“What do you do when the highway’s famished? When it eats people? When soldiers are walking on the streets beating people up, what do you do? Where do you go when going forward is no longer possible? I think you steal through cracks. I think you do what fugitives do. I think you do what the slaves on slave ships did when they were dominated by colonial powers. You learn to fall down and sit still and await the crossroads. You learn to listen. You learn to compost yourself.” — Bayo Akomolafe
What might the world look like if we all went about our lives thinking of ourselves as future compost? I don’t mean we should start planning our eco-friendly burials so that our bodies become food to insects and other organisms, but rather start envisioning our work, our organisations, and institutions as compost, as food for future endeavours.
Most of us live in a world where success, both in life and in work, equals growth. Our organisations should expand, diversify, achieve more, and personally, we should climb the professional ladder, amass more of everything, and avoid decay (i.e. ageing) at all costs.
We suffer from an obsession with permanence, probably found in our belief in human exceptionalism. Yet, if we look at the state of the planet and our mental health crisis, a change of course is much needed.
Composting could provide us with a fresh perspective. Composting is the process through which organic materials are converted into nutrient-rich soil or mulch through decomposition. The masters of decomposition are fungi, explains Biologist Merlin Sheldrake. Decomposition, he says, is a fundamental part of life which we haven’t given enough attention to, yet thinking about it changes our understanding of what it means to live in the world.
“There is an attitude shift that can happen as we start to de-centre ourselves to dissolve this human exceptionalist narratives,” he says, which can “help us to reimagine our relationship with the living world which is something we so urgently need to do at this moment, because our current attitudes are dysfunctional. And not sustainable, and ecocidal and genocidal.”
So what might decomposition look like in our lives and work?
This is not a call to think about our legacy, as legacy tends to be more about our personal achievements. This is more about exploring how our actions may become food for something else, without needing to decide or define what that might be.
This asks for great humility, of course, which may be out of reach for most of us. But we could think about composting as an alternative to growth, as another path we can take.
In the NGO world, like in most sectors, the normal way of planning is to focus on growth, or at the very least sustainability. Most NGOs do not set a long term vision to no longer exist because they have achieved their purpose. This is not helped with donors often asking how the work will be sustained beyond the lifespan of a project. Perhaps the answer should be: ‘it will not because once our work is finished, it will become rich compost for future generations.’
But composting our work isn’t just about closing down an organisation, or sunsetting as some call it. Maybe the methods we use to tackle injustices are no longer working, maybe our individual role is no longer needed and it’s time to compost it. Maybe someone else out there is better equipped to do this work instead of us. Perhaps it’s simply about working more generously.
While this should be common sense, it is rare to witness such questions being given serious consideration when there is a choice to be made. Organisations or campaigns will usually go through various iterations and reinventions before a decision is made to fold.
Some philanthropic foundations have recently begun what they call ‘spending down,’ meaning giving all their money away and closing down. This has been especially noted among those funding climate work. Of course we can view that with cynicism, after all, philanthropy is a symptom of a much deeper problem in our societies, (so are many NGOs!), but perhaps it can provide inspiration to other sectors.
What if businesses, especially those causing more harm than good to our environment and our health – fossil fuel, automobiles, fast food, cosmetics – came to their senses, and could be ‘encouraged’ to compost themselves? The benefits would be incomparable to us pushing them to improve policies. Perhaps that is where we should direct our efforts.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where we view something that ends as failure. But why is that? Is there not more courage in realising when something has lived out its time and folding than to keep going on and on?
Composting is a form of transformation. Sometimes, it’s only once we walk away that we can see our work’s usefulness and what might have sprung from it. Our best work should be like compost, when it decays, it seeps into the soil and becomes food for whatever comes next.
In his observation of worms and other creatures, Sheldrake writes: “Composers make pieces of music. These were decomposers, who unmake pieces of life. Nothing can happen without them. It was as if I’d been shown how to reverse, how to think backwards… Composers make; decomposers unmake. And unless decomposers unmake, there isn’t anything that the composers can make with. It was a thought that changed the way I understood the world.”
Words, Veronica Yates
Illustration, Miriam Sugranyes
Bayo Akomolafe was born in 1983 into a Christian home, and to Yoruba parents in western Nigeria. He is the Chief Curator of The Emergence Network, a speaker, fugitive neo-materialist com-post-activist public intellectual, essaysist, Yoruba poet and author of two books, These Wilds Beyond our Fences: Letters to My Daughter on Humanity’s Search for Home and We Will Tell our Own Story: The Lions of Africa Speak. He also hosts the online postactivist course, ‘We Will dance with Mountains’. But when he takes himself less seriously, he is a father to Alethea and Kyah, and the grateful life-partner to Ej as well as the sworn washer of nightly archives of dishes.
Merlin Sheldrake is a biologist and a writer. He received his PhD in Tropical Ecology from Cambridge University for his work on underground fungal networks in tropical forests in Panama, where he was a predoctoral research fellow of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. He is a musician and keen fermenter. Entangled Life is his first book.
[Source: artists’ own websites]
‘The Wilds Beyond Climate Justice: Opening Remarks,’ Bayo Akomolafe, The Emergence Network, 31 May 2020.
Entangled Life, How fungi make our worlds, change our minds, and shape our futures, Merlin Sheldrake.
‘Entangled Life with Dr Merlin Sheldrake,’ Beshara Magazine, Science & Technology, Issue 17, 2020.
‘Merlin Sheldrake: Fungi Makes Our World,’ Banyen Books Podcast, Branches of Wisdom, 5 October 2020.
‘Commercial determinants of health,’ Series from The Lancet Journal, 23 March.
Watch the sound of Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life being devoured by a fungus – with piano accompaniment.
‘Zombie Missions: Organizations that should close but won’t,’ Vu Le, NonProfit AF, 20 November 2022.
‘More Foundations Are Opting Out of Perpetuity—So What?’ Ruth McCambridge, Non Profit Quarterly, 21 January, 2020.
‘INGO friends, it’s time to reimagine our role. What better time to do it than at the start of a new year?’ Dylan Mathews, Bond, January 12, 2023.
“Let everything happen to you. Beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.”― Rainer Maria Rilke
“We are asked to love or to hate such and such a country and such and such a people. But some of us feel too strongly our common humanity to make such a choice.”— Albert Camus
“Our natural systems are designed to function perfectly in relationship to one another. It is only when we break these natural systems down into fragmented pieces that the problems begin.”— Sherri Mitchell, Weh’na Ha’mu’ Kwasset
“The human interactions with trees and the forest are deeply embedded in our collective unconscious and cultural narratives, providing many of the fundamentals of our belief systems, folklore and endlessly inspiring literature and art.” — John Tebbs