bedrock so they can be secured (in a quick and nasty way) by simply pouring in concrete.

You have far more chance of doing this than stopping the building of new reactors altogether , that is, unless the vacuum energy / magnetic motor / cold fusion guys actually do pull a rabbit out of the old hat, and soon.

As I’ve pointed out many times, when Rome went the whole world didn’t instantly revert to being illiterate goat herds. Most of the great civilizations and even the Eastern half of the Roman Empire hardly noticed.

Even in the Western half many cities and regional governments continued long after – some never fell.

So yes, there will be someone to mix and pour the concrete. More likely, there will be someone to keep the station going to power their city, at least until something better comes along.

Jay Dedman said...

I grew up in a house where composting was unknown. We ate packaged food, rarely doing more than microwaving. The TV was on in every room.

I'm my own man now, thinking of starting my own family with my girlfriend. It's nice to have learned how to grow own food and compost our waste. Our home makes sense and feels real.

Appreciate your posts. Good to focus on what we can do.

marielar said...

The value of the compost in term of nutrients will vary a lot depending on the feedstocks. It can be high in K and P which are the two majors nutrients which need to be in the soils as they are not provided by fixation like N. So compost cant be dismissed of hand as nutrient poor. As a matter of facts, because composting increases the concentrations of nutrients, its salinity (mostly K, Na, Mg etc..)is often too high for the compost to be used straight as a growing medium and is mixed with nutrient poor material such as peat. In temperate and cold climate, compost is often dismissed as a fertilizer because the most limiting nutrient is nitrogen. But in fact, while it is not as concentrated as mineral fertilizers, it is a good source for the other major nutrients and can be the only fertilizer used for legume.
In term of nutrient cycling, one of the main benefits of organic matter is that it increases the capacity of soils to retain nutrients by augmenting the CEC, (cation exchange capacity). The soil solid phase is charged negatively in proportion of the clay and organic fine particles. Those negative charges allow the soil to retain ions such as Ca2+, K+, etc...Of course, organic matter also serves as food for the soil microorganisms which drive the catabolic foodchain in which mineralization is the last step.

I think it is important to integrate composting and the use of compost in the broader perspective of soil nutrient management. Probably one of the best book for the layman is
"The Soul of the Soil" by Joseph Smillie and Grace Gershuny. It certainly is one of the most accessible and a great starting point.
I heard good stuff about Fred Magdoff "Building soil for better crops".
A very beautiful read on soil is "Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth" by William Bryant Logan, but there is not much tehnical infos in it.