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A Pound of Worms, and Other Key World Changing Concepts

This article was written by Jennifer Bogo in January 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

Jennifer Bogo has covered sustainability as an editor at Popular Mechanics, Audubon and E/The Environmental Magazine. Her work also recently appeared in the anthology Farming and the Fate of Wild Nature.

Wormy.jpg Sitting in the “wildlife corner" of my Brooklyn apartment, next to a ceramic mallard lamp and a cat scratching post, is a blue Tupperware container perforated with air vents. It holds, I’m convinced, the key World Changing concept for 2007: a pound of worms.

These thousand or so red wigglers are easily the most industrious members of a household that includes me (the science editor at Popular Mechanics), my roommate (who slows down to read email), and a cat that’s clearly bent on driving toy mice to extinction. Nestled deep in a bed of shredded newspaper, the worms chomp their way through a half-pound of food each day.

It’s impressive, really: eggshells, tea bags and fruit and vegetable scraps in, nutrient-rich, earthy black compost out. Instead of contributing to New York City’s colossal waste stream, that mealy apple and last night’s kale stems will in three months be coaxing heirloom tomatoes from buckets on our fire escape—the remnants of which will eventually be fed back to the worms.

In Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan observes that: “…in nature, there is no such thing as a waste problem, since one creature’s waste becomes another creature’s lunch." My worm bin, like the polyculture farm Pollan visited for the book, mimics those natural relationships to create a closed cycle—a loop of endless energy rather than a line leading to a pile of onion peels.

The same principle can be applied to all kinds of systems, from agriculture and manufacturing to transportation and cities (especially appropriate for 2007, when humans officially become an urban species). And it will have to be. The new year brings unprecedented challenges, and it demands solutions that are elegant, and extraordinary in scope.

As William McDonough told GreenBuild attendees this fall, mere efficiency won’t be enough. It may stretch our supply of fossil fuels, but it won’t stave off global warming. To do that, we need a new design—one that allows materials to cycle indefinitely, one that imitates a biological, rather than industrial, system. We need, in other words, an old design. We need to take our cue from worms.

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For the Worms: Vermiculture in Brooklyn is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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