At the Island School we have a saying: “there’s no such thing as trash, just resources in the wrong place.” This mantra is the guiding force behind our efforts to turn glass bottles into drinking vessels, vegetable oil into biodiesel, and old tires into a walking bridge. It is the reason why we compost; the reason why we take banana peels and pig manure and shredded cardboard and turn this “trash” into productive soil for our farm. The drive towards a more sustainable campus means following the model of a natural ecosystem, in other words, a system that generates no waste. Materials that might otherwise go into a landfill retain their productive capacity. But what about the school’s less tangible byproducts? In an intensely inward-looking and self-reliant community such as ours, social tension is bound to arise. How can disagreements, frustrations, and conflict be among the “resources in the wrong place?”
The answer starts at Community Meeting, a weekly forum where Island School students and faculty come together for collective problem-solving, goal setting, and appreciations. It was at a recent meeting—during a discussion of hot issues like dish crew, sorting recyclables, and what happened to all the socks in the boys’ dorm—that I found my mind wandering to an unexpected place: compost. It wasn’t just that the Island School’s compost system needed some TLC—because it certainly does—or that I’ve spent the past several weeks teaching compostology to a group of eleven students in my Human Ecology elective. There’s something to be said for the process between the aromatic organic matter—banana peels, coffee grounds, egg shells, pig manure—and the rich soil of a productive garden. It is a process that finds an unexpected parallel to the purpose of our Community Meeting.
The frustrations and disagreements that inevitably arise at the Island School are, like spoiled fruit and old cardboard, not the most glamorous aspects of everyday life. Our weekly Community Meeting, however, is a kind of decomposition: an opportunity for us to break down negative sentiments, process their meanings, and develop solutions. To draw upon a fundamental of Human Ecology—that ecological systems and social systems function in similar ways—the “waste” generated through human interactions can also become vital to the life and growth of the school. Bringing up issues of bike maintenance, or disrespected common space, or excessive chatting during study hours is not always comfortable, but in the long run the discussion will make the community better for everyone.
Just as it would be easier to deposit Island School garbage in a landfill, it would be much less troublesome to ignore negative social sentiments all together. If a clean bathroom is the sign of a healthy community, we could hire someone to clean ours, instead of negotiating the task of cleaning it ourselves. Then again, just as we’ll never grow an orchard of mango trees in poor soil, a campus full of happy and healthy individuals isn’t going to emerge from a foundation of shallow relationships. Like composting, embracing conflict means turning waste into fertilizer. To extend the metaphor further: the greater the variety of organic material added to compost, the richer the soil is in the end. Soil is, after all, its own ecosystem. Microorganisms live there; they break down matter and generate heat. If the Island School is its own ecosystem of sorts, then it follows the same principal that governs the natural world: diversity equals resilience. On campus, the influx of individuals from different backgrounds and divergent perspectives can generate conflict, but also provide this place with the energy to continue developing a better life for everyone.
One of the most startling figures that the students and I encountered by studying compost, was that yard and food waste make up approximately 30% of the waste stream in the United States. If the average household composted, therefore, it could divert 700lbs of solid matter from a landfill or incineration each year. In other words, instead of producing environmentally detrimental methane gas and acidic leachate, that waste stream could become a valuable resource. In an era of desertification, soil erosion, and destructive industrial farming, it is hard to argue against a practice that not only reduces waste, but provides enriching organic fertilizer. Moreover, what would it mean globally if social tension was no longer treated like our food waste—was not put out of sight, out of mind—buried in a cultural landfill by human apathy? What if people could compost conflict by actively addressing disagreements? Would our common resources be cared for and equitably distributed? Could the negative sentiments that precede global violence and suffering be dealt with constructively before they became toxic?
The Island School is a small community, but as we continue trying to find ways to live better—with each other and within our natural environment—we can be a model for the larger world. We aren’t perfect, but we can keep experimenting and evolving. If composting and Community Meeting have made one thing clear to me, it is that for us to survive, we have got to love our dirt.