Decomposing as a social process

Credit: Alejandro Ospina

We often think of decomposition as a purely biological process. Wonderfully, it’s a social process, too. Decomposing (v.) is the rendering of something back to its source elements. These elements become the building blocks for new growth, sometimes in a similar shape to their previous form—other times into something completely different. 

In a human rights context, necessary transformations ask that we decompose at many levels. At the systems level, laws are deconstructed and reconstructed to reflect new ways of knowing and being, as evidenced in recent years’ efforts to reframe the legal understanding of personhood to include whole ecosystems and natural beings not typically included in human rights frameworks. The sun sets on human rights organizations when they reach their end-of-life, but their DNA (their mission, values, personnel, and tools) is absorbed back into the human rights ecosystem through other organizations and professional networks. For individual practitioners, aspects of our identity and belief systems sometimes decompose, allowing us to transform as we continually learn through our lived experiences.

When something decomposes biologically, its matter is broken down into carbon dioxide and the mineral forms of nutrients like nitrogen. A humble and utilitarian celebration of life, decomposition facilitates a surrendering of past identities and structures in service of new beings. All new growth relies on the by-products of decomposition, offering a refreshingly triumphant mindset when engaging with the ends of systems and cycles, joyfully reframing them into the food for new beginnings. 

The language of decomposition is vivid and alive in the natural sciences, particularly in the field of mycology (the study of fungi), as beautifully articulated by scientists like Giuliana Furci and Merlin Sheldrake. Mycologists teach us that fungi are the key biological players in the wonderful world of decomposition, helping break materials down into their source elements while simultaneously serving as the connective tissue across whole ecosystems. Rendering a beautiful bouquet of services to their communities, fungi help organisms transform out of their old structures while also serving as facilitators and cross-cultural communicators for thousands of interdependent species. 

Decomposition is also embraced in the arts and humanities, often evoked as dream, value, actor, and archetype, as in the many works of David Abram (who originally coined the term more-than-human) and an ongoing burgeoning of creative works on the topic, including Annalisa Dias’s essay “Decomposition Instead of Collapse: Dear Theater, Be Like Soil.” The arts and humanities often treat decomposition as an occasion to reflect on the release of old beliefs and ways of being within ourselves and across collectives. 

Building on these existing celebrations of decomposition, human rights practitioners—particularly those focused on the deconstruction and regeneration of outdated systems—can embrace the gift of possibility contained in this worldview. Practitioners can use the “book” of decomposition as a field guide, uncovering the knowledge and behaviors needed to productively regenerate the human worlds of identity, values, community agreements, and policies. What needs decomposing in our human-built worlds, and how do we facilitate it?

For practitioners working through social change, reconciliation, and reparation processes, decomposing as a social process invites us to disintegrate outdated colonial and industrial value systems that have guided the field’s sense-making, psychology, and behavior, regenerating the ways we think, what we create, how we communicate, and the rules that guide us. To do this, we are re-learning through a productive exchange of ideas across Indigenous and Western sciences—biological, material, and social. 

Within the Western sciences, a modern practice of biomimicry is popularizing, where ideas from the natural, more-than-human world are honored as models, measures, and mentors for human dynamics. Pioneered in the 1990s by Janine Benyus, the field has largely worked toward innovations for the materials sciences, including the mimicking of photosynthesis by solar panels or wastewater filtration inspired by the feeding filters of baleen whales

Something else is possible when we refocus the biomimicry design process on social dynamics instead of material sciences, reimagining and challenging colonial and industrial systems of governance, law, ownership, and agency. In this space, the biomimicry lens of decomposition helps us name how human-centered structures over-value durability, both in terms of our material structures (building materials, plastics, metals) and our intellectual frameworks (governance, norms, paradigms). While useful to human life in some ways, our focus on durability has led to far too much accumulation, leading to a feeling of stuckness. The I Ching—Book of Changes—teaches us that “after accumulation comes dispersal.” This cyclical idea is neatly demonstrated by the thick carpet of leaves adorning the forest floor in the autumn months after a season of vibrant blooming. We can understand how durability interrupts regeneration by imagining those same leaves falling on cement buildings or sidewalks instead of soft earth. The process of returning to the soil still happens, just much more slowly. 

Many forms of Indigenous knowledge offer crucial guidance that human rights practitioners should become evermore deferential to in our efforts to find ways out of the habits created through hundreds of years of colonial and industrial activity. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer embraces the “notion that plants and animals are our oldest teachers.” Building on the practice of two-eyed seeing, Jon Redbird’s Indigenous Entrepreneurship offers guidance on how to transition from Westernized forms of collaboration and production into community and nature-centered models. In a recent podcast episode of Crossing the River (“Is This the First World?”), Maurício Ye’kuana “calls into question the concepts at the heart of the so-called First World—like progress, consumption, and extraction—and discusses the steps Indigenous peoples in the Amazon have taken to defend their lives and territories.” 

To repair and regenerate social systems at their end-of-life, practitioners can perhaps find an entry point to softening the durability of existing paradigms and structures by following the lead of decomposition and approaching their work at a molecular level. To achieve outcomes at scale within a system that relies on consensus-building within large social structures, what happens if the work of social scientists fostering reconciliation and regeneration transforms into the work of a mycelial network, introducing tools focused on microscopic changes within individuals and groups? Sharing information across our networks while focusing on the nearest realm of influence of each of our organisms, can practitioners trust that the work of community facilitators and cross-cultural communicators will spread across the field of practice? 

Building upon this thesis, here are some prompts for a regenerative facilitation practice: 

  • What within you needs to decompose? (e.g., identity, habits, systems, and beliefs)
  • What around you needs to decompose? (e.g., systems, infrastructure, cultural beliefs and history)

I invite readers to join me in this learning journey and to share thoughts and stories exploring how the embodiments of decomposition can transform our work.