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The Philosophy of Compost (Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 1.146-264)

Mark D. Usher

The University of Vermont

What of value do ancient authors have to offer to the modern world’s ecological challenges? According to philosopher and anthropologist of science Bruno Latour, untangling the intricate (and urgent) problem of human beings’ environmental impact on the planet will require “sensitivity,” which he defines in terms of systems science as “detecting and reacting rapidly to small changes, influences, signals.” Organisms that lack sensitivity to Earth’s changes, influences, and signals, Latour asserts, are doomed. Pre-industrialized, pre-digital, pre-capitalist, pre-reductionist, pre-postmodern—the ancients necessarily lived closer and with greater sensitivity to both the perils and prospects of their environments. As inheritors of their legacy, we have much to re-learn from them, and not only from their mistakes.

Here’s an example of what I mean.

In a recent paper, noted environmental philosopher J. Baird Callicott argues that to achieve socio-economic sustainability in terms consistent with biogeochemical cycles requires that we follow Nature’s lead: “Ecological sustainability,” he writes, “is a matter of adapting human economic systems to and modeling them on the economy of nature in which the globalized human economy is embedded and in relation to which it should stand as microcosm to macrocosm.” Insofar as Nature’s economy runs on solar energy and all of Nature’s elemental substrates—hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, etc.—are recycled, the human economy, he argues, will only be sustainable with respect to Nature if it is a closed loop, powered by solar energy, in which all materials are reabsorbed or dissipated (i.e., there is no non-biodegradable waste). The argument is, mutatis mutandis, a page out of Lucretius.

The cornerstone of Epicurean physics (upon which its ethics were also based) is the belief sprung from empirical demonstration that “nothing comes from nothing or returns to nothing.” Earth’s life cycles, Lucretius argues at DRN 1.146-264, provide ample proof of this postulate. In the language of modern science, what Lucretius describes in this passage is an early adumbration of the Law of the Conservation of Energy as it unfolds in photosynthesis and other biogeochemical systems. But such phenomena are also something ordinary Roman farmers would have seen transpiring every day. Lucretius’ handling of this material thus might be more aptly described with a correspondingly humbler phrase: “The Philosophy of Compost”—a closed-loop system of symbiotic interrelationships between plants and animals where everything is connected and nothing is ultimately lost in the process of organic transfer. Callicott’s idea, it turns out, is ancient.

Lucretius’s reasoning throughout the DRN instantiates the Epicurean method of inferring in this way—by analogy—from Nature’s observable processes what the correct human disposition and course of action should be. One might justly call it a kind of “biomimicry” (Benyus 2002). It certainly reflects the kind of sensitivity Latour has in mind. This style of thinking, pre-scientific in and of itself, is still useful and has practical, ethical, and indeed scientific ramifications for us today (see Lloyd 2015; Hofstadter and Sander 2013). We need it, if only to rescue us from our blinkered presentism.

Session/Panel Title

Latin Literature and the Environmental Humanities: Challenges and Perspectives

Session/Paper Number

51.2

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