Rotting as therapy for capitalism ❁

For Cassie Marketos, composting is a way to achieve both environmental and emotional resilience.

Imagine: A friend is over for dinner. You’re both chopping vegetables, setting the scraps aside. At some point the inevitable question is bound to pop up: “Do you compost?”

If the answer is “no,” it might be time to reconsider. Keeping compostables out of the garbage is a key way to reduce new greenhouse gas emissions, especially since right now in the US, methane-releasing food scraps make up the largest proportion of our trash.

Happily, more people are joining the rotting-pile club every day. Compost adoption is even becoming systemic in many places, with mandatory composting programs already in place in San Francisco, Portland, Oregon, and Seattle—and, later this year, all of New York City. In some states it’s now even possible for your body to be composted when you die.

As a family with a large garden, we’re quite committed to the heap of decaying matter we keep just behind the house. We use the finished compost in our raised beds, and nurturing this cyclical rhythm of turning food waste into vegetables and flowers, and then back into more compost, feels wonderfully efficient.

As composting is a key component of our more regenerative and resilient future, I was excited to dive into the subject with writer and rot-expert Cassie Marketos.

Cassie and I worked together at a creative-tech company half a decade ago and have remained friends since. She is one of those people who seems smart in every direction, with a quick wit and a loud laugh. After becoming fed up with a career that seemed to have “nothing to do” with how she wanted to live her life, Cassie opted out. Now she does as little paid work as possible so she can spend most of her time volunteering, leading compost-related initiatives, and writing The Rot, a popular Substack publication devoted to “all things compost.”

In the below interview, I ask Cassie about leaving her old life behind in order to “figure shit out” in LA, which inadvertently led her down a very rotten (but wonderful) path. I hope you enjoy our conversation!

— Willa

Before starting The Rot, you worked on brand and strategy for some pretty high-profile clients—like Obama, for example. But on your website you don’t talk about any of that; you now frame yourself as a “compost artist.” What’s the story there?

Cassie Marketos: In many ways I feel like compost was the beginning, and I’ve just been going back to my roots. I grew up composting. My mom had a giant pile in the corner of our yard, and although I didn’t know exactly how it worked, I understood it intuitively. It was just how we handled our house waste.

Around the start of the pandemic, I was feeling more and more freaked out by my ignorance around how quickly the planet seemed to be degrading. It was also around then that I realized my career trajectory didn’t align with how I wanted to live my life. I found myself—like many of us find ourselves—sitting in front of a computer all day, and it was making me feel depressed, restless, and helpless. I wanted to figure out a way to spend less time typing and more time involved with the physical world around me. I also wanted to figure out how my existing skill set could be converted into climate work.

At that time I was living in New York, and the financial pressure of that city made me feel like I needed to work nonstop. I realized if I wanted to make a change, first I needed to move. I ended up in LA where it was much cheaper for me to have access to more space. 

Relieving myself of some month-to-month financial pressure gave me room to explore and figure stuff out. In LA, I went back to school at a nearby community college, and started volunteering with a lot of organizations involved in native-plant restoration and land-back initiatives. I also started composting again in a casual way. It was still COVID, so there wasn’t much to do all day. I was cooking more, so I just started composting my food scraps, and then I started offering to compost for neighbors.

Pretty quickly the one pile I was managing in my front yard—where I was just accepting food scraps from a couple of neighbors—turned into me going to people’s houses to help them start their own piles. Then it turned into volunteering at a nearby church to restart a community composting hub, which turned into me starting to write about compost because I was getting so many of the same questions that I realized writing down the answers would be a more efficient way to provide answers. That eventually turned into The Rot, which got more and more popular and eventually turned into a book deal.

Why do you think so many people are suddenly interested in composting? What is it about a rotting pile that has become so exciting?

The obvious answer is that in the last few years, there’s been a sea change in awareness about our climate crisis. Even six or seven years ago, many of the people in my circles were not really thinking about “climate change.” Now it’s very different. But the flipside of awareness is, unfortunately, fear—and with this level of fear can come a sense of helplessness. Most of the issues that need to be addressed are so big and structural that the average individual just feels overwhelmed. Where to even start?

When I began composting again and people started asking me about it, it quickly emerged that this was something they could actually do to help. Plus, it’s a joyful activity. Many of the solutions to climate feel punitive (“don’t do this,” “stop doing that”), while composting feels both positive and integrative.

In Los Angeles, at least, composting also gets people outside with their hands in the earth. They get to participate in the transformation of something. At this peak moment of overwhelm, I think people really need that.

I was listening to a podcast that said around 70% of greenhouse-gas emissions are indirectly driven by individual consumer habits, so while a ton of climate action needs to start with structural changes, modifying our everyday habits is actually a huge part of the picture. Can you explain how composting fits into that larger framework of individual action?

There are two main benefits to composting. One is that when you throw organic material like food scraps into a landfill, it decomposes without oxygen, producing large amounts of methane—particularly here in the United States, where our landfills are significantly more polluting than in most other countries. That’s a quickly solvable problem in some respects. If we better separate our materials going into the landfill, we can reduce those methane emissions significantly.

The other thing I find when I teach people how to compost is that it radically alters their mindset as consumers. They become less interested in buying things that they can’t biodegrade themselves, and more curious about how things are made and disposed of. That results in them just becoming a few degrees more conscious about their consumer habits, and that really matters. 

We all participate in this fantasy where by throwing things in our trash, they magically disappear. But once you’re managing your own waste stream, you think about buying things differently.

As you’ve experienced it, what are some of people’s biggest misconceptions around composting?

Many people think of decomposition as something going away versus a new thing happening. Decomposition is actually powered by a very active and thriving population of living organisms. If you learn about the chemistry behind a compost pile, you’ll realize what you’re seeing is life, not death.

The other thing many people don’t understand is that decomposition is always happening. A lot of new composters approach their pile like there’s a switch they need to turn on, like, “How do I make decomposition happen?” I’m like, “You don’t. It’s already happening.”

I taught a class at a corporate volunteer day for this very large corporation, with maybe fifty of their employees. I gave them my whole spiel, and at the end of the lecture this woman was like, “Do you mean to tell me that if I just put a banana peel in my backyard, it will break down on its own?” I’m not trying to make her sound stupid, because she wasn’t stupid at all. But it was illustrative of how alienated the average person in America is from basic ecological processes.

It can be overwhelming when we start looking at all the ways we’re unknowingly contributing to the climate crisis. Are there other things on the level of composting that you’ve personally committed to?

For one, I don’t buy new clothes anymore. The waste associated with the fashion industry is really bad, and most new clothes aren’t biodegradable because they’re full of synthetic materials. Because of this, they end up in a landfill or dumped in other countries. I’ve learned a lot about this through the work of my friend Charlie.

Overall though, we tend to think about climate action solely as, “What can I do for the planet?” But we have to remember that we are a critical part of the planet, and our well-being is a significant factor in our ability to sustain the fight for a good future. We need to do things that nurture our optimism and our endurance. Otherwise, we will not be able to stick this out. 

The way I see the composting I do here at the community compost hub is honestly more aligned with self-care than with climate action. Working with neighbors I know and care about, in this physical way, toward serving our community together—it just nurtures my spirit. It nurtures our spirit.

Me and my volunteers joke that composting is therapy for capitalism. When we do it, we’re not thinking about how we’re changing the world. We’re just taking care of each other, which in turn gives us stamina for the other, harder things. 

Prior to taking on this project, I really struggled with political burnout and anger and frustration. I would get so angry with people who I perceived as being hypocritical. My emotions were always in the negative spectrum, and it was very, very hard to maintain energy for these battles that need to be fought over time.

Overall, it’s hard to know if the actions we take are ever going to add up to anything. Most of us, we just won’t know—but we still have to do it. When I’m out there trying to provide education, or trying to change community policies and consumer habits, all of those things are long-term battles. So finding a way to keep fighting, without necessarily getting what I want that often, is only possible when I’m balancing out that work with more joyful things.

In The Rot’s genesis essay, you talk about how you started it because you were afraid, and you wanted to find “your one small thing.” I think a lot of people feel similarly, but maybe are having trouble locating themselves within the swirling cloud of “climate action.” How can they find a path of action and stop just feeling guilty and despairing?

There are a lot of things any single person can be doing, but I think we get in our own way a lot. People are very wary of giving up the life they’re used to. I get that. But the time is here to make big changes—it just is. If you’re hedging on making a big change in order to work on climate, all I can say is you have to do it, and soon. We need you. 

I also think that people underestimate their own ability to make impactful changes from within the life they already lead. If you work at a restaurant, talk to your manager about how you manage food waste. If you work at a company that is building physical products, educate yourself on your supply chain and make recommendations to transition to more sustainable materials. I have a friend who works at a major magazine and she’s always standing up to the editor about covering climate. Sometimes she calls me in tears with frustration about it, but then she just keeps fighting. I love her for that.

I guarantee that you can do something at any job you already have. Learning about, talking about, and advocating for these things matters.

I empathize with people who are feeling so overwhelmed that they can’t find space to get involved in climate work, whatever that might look like for them. When you’re trapped in a cycle of burnout, it can be so hard to make space for anything that feels “extra.”

I don’t want to be preachy at all, but I was so burnt out and in such a bad place before I quit my job and moved to LA. It’s not like I ended up here because I wanted to “change the world” and “do something good.” I was just so dead inside that I broke down. And then, in the aftermath of my breakdown, a new path opened up.

Composting is the thing that ended up rebuilding me. And then in retrospect, I’m like, “Oh yeah, I needed that so bad.” But it’s not like I consciously took that first step knowing what I was in for. I just knew I needed things to change.

With a lot of the people I speak with, I can see how much opportunity there is for them to make a change, even an incremental one, to get more involved in projects that align with their ethics. It’s like, “Just do it already! You have everything going for you.” And they don’t see it that way because they’re burnt out and exhausted. They’re fighting so much stuff, and I’m like, just take that first step, whatever it is. You don’t need to have a whole grand plan for where you’re going. Just get that first foot out in front of you.

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