Eventually, we’ll all eat our own poop. We won’t eat it straight up mind you, but I think it’s only inevitable that we will get back to using our excrement for its god-given purpose: fertilizer.
The International Water Management Institute (IWMI) recently released a study showing that increasing urbanization in the developing world is feeding more intensive agriculture, which is in turn irrigated by more intensive effluent from exploding cities. This is creating all sorts of nasties like elevated levels of roundworm, bacterial infections and diarrhea. My wife and I live in the tropics in western Kenya, and I can promise you that the above are to be avoided at all cost. If you’re under five, they are often lethal. If you’re not, they are bad for long road trips and inevitably lead to visiting dubious medical facilities.
The IWMI study found that 85 percent of the 53 cities analyzed in developing countries discharged at least partially untreated water into their local waterways. This is not hard to believe, living (and eating) in Kenya, on the shores of Lake Victoria. We have an amazing array of tropical produce, but we also have recurrent cholera outbreaks.
It’s easy to think that this all calls for achieving in the poorer corners of the world the same practice that we in most of the developed world have of flushing and forgetting. Our waste goes to nifty treatment facilities and then gets dumped in our streams and oceans—far superior. This solution is nothing more than potentially a stopgap that gets us nowhere near sustainability. It’s worth checking out information on the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, which my own poop contributed to when I lived in Atlanta.
Salon ran a nice series of excerpts from a new book on feces called The Big Necessity by Rose George. One of the articles describes the difference between fecal-philiac societies, like China where they’ve been using their offal for fertilizer for thousands of years, and fecal-phobic societies like ours in the U.S., where we generally think of it as a stinking time bomb to be flushed as quickly as possible.
Despite the proximity of food and feces in Kenya, people here are also very feces-phobic. Several non-profits have tried introducing ecosan (ecological sanitation) toilets in the area where I’m working. These toilets generally try to recreate the production-waste-fertilizer cycle, turning smelly poop into lumber or mangos. For the most part, they cause a lot of problems. It requires significant training in order not to expose yourself to the aforementioned nastiness. More fundamentally, people generally don’t want to do it. Toilet culture seemingly is one of the most private and hardest parts of culture to change.
Still, I can’t escape the feeling that we’ll all be doing this in the not-too-distant future. We’ll be forced to abandon our finicky attitudes. In the end, we all poop, we all eat and there’s an obvious solution here. Our feces are meant to be fertilizer. How we get it back there is a purely technological and cultural problem.
To put it in a less appetizing way, we’ve got to find a way to start eating our poop.