Imagine a Swiss chard plant with glossy green leaves and a fuchsia pink stalk. You plan to cook a nice bunch, sauteed with garlic. Go ahead, start breaking leaves off the center stalk from the bottom up. Look through them carefully, tossing any that are withered or slug-chewed into the compost. You can afford to be selective about which ones you eat. Either way, in the end, the harvesting of these leaves will contribute to further life—to your own as you take in their nutrients, or to the life of the many organisms that will decompose them. I wish you all bon appétit.
Now here’s the part that seems magical. As the weather gets cold, let the plant flower and go to seed. Gather its lumpy, variegated seeds. Mix the remaining withered stalks and browned leaves into the compost. Turn the compost occasionally as the bacteria heat it up in their frenzy of activity.Then let it sit as it further decomposes and gets fungally dominated. Earthworms will aerate the pile for you. Next year, as soon as it gets warm, mound a bit of that beautiful rich compost, and put one of your seeds in it. In a few weeks, a plant will emerge that is even more full of nutrition than it was the year before, fed by the originary plant.1
This cycle has been described by Wendell Berry as an “energy economy,” which operates through the combined labor of an infinite number and variety of microscopic nonhuman others. For Berry,
In an energy economy appropriate to the use of biological energy, all bodies, plant and animal and human, are joined in a kind of energy community . . . They die into each other’s life, live into each other’s death.They do not consume in the sense of using up.They do not pro- duce waste. What they take in they change, but they change it always into a form necessary for its use by a living body of another kind.2
Nothing is wasted in an energy economy: when chard dies, it eventually gives life to more chard. We, however, live not in this energy economy, but in what artist J. P. King calls a “discard culture.”3 Our economy uses both the stored and metabolic biological energy of countless creatures, both dead and living, to maintain the cycle of consumption and production that defines late modernity. This use generates products and byproducts that are discarded as trash instead of added to compost—that transformative process crucial to the cycle of life to death to still more life.
In our anxiety about the amount of trash that we produce, we have started to turn to compost as a solution to waste. Compost is enlisted in the language of entrepreneurs, scientists, and scholars who assert their relationship to it. In these discourses, the multiple species that perform the cycle of death and life are put to work on yet another frontier of capitalism for the purpose of profit and accumulation. Compost is fast becoming a greenwashed commodity with uses both as a new technology and as an ideology that, I will argue, centers the human, even as it claims to cherish the nonhuman.
The Labor of Worms; or, Profiting from Life
My Instagram algorithm often gives me ads for something called a Lomi composter. It is a countertop machine that can replace a scraps/green bin in individual kitchens. Like one of its competitors, The FoodCyclerTM, it has claimed to be “the easy alternative to composting.”4 These machines are targeted at urban condo dwellers whose buildings do not participate in their city’s compost program (i.e., one in which each resident would separate their food waste into a bin that would then be picked up by trucks and taken to the city composting center). The Lomi and The FoodCycler enable their owners to feel that they are avoiding adding unnecessary waste to the landfill, while at the same time allowing them the luxury of not having to deal with the soggy stinky detritus of their food.
Journalist Carolann Rule questions the claims made about these products:
Is it compost? This may seem like a silly question to ask about an appliance called a composter, but critics often liken Lomi and similar devices to supercharged food dehydrators, suggesting that their num- ber one function—massively reducing an original volume of food waste—does not produce “real” compost. The critics have a point. True compost is aerobically and biologically active, decaying organic matter teeming with beneficial microbes and bacteria. The bulk of what comes out of these machines is not that.5
These appliances use electricity for hours at a time to grind and dehydrate the food, rendering it a dry, odorless product that can (the ad suggests) be used in your garden or tossed into the trash. This last suggestion would, unfortunately, lead to the same problem as just throwing your food in the trash, since as soon as the dried stuff gets wet, it starts to decompose, releasing the gases that are such a problem in the landfill.
Such a technologization of the inevitable process of decomposition makes it so that consumers are left in the dark about food’s cycle of life and death. Indeed, the Lomi touts this as one of its attributes: “Lomi makes your family’s food waste disappear at the push of a button (while you sleep).”6 This claim has the incantation of fairy tale, in which little elves come into your house at night and make unpleasant stuff disappear. They do all the work so that you can do none. This technological fantasy of the invisibilization of labor shapes the domestic world from the end of World War II to the present day, from the push-button ease of the 1957 Monsanto House of the Future and the 1956 Playboy house to the more mundane but no less transformative claims for chemicals that “disappear dirt” or “vanish stains.”7
Animist rhetoric, used in the advertisement of modern cleaning products and technology, creates a sense of intimacy between consumers and their friendly appliances. In her fascinating book on time-saving domestic appli- ances in America, Rachele Dini cites critic Marsha Bryant, who identifies this animism
as the liveliness endowed to time-saving appliances in post- war advertising, which she notes, quoting Roland Marchand’s observations about early-twentieth-century US advertising, entailed a “‘re-personalization’ of life’ premised on ‘a tacit recognition of an unvanquished public propensity toward animism—the belief that all objects are alive.’”8
Today’s Lomi continues the technological fantasy of lively, invisible others who do our work, joining in an assembly line of “smart” appliances and gadgets that respond to our voice commands and to their own names (e.g., Alexa or Google), or that gain intelligence as they work in our homes, such as the Roomba vacuum.
Of course, the magic of the countertop machine is afforded not through generous sprites, but through the electrical energy that does all the work. In this, it is not so different from all the other mundane magic that makes up modern life, in which we press buttons on toasters, wash our hands under motion-sensor faucets, and click on Instagram reels, not having to take into account the different forms of energy that we do not see or maintain. The quantity of energy these daily privileges necessitate can be calculated through the idea of an “energy slave,” which was first coined by Buckminster Fuller in order to describe the amount of work that could be done by a machine powered by a certain amount of energy.9
Compost, of course, does not require either magic elves or “energy slaves.” It is “powered” by hidden living creatures: composting worms, insects, and microorganisms. By means of new technologies, these organisms have become a new frontier, a novel way of extracting value with a bare minimum of labor and other inputs.10 Much as fungi are used to consume and transform plastics or nuclear radiation, black soldier flies are now being experimented on in China in an effort to develop a way to process some of the more difficult waste products that ensue from contemporary urban life, such as fats, proteins, and salt. In her ethnography of a biotech field lab in Guangzhou, Amy Zhang equates the use of these flies to what some scholars call “metabolic labor,” which is the harnessing of an animal’s vital functions of reproduction and consumption to produce value.11 An animal’s biological cycles can be tweaked enough to make them productive on the time scale that humans decide and implement. As Zhang puts it, “the practice of aligning animal metabolism with urban metabolism is anything but natural or automatic. Instead, not only does the alignment rely on the constant care for flies by human workers but it also conscripts insects as nonhuman waste workers by reconfiguring their metabolism to urban modes of human living.”12 More work, it seems, is being created for all—for the workers who manage the process, and for the flies that are regimented into a temporality that is human, not insect. Once seen as a pesky nuisance, kept out of urban spaces with insecticides and screens and the erasure of their habitats, now insects are being enlisted to deal with ever-burgeoning waste of cities and other living spaces.
In another analysis of the technological harnessing of metabolic labor, anthropologist Germain Meulemans examines the use of economic terms to demarcate the “work” of worms and other organisms as they transform soil. He points out that European ecological engineers view their use of other organisms, such as earthworms, “as a partnership—or a ‘collaboration’ . . . between the scientist and the organism-as-engineer. Together they are co-makers of the system.”13 The impulse to turn organisms into engineers, on par with the human engineer, demonstrates both the delusions of the human subject, and the conscription of organisms into human labor relations. This is hardly a process of collaboration: humans are manipulating worms’ biological act of survival to make it serve their own advantage. Humans and worms can work reciprocally, as in a closed system like a worm bin, in which the worms are reliant on humans to feed them, and the humans do so to harvest their castings. This reciprocity, however, is not co-labor-ation, because the worms’ eating and pooping is not labor—it is living. As composter Michael Martinez reminds us, “It’s not our efforts that [are] creating the beautiful rich compost, it’s the efforts of the unseen, it’s the efforts of the things with no voices . . . we don’t always need the recognition and praise, sometimes it is okay to be behind the scenes.”14
As might be expected, tech entrepreneurs and techno-utopianists are fascinated—and financially enmeshed in—these experiments with organisms and their byproducts. In a book misleadingly titled Regenesis,15 journalist George Monbiot touts the utility of precision fermentation, which is a laboratory and factory process in which microbes are fed on hydrogen or methanol (produced using electricity) in combination with carbon dioxide and fertilizer (produced, presumably, using fossil fuels). Solar Foods, one of the companies promoting this protein-rich flour, says that it produces “food out of thin air.”16 It will come as no surprise that such entrepreneurs as Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates have all invested in technologies such as these and others that use fungi to grow lab meat, marine and plant life in aquaponic agriculture, and bacteria to fix nitrogen bacteria.17 It is more startling to find Monbiot, a fervent anti-growth activist who has often spoken out against techno-utopianism, drawn into the mystique of such projects.18 All of these inventions purport to solve some of the problems of climate change and population growth through the adaptation of natural processes to human-scale needs.
Decomposing Bodies; or, Profiting from Death
As a result of technological “solutions” of these kinds, the cycle of food is sanitized so that consumers don’t have to smell the rot of decomposing food. As Sophie Strand reminds us, however, “our very bodies depend on the deaths of other beings and practically every time we eat, we’re rebuilding ourselves metabolically with death.”19 Death, in fact, seems to be precisely the occurrence that these inventions seek to keep hidden from view. The reality is that what happens to a corpse is very much the same as what happens to plant matter: it decays and is eaten by a variety of organisms until it is transformed into soil.
This is not, however, what happens to corpses in many societies today. Internment and cremation are the two preferred—and often, legally mandated—forms of disposal of a corpse. If buried, bodies are often filled with chemicals and then encased in varnished caskets, and their tombs are built up with concrete so that the cemetery ground doesn’t collapse.20 Cremation is no better for the environment: it pollutes the atmosphere in a number of ways, as burning bodies release carbon and toxic particulate matter.21
Given the advent of home compost technology, it should come as no surprise that new high-tech corpse composting has come on the market recently. Recompose, a Washington state business, prefers to call what they do “terramation,” or human composting.22 The body is put on a bed of alfalfa and straw in stacked steel containers. Founder and CEO Katrina Spade says, “This is a very controlled process, completely driven by microbes . . . It’s fueled by plant material and monitored in a very rigorous way.”23 The met- aphors that Spade uses to describe the agency of the microbes—“driven” and “fueled”—unconsciously reveal the technological energy-consuming construction of the system that maintains an optimal temperature, and sucks odours and water vapour out with an HVAC system. The company’s futuristic stainless-steel hexagons and the quiet spaces for meditation and reflection they offer for mourners compartmentalize and sanitize death while still offering an alternative for environmentally conscious people.
Advocates for green burial,24 humusation,25 tree pod burial,26 or mush- room suit burial27 all maintain that technological interventions into death are unnecessary and even antithetical to the fact that a human body will decompose if placed directly into the earth. Decomposition can be helped along by the addition of fungal spores or decomposition accelerators, but it will happen no matter what, without the use of energy and without atmospheric impact. Natural burial is not, however, legal in many parts of the world, and regulations, such as the requirement that a body be embalmed or refrigerated, seem to adhere to anachronistic and misguided fears about disease.28
In a poem about compost, Walt Whitman leads the reader from this fear of “distemper’d corpses” and “sour dead” to an acknowledgment “That when I recline on the grass I do not catch any disease, / Though probably every spear of grass rises out of what was once a catching disease.” From decay and illness, the earth produces “prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops.”29 This realization intertwines death and life, rendering the acceptance of one necessary to the appreciation of the other.The ethos underlying Whitman’s vision runs counter to the logic of the funerary industry, which earns $15 bil- lion a year in the United States from playing to longstanding collective fears about contagion.To shift the laws necessitates a fight against an entrenched industry that is eager to maintain the status quo.
Compost as Metaphor; or, Misplaced Neologisms
Efforts to extract value from compost are not limited to the technological interventions made into the labor of insects and the controlled rotting of bod- ies. In recent years, humanities and social science scholars have increasingly utilized the concept to describe how ideas die and are reborn in academic discourse.The activities of groups of interdisciplinary thinkers are sometimes said to contribute to a “compost” of engagement. In Staying with the Trouble, Donna J. Haraway fully adopts the term to talk about collaboration, kinship, and epistemology: “We are compost, not posthuman; we inhabit the humus-ities, not the humanities. Philosophically and materially, I am a compostist, not a posthumanist.”30
To give another example, Jennifer Mae Hamilton and Astrida Neimanis, founders of a “Composting Feminisms and the Environmental Humanities” reading group, explain their use of the term:
We develop “composting” as a material metaphor to better under- stand the relationship between feminism and the environmental humanities. . . . More precisely still, thinking about the practice of environmental humanities as a kind of composting allows us to story our field as arising from feminist scholarship and praxis.31
While I am attracted to the excitement of neologisms and novel frameworks, there is something that strikes me as unsettlingly dematerialized about using compost in this manner. Its problems and limits are similar to those expressed in Imre Szeman and Jennifer Wenzel’s critique of the use of the term “extractiv- ism” in energy humanities scholarship.32 They pinpoint the “conceptual creep” of “the proliferation of extractivist metaphors outside the realm of economic production,”and ask what kinds of stories scholars are telling themselves about the political impact of their work when they use the term extractivism to discuss not only literal facts of extraction, but also to denote their own critical activity. By making this link, scholars frame their work as directly engaged in urgent political work because they are taking on the traumas of (physical) extraction through (for instance) the extraction of ideas from a text.33
What kinds of conceptual creep occur when compost’s materiality is trans- ferred (from the etymology of “metaphor”) to intellectual work? Does it allow scholars to imagine their outputs as transformative, regenerative, zero-waste? Does it bestow upon them a way out of the increasing accumulation of academic articles and books that are not digested by readers and have little material effects on the environmental crisis? Such metaphorization risks defanging (yes, nematodes have teeth) the power of compost. In aligning one’s actions with the nonhuman others that process one’s waste, scholars invoke a nonhi- erarchical kinship and an ethics of continuous becoming into each other.
When and where, however, is that community of kinship situated? The historical and geopolitical specificities that have led to our contemporary discard culture are less visible in this embrace of the nonhuman. It is easier to imagine a process of becoming with composting creatures than with the trashpickers in India, who sort through our detritus for $3 a day, and who do not have the same powers of transformation of death into life. This ahistoricism manifests also in a turn to a speculative future, as in Haraway’s stories about “The Children of Compost,” in which the imbrication of humans with compost is ultimately redemptive, as humans become-with different species, viewing themselves as “humus, rather than as human or nonhuman.”34 A version of what Elizabeth Povinelli calls the Animist, the compostist reinscribes a definition of life that, even though it claims to divest itself of human-ness in favour of humus, might be maintaining the primacy of liberal subjectivity by projecting its version of agency onto more-than- human others.35
As someone who lives in a condo building and who works at a pub- lic institution, I have experienced the many impediments to composting that exist in a modern city. The smell, the pests, the lack of commitment from a community, even the NIMBYs who contaminate the pile—seem to lead us inevitably to the need for technological solutions. Products are manufactured that speed or sanitize the process. Nontechnical solutions do exist: community garden piles, municipal composting systems, and green bins. However, they necessitate not so much a “collaboration” with the microorganisms, who will decompose material no matter what, but a real commitment by humans to other humans in their community to engage materially with the process of death and regeneration.
This is political work, in that people with different interests need to address multiple issues such as access to space, fair wages for composters in communities, education about pests and odors, and legislation about the use of pesticides and herbicides on private property so that chemicals don’t end up in compost piles. It is also, I believe, deep intellectual and emotional work that demands a reck- oning with our relationship to waste, decay, and death. Instead of pushing away that which we don’t want to know, demanding that others, both human and nonhuman, digest our waste for us, we need to, as Bayo Okomolafe says,
know how to die, to notice the myth of permanence, and to trace out how bodies tend to congeal, take on resilience, take on weight, take on structure, and also lose structure. What if we’re in cycles of creation and destruction, and modernity has shaped us in such a way that we believe in this idea of stability. What if this is nature, what I really would call nature—nature is a destabilization of self—but what if what we conveniently call nature is calling us to a composting?36
1. The level of vitamins and nutrients in food has decreased in the last seventy years because of soil depletion and the extensive use of fertilizers.These nutrients can be reintroduced through compost and attention to soil fertility. On the depletion of food, see “The Global NutritionEpidemic of ‘Hidden Hunger,’” accessed January 28, 2023, https://www.foodunfolded.com/ article/the-global-nutrition-epidemic-of-hidden-hunger.
2. Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, 3rd ed. (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996), 85–6.
3. J. P. King, “Discard Culture,” accessed January 28, 2023, https://jpking.ca/discard-culture. Of course, there is a whole body of scholarship on the relationship between garbage and the meanings we ascribe to it. Max Liboiron and the Discard Studies journal have been instrumental in advancing this field of study, focusing on the social and cultural aspects of waste and how it intersects with issues of power, class, race, and gender. Also important are Gay Hawkins’s examination of the cultural politics of waste and the role of aesthetics in shaping our percep- tions of garbage; Joshua Reno’s work on the political economy of waste, which looks at the global trade in garbage and the ways in which waste is managed and regulated by states and other actors; and archaeologist William Rathje’s use of garbage as a lens through which to understand human behavior and culture over time. Will Viney has explored the relationship between waste and memory, while Maurizia Boscagli examines the cultural history of garbage. Of course, Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger laid the groundwork for much of this scholarship by exploring the symbolic meanings and social functions of dirt, pollution, and waste in various cultures.
4. Accessed March 30, 2023, https://foodcycler.com/?gclid=CjwKCAjw5pShBhB_ EiwAvmnNV73cAorqF3zOiZC_tRO2xYU7UmX44drSiIr4fdMrDJugluxd-zebBhoC- C3MQAvD_BwE. Interestingly, in the ten days since I perused Lomi’s website, it has omitted most references to it being a “composter.” Instead, it claims to “solve your daily food waste problem, making your family a team of planet saving super heroes.” “Getting Smart About Food Waste | Lomi,” Pela Earth website, accessed January 30, 2023, https://lomi.com.
5. Carolann Rule, “Canadian Companies Are Pioneering Countertop Composting. But What Exactly Does It Do?,” Montecristo Magazine, June 24, 2022, accessed January 18, 2023, https://montecristomagazine.com/business/canadian-companies-like-lomi-leading-way- countertop-composting-exactly.
6. “Getting Smart about Food Waste | Lomi,” Pela Earth website, accessed January 30, 2023, https://lomi.com.
7. In the Monsanto house, the housewife is afforded a power that does everything except disrupt gender norms: “The kitchen sink in this arrangement becomes practically a control tower, where she can maintain surveillance over three of the four rooms in the house. By pushing an array of buttons she can regulate practically everything but her husband.” Gladwin Hill, “Four Wings Flow from a Central Axis in All-Plastic ‘House of Tomorrow,’” The New York Times,June12,1957,qtd.inStephenPhillips,“Plastics,”inColdWarHothouses:InventingPostwar Culture, from Cockpit to Playboy, eds. Beatriz Colomina, AnnMarie Brennan, and Jeannie Kim (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2004), 118.
In the Playboy house, the bachelor lies in bed the morning after a conquest, and, “Reaching lazily to the control panel, you press the buttons for the kitchen circuits and imme- diately the raw bacon, eggs, bread and ground coffee you did the right things with the night before . . . start the metamorphosis into crisp bacon, eggs fried just right, and steaming-hot fresh java.” Playboy, October 1956, 70, qtd. in Beatriz Preciado, “Pornotopia,” in Colomina et al., Cold War Hothouses, 231.
8. Rachele Dini, “All-Electric” Narratives: Time-Saving Appliances and Domesticity in American Literature,1945–2020(London:Bloomsbury,2021),85–86.Dini’ssourceisMarshaBryant,“Ariel’s Kitchen: Plath, Ladies’ Home Journal, and the Domestic Surreal,” in The Unravelling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath, ed. Anita Plath Helle (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007), 229; and Bryant in turn quotes Roland Marchand, Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity 1920–1940 (University of California Press, 1985), 358.
9. Buckminster Fuller, “World Energy,” Fortune (February 1940): 57.
10. Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore, A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017). See the Introduction, especially page 35.