A citizen of the greatest country on earth, subject to the laws and protection of mightiest sovereign, and I'm preoccupied these days with…figuring out how to feed my red wigglers as much of my household waste as possible. I'm wondering whether they'll dig into avocado pits I shove under their bedding.
"Waste," what my worms convert to compost, got to be a phenomenon, roughly, when the Industrial Revolution got into swing in the 1800s and human population started to take off apace. After you got through creating and using what you needed, there was so much leftover. Damn, waste piled up, and the piles just kept growing. And post-industrial society has been clogged in waste ever since. Buy a drink, toss the cup. Get rid of the ads, the wrappers; just throw them away.
Indoor vermiculture is my partial solution to this contemporary problem. To explore roots of that solution in early modernity, follow me below.
In the early 1500s, in Poland, amateur Renaissance astronomer Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543) was watching the heavens from his town on the Baltic coast. At the time, the best scientific understanding was that the sun orbited the earth. But Copernicus was noticing peculiarities in the sun's "movement," relative to the earth, which this dogma couldn’t explain. Eventually, he was forced to conclude that the sun didn't orbit the earth, as the Greeks had thought; the earth orbited the sun. He published his Commentariolus, explicating this new theory of the solar system, and other scientists started replicating his work. To make a long and tumultuous story short, within a respectably short historical span, Copernicus's heliocentric model of the solar system was widely adopted.
Humans weren't at the center of the known universe. That scientific discovery rocked the age. Five centuries later, it's still rocking our own.
I like the phrase, "Copernican Revolution," which philosophers and humanists into modern times prefer. "Revolution" means "a full turn," and implies the action of a wheel.
Years before setting up my worm bin, I became a political progressive. I'd learned about Copernicus's heliocentric model of the solar system in grade school. By college, the Copernican "wheel" was turning in my very life. It was dawning that, just as humans weren't at the center of the universe, nobody in the world was more important than anyone else. My experience, suppressed as it often was, mattered equally to any other mortal's. Any other mortal's experience, suppressed and distorted as it might be, mattered equally to my own. It meant that no dictate I had to honor, anymore, commanded me to sacrifice my adult volition, or any other personal faculty I had. I had the right to speak up for my human needs, and I had the obligation to listen to people very different from myself, speaking up for theirs. I'd work all my life to advance humanist-democratic ideals. I'd do this by voting, by dissenting, and by looking inward for self-awareness.
By the time I reached adulthood, we'd long had a thriving "ecology" movement. "Recycling" had even become mainstream, a household word. These days, municipalities, or their waste-collection franchisees, typically "recycle" much household waste. They take your plastic soda bottles to the plant and melt them down to make new ones. They grind up your scrap paper and cardboard to make other stuff. All "recyclable" waste I produce—and an ever-higher proportion of my personal throwaway is labeled that way—could theoretically be handled in just this fashion. Back to the post-industrial dichotomy: you have what you need, and you have leftover. They're inviolable categories. You pitch the diaper, the hand-wipe, the Kleenex, the pizza carton. You go and live your life.
As even proponents of industrial "recycling" admit, it's an inefficient process. All your stuff isn't converted, and the attempt takes energy and resources. But more than that was bothering me last spring. Despite my best efforts, I was producing "waste"—all by myself, literally, tons and tons of it. The ironclad categories of "keeper" and "throwaway" were working all the time less- and less-well for me. I wasn't at the center of the universe. I wasn't so high-and-mighty I could just keep churning out all this stuff all the time, clogging up nature, with no end in sight—unintentionally, no less. It was dawning on me that no human being had that prerogative.
So, once again, the Copernican "wheel" was turning in my mind. And then I opened
futurebird's June 8 diary, about indoor worm composting. I'd certainly heard of "composting" before, which I understood to be people rotting their household waste in piles in the yard, to feed their gardens. But since I had merely houseplants, I didn't think much about it. What futurebird said, about 1,000 worms in an indoor bin in an NYC highrise, eating ½ pound of kitchen scraps and junk mail per day, made me sit upright. The worms ate your garbage. In turn, they produced "vermicompost" for their keeper to use or sell. In theory, then, you could cultivate enough worms, you'd have barely any paper or kitchen waste. The worms would break down waste, expending no resources but a bit of your time. And your trash.
Days later, I went and bought two vinyl cat-litter trays, a smaller one and a larger one, 15" X 20." I bought 500 red wigglers from the Ecology Center in Berkeley. I drilled holes in the cat-litter trays, for ventilation and drainage, and I stacked the bigger tray on top of the smaller one. Then I made a lot of bedding out of moistened scrap paper, and buried moldy food scraps and the worms in it. The total cost for my "start-up venture"? $40. Not bad. Not bad, at all.
This month, the approximately 500 red wigglers in my bin go through at least ¼ pound of kitchen scraps and waste paper each day. Later this summer, I'll be ready to harvest the vermicompost, a quart or two of it, for the first time. Am I making a dent in my personal waste "problem"? Not close. The full transition from my conventional household waste-disposal, to optimum vermiculture-disposal, probably will take years.
Momentous change can't be rushed.
I hope my remarks touch a revolutionary fervor in readers, as futurebird's diary did in me. I hope readers discuss why's and wherefore's of improved waste disposal in the comments. (For detailed discussion about vermiculture "best practices," please drop me a PM.)
I'm personally turning the wheel the great Renaissance astronomer Nicholas Copernicus set in motion, centuries ago. Ask me how.
On that note, I conclude with this song: