By Filippo Bertino

In his short essay, “Earthly togetherness: making a case for living with worms” Filippo Bertoni tries to convince us of the importance of earthworms when thinking about politics. What can earthworms teach us about how to be together, about how to organise society and the arts field?

By engaging in the quotidian, practical activities of composting, I learned that to turn food waste into soil agreement is not necessary. Composting is not really about rational choices and democratic consensus. Sure, you can see choice if you want: do I build my own bin, or do I buy one? Do I feed the worms egg shells, or do I use newspaper shreds? As much as these decisions can be framed as rational, and as clearly important as they are to success, composting does not depend on these decisions. Instead, it’s the eating, decomposing, composting and rotting that goes on in the bin that creates the togetherness of compost.

Crucially, this togetherness is not about forming consensus around a common good but about the coexistence of many different worlds which are not merely in agreement, but hold together and come apart in various relational ways. What is relevant in the compost bin is not just one kind of eating and digesting but the complex mixture of microbial activities that go on inside the guts of worms; how these change the molecular structures in the bin; how these are taken up by plant roots, and so on. This pushes us to attend to the many different ways in which we know and partake in practices of eating and being eaten.

composting politics

The living together of worms can serve as a reminder to Euro-American social scientists that there are no guidelines out there on how to live well together. Instead, when politics is understood as living together, it calls for makeshift arrangements that are both radical and specific as well as experimenting with alternatives. If composting might work through certain standard passages, composting guides never give any final word. Rather, they suggest some alternatives to tinker with.

The kind of politics that attending to the lives of earthworms makes apparent is then not one in which a common good is sought or achieved. Rather, it is an asymmetric one that remains – notwithstanding asymmetries – reciprocal and relational. This is a politic that does not resolve in a common but in togetherness. Central to the togetherness of earthworms are differences which are not to be brushed away or made similar, but rather something to be appreciated and attended to. A brief example from one of my sites will help make this point clearer:

global worming: a statement for

One of the scientists I worked with was interested in studying earthworms’ impact on greenhouse gases. In her work, she showed how earthworms contribute to emissions by helping organic matter decay, a phenomenon she called global worming (eg. Lubbers et al. 2012). But, while her work consisted of quantifying emissions and searching for statistically convincing data that could help bring this effect to the attention of the climate change science-policy community, it did not stop there. Instead, she worked to describe the minute contingencies of the processes involved: certain functional groups of worms are more important than others; some climates and farming practices are more prone to stimulate the negative impact of worms than others; seasonal dynamics will transform the role of earthworms in some soils; specific details of standards in fertilizer use, farming and dealing with crops and land management will also have different impacts, and so on.

These details are the differences that are crucial to the togetherness earthworms can teach us, and that, I argue, we need to learn to appreciate – a challenge in a time so focused on finding generalities rather than specificities. The appreciation of differences, again, is something for which there are no guidelines. Studying more won’t tell us how to better do this – how to better stay with differences. It will probably help us understand different aspects in other novel ways, but it won’t tell us how things should ‘really’ be. For finding out how things should be is something that doesn’t happen once and for all but must be continually experimented and tinkered with – over and over again.

Read the full version of this essey here: