Let’s talk about poo.
In this article from Culture Change, author Keith Farnish (Time’s Up! An Uncivilized Solution to a Global Crisis) takes a look at the history of human excrement, its disposal and its use in agriculture, and finds that one man’s dung is another man’s night soil.
Where will you go when the sewers clog up? Where will you go when the porcelain finally cracks? Where will you go when the Toilet Duck quacks its last?
Let’s go back to the beginning…
We all eat and drink without exception; the food is partially broken down by acids in the stomach then transferred to the small intestine where the moisture, along with that from what we drink, is squeezed out to be cleaned by the kidneys and washed around the body to perform all of the vital functions that it is required for.
When returned to the kidneys it is expelled via the urethra to the outside world. Solid materials are also used, except that only the useful food matter is absorbed into the body: anything not used — excess fats, inert matter, fibers and a large weight of bacteria is passed through the gut and out of the body.
Piss and shit; that’s what it’s about. It has to go somewhere, and throughout the history of humanity, different cultures have found different ways to deal with it. This story is about our tribal nomadic and village past; our civilized present; our self-determined future. It is not quite the story of shit, but a salutary lesson in how we must learn to treat something so fundamental to what we are.
Before The Cities
Highlighting the hygiene aspects of shit (piss is pretty much sterile, containing a mixture of water, urea and salts, so is not so much of an issue) is very enlightening at this stage because, to be quite frank, non-civilized cultures had it pretty well sorted right from the start. This is not just a human thing: observe a field of cattle, and you will see one corner which is heavily used for defecation. Cows have toilets, as do most domesticated animals — and not for no good reason; our instinct of disgust is deeply rooted in what we understand to be unhealthy. A pile of rotting meat, writhing with maggots, or a steaming pile of fresh shit are immediately offensive to most of us, whatever culture we live in.
The phrase: “Don’t shit in your own back yard” (or variations upon) is sound advice, if your back yard is anywhere near where you grow, pick or prepare food; wash yourself and your things or, and probably most importantly, draw water for drinking. Some tribal cultures are still nomadic, barely settling in any one location, making the issue of waste disposal of little consequence: a Bedouin will dig a hole in the ground and cover it up with sand or stones when ready to move on. Village life, on the other hand requires more thought, unless you have a very large river nearby, such as the Amazon or the Zambezi, in which case all the little fishies get a regular meal, and the water stays pretty much the same along its course, as long as there is only the occasional village.
Away from the flowing river (and believe me, rivers really are among the best things to live near to from a survival point of view) there comes the issue of standing waste: unlike the “ocean drop” toilets used by the Kuna Indians of Panama, if you live near to a even a decent sized lake it doesn’t take long for your local wash area to become contaminated with enterococci and other faecal bacteria. You certainly don’t want to be drinking anything from a lake that is used for shitting in. In fact, what is most typical is for tribal persons to simply leave the village, have a crap in a convenient bit of undergrowth (with accompanying leaf moist-wipes), and return much lighter. Something for the beetles to feast upon.
In this context, it is just waste to be disposed of; but in more settled cultures, especially those that practice food cropping of any scale, the concept of “humanure” becomes relevant. Joseph Jenkins, author of The Humanure Handbook has the following to say about this most wonderful of substances:
“Human waste” is a term that has traditionally been used to refer to human excrements, particularly fecal material and urine, which are by-products of the human digestive system. When discarded, as they usually are, these materials are colloquially known as human waste, but when recycled for agricultural purposes, they’re known by various names, including night soil when applied raw to fields in Asia.
Humanure, unlike human waste, is not waste at all – it is an organic resource material rich in soil nutrients. Humanure originated from the soil and can be quite readily returned to the soil, especially if converted to humus through the composting process.
Anyone who grows vegetables on a regular basis will be comfortable with the idea of using horse manure as a soil conditioner, hence the old joke: “What do you put on your rhubarb?” “Horse shit.” “Really, I prefer custard.” It’s not that far a step from handling horse shit to handling human shit, albeit having given a bit more time for the bacteria and other micro-organisms to have done their work. Our cultural attitude to shit has played a significant part in shaping how we deal with it.