Composting as a metaphor for social change

Composting is a really great metaphor for breaking down muck (and other 4-letter words).  I want to show how you can use this metaphor to be addressing the inevitable group dynamics that come up for us in all projects, both big and small.  These unconscious dynamics can sabotage what we are working so hard to bring to the world.  But I think if you know something about these unconscious dynamics, you can really get a handle on them and get many seemingly doomed projects back up and running.  Eighty percent of projects—all projects—fail.  How do we join the successful 20%?

I’m thinking of this as an interpersonal composting process.  If you think of composting, you probably tend to think of gardens, wheelbarrows, worms, soil, waste, heat, and time.  Good stuff.  But this is about a process just like in a garden, where waste isn’t really “waste;” it’s actually just biological building blocks that are getting ready to transform into their next new kind of growth and really capitalizing on that natural reality. Composting becomes the key to breaking down yesterday’s garden so that tomorrow’s garden can begin to grow.  Some people call this “cradle to cradle,” and others call this a “closed loop system.”  There are many terms, but the key is that “there is no away,” as Julia Butterfly Hill so beautifully states.

However, when we think about composting as a metaphor for individual and social change, we move from a soil experience to a human experience, and one of the main materials we’re composting is “group dynamics.”  The composting imagery can become useful to groups in which some or all of the members recognize that, due to internal conflicts, the whole project is about to go off rails because of team dysfunction.

Examples in the world are abundant.  Just look at the BP oil spill—and any oil spill or other massive human-made disaster–and the profound devastation to the environmental, economic and social life on the Gulf Coast.  Team members were not communicating well and not addressing concerns that others had raised, making dangerous miscalculations and cutting crucial corners, with catastrophic results.  Why do people do this?  I would contend that human error—not just that of one person but of groups of people malfunctioning together—were behind these tragedies.  True, “one bad apple can spoil a whole barrel,” but we, unlike apples, have arms and legs and can get out of barrels.  How do we get so stuck in all these barrels?  No doubt none of these corporations, with their own tasks and projects at hand, saw an oil spill as a great idea.   Neither did any of the world leaders attending the many international climate change summit meetings think it would be great to walk away without any agreements or plans for how to collectively and effectively address climate change.  The United States’ refusal to be a part of the Kyoto Protocol in 2001 or the lack of consensus at the UN Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in 2009—despite evidence that islands around the equator are sinking as the sea rises!—are examples of these crucial meetings, or projects, that failed despite their intentions and efforts.  And how did we as citizens of the world allow them to walk away from those meetings without effective action plans? And how does the United States find its way to stay in the Paris Accords, even as it is a land divided after a hotly contested presidential election in 2016?

The one consistent element to all of these examples is that human error is at the center of each of them.  Groups of people got together, dreamed big, tried to make something happen, and failed miserably.  Perhaps there was one person who was utterly irresponsible and no one felt that they could stop him or her.  Or nobody could accept the role of leader and help the team move forward.  Perhaps in fighting over the position of leader, or mistrust of the leader, the group felt disgusted, disillusioned and disinterested, and collectively began to cut corner after corner.  Or the lure of money blocked out a group’s capacity to look at the whole picture, seeing short term gain instead of long term profitability.  Face it:  we human beings are truly pieces of work.  And not one of us is immune from being a part of group dynamics.

Sometimes group dynamics are wonderful, warm, loving and productive.  Imagine a warm and cozy family holiday celebration.  Other times they are snarly, seething, aggressive, disturbing and unpleasant.  Imagine a family holiday celebration that is definitely not warm and cozy.  It’s all about relationships.  People have conscious lives, but we also all have unconscious lives, with thoughts, feelings and instincts that are in us—but not necessarily always seen by us.  When you put us together in groups, those internal dynamics do not go away.  Unfortunately.  So we all end up getting into groups, only to have the group itself become an organism of sorts, with its own thoughts, feelings and instincts.  It is quite impossible, as one can imagine, that anybody or any group would really know what is truly going on in the group at any given time.  Disorientation sets in, as do our old habits and patterns.  The group that cannot get a handle on its unconscious group dynamics is the one that is on its way to being in the 80% of Failed Projects pile.  It’s not that these meetings, families, corporations or these structures are inherently faulty or even “evil;” it’s that the relationships and unconscious dynamics within them determine whether a project will be successful or not.  Creating an environmentally, socially and economically sustainable world is as much a “project” as any of the ones just mentioned, and it simply must be in the 20% Successful Projects pile.

When group dynamics go awry, people become very committed to their own ideas, and they get to the point where they can resist everyone else’s perspective. I know you’ve seen this happen, maybe in yourself, and maybe in others.  When people do not feel seen or heard, they can go into flight or fight mode.  They become afraid to speak up, or when they do, they do so in a very emotional, upset manner that doesn’t necessarily show that they are thinking things through or putting their best selves forward.  The group might then polarize into different groups, or perhaps pair up into small teams, or reconfigure into new organizations that create coups d’états.  Humans are, after all, animals.

The reality is that human beings are just made this way, which is perhaps why the Bible remains such a compelling text lo these many five to two thousand years later, depending on your preferred version.   It is rife the same kinds of tensions and conflicts that have haunted us throughout time, especially today.   Our interpersonal group dynamics and difficulties not only make us human, but make it just plain difficult to be human, both internally and in groups.  It can be very challenging to accept that we have these unconscious processes, let alone that they are not going away! They are wild and woolly, they want to run the show, and we kind of just have to figure out how to live with them.  It’s just what we do in groups and we’ll continue to do it until the end of time.  We are unconsciously compelled—any group we’re in—to wrestle out of it and try to create a new group again and again and again.  We need to learn how to work with that reality, not against it.

As we constantly form groups, fracture groups and reconfigure groups, we must learn to see that this is what we humans do.  This just is.  Your goal is to deal with group fractures in a way that the damage from the fracture is minimized, and the reconfiguration potential is optimized and seen more like the wonderful growth that comes out of a garden.

Madeleine Lansky

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