I think the hardest thing to feel is that the shit is purposeless. This is at the heart of the emotion we call “despair.” Despair is an existential emotion. It occurs when our meaning system gets shattered and we have to construct a new one. But our culture does not value this process. We don’t see any value in the shit. We want to flush it away. It takes courage to allow our faith and meaning to be dismantled. Despair can be a powerful path to the sacred and to a kind of illumination that doesn’t come when we bypass the darkness.
— PSYCHOTHERAPIST MIRIAM GREENSPAN, IN AN INTERVIEW WITH PSYCHOTHERAPIST BARBARA PLATEK
Although it was midday, the sky darkened as in an eclipse, and as the column of birds thickened, their droppings fell like snow. For three days and nights the vast flock passed overhead, at a steady speed of 95 kilometres per hour (60 mph), undiminished and with no pause. At the last the very air smelled of pigeons, and their droppings had whitened the earth . . . At Audubon’s reckoning, the flock that he experienced in the fall of 1813 consisted of an unimaginable 25 billion birds.
— TIM FLANNERY, ON PASSENGER PIGEONS IN JOHN JAMES AUDUBON’S WORK
Some might say there is too much shit in the world, in all the wrong places. And yet there are moments — watching a dung beetle at work, or being showered on by millions of rose-breasted birds — when one might see a strange beauty or certain poignancy in all this excrement.
Shit can be both awful and awe-inspiring, but it also has a purpose, and its beauty lies in its purpose. Psychotherapists Greenspan and Platek were not talking about the same shit that I have been talking about in this book, and perhaps I am pushing my luck to suggest that the path to enlightenment might be through understanding excrement. But there is a reason why the Egyptians deified the scarabs, other than their apparent propensity to deify everything from cats to onions. Scarabs (like onions and cats!) are special. Dung beetles speak to us of what we have lost, and what we must restore if we wish to live long and prosper. Based on an ecological and evolutionary transformation of our understanding of excrement from a “waste” to be “managed” to a necessity for life on Earth, we can restore shit to its rightful place in the biosphere, and in so doing discover both healing and meaning for ourselves.
Albert Einstein has been quoted as saying that we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. This has become a kind of mantra for many public health workers, political activists, and environmentalists. Yet every time we (our species) begin to tackle a big problem — 9/11, a major oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, loss of biodiversity, too much shit in the wrong places, obesity, starvation — we go back to exactly the same thinking that created the problem. Industrial technology created the problem of too much shit, and we think industrial technology will save us. New technology, important as it is, is only as good (in both senses of the word, morally and in terms of its effective- ness) as the context in which it is used and the challenges for which it is designed to respond. I would go so far as to say that developing the technology is easy; throw money at the engineers and they will invent something. Creating new technologies is not, primarily, the problem we have.
The science that underlies technology is what some academics in the natural and biomedical sciences call “hard science” and which is often the only kind of science considered “real” science. This results in natural and biomedical scientists making fools of themselves by preaching to the rest of the world about what should be done to respond to issues like excrement, when pretty much every intelligent person knows, based on good evidence, that such preaching is probably the least effective way to promote change. These “hard” scientists end up sounding silly because they clearly have no understanding at all of how and why people change. They imagine it is all due to ignorance, or cultural inertia, or that catch-all, “lack of political will.” They also, ironically, act as if we (people) did not evolve through random mutations and selections inside the systems we are trying to understand. They often act as if we — or at least they — are objective, outside observers. The effect of taking this exclusively hard science, pseudo-objective approach is that anything having to do with the humanities — understanding why people behave the way we do, our understanding of what comprises knowledge, history, anthropology, ethics — is undervalued. It is often referred to as “soft science.” Understanding how to use technology to create a sustain- able society is considered “soft.” I prefer the term “really difficult science,” as proposed by geographer Barry Smit, for this work of co-creating a sustainable global narrative.
In part because of this lack of respect for the humanities, and in part because previous global narratives (Christianity, Islam, State Communism) have so often been catastrophically bad, the story many of us have told ourselves has focused on what we have seen to be the ideological “neutral” tale of technology and progress. We have deluded ourselves into believing that this is not a belief system, because it uses science to achieve its ends. But where this has led us, in the past century, is into a place where our stories have been constructed around single problems or built on narrow-minded academic disciplines. We have lived with the illusion that we can solve our problems one by one until they are all solved. If we look specifically at issues related to excrement, the international development literature is replete with tales of latrines being used to store food, or not used at all, because important social and ecological relationships have been ignored.
A story by one of my colleagues, Andres Sanchez, is typical.
In 1993 and 1994, Sanchez, an engineer-cum- anthropologist, visited the recently created Sierra Santa Marta, a Special Biosphere Reserve in Mexico. The reserve was home to more than 1,000 plant species, 400 bird species, and more than 1,000 other animal species, of which more than 150 species were listed as endangered. It was also the home of more than 60,000 Nahua and Zoque- Popoluca indigenous people. The reserve was also a major water source for an urban and petrochemical “corridor of Southern Veracruz.”
Sanchez began, he says, with a rather traditional western approach to development research, exploring human behavior in relation to diarrhea and what preventive measures might be feasible based on a deeper under- standing of relationships between people and their feces. Diarrhea in the area had been increasing annually, and in 1994, the cholera epidemic that was exploding throughout Latin America raised the anxiety of local citizens and government.
Although he eventually set aside this specific research in favor of a broader investigation of pre-Hispanic social and cultural beliefs about health and nature, Sanchez followed his original interest in shit through a series of more informal interactions with people in the area.
A review of the situation by the Ministry of Health found that the water source (a protected spring catchment) and distribution were safe, but that water was being contaminated by feces in the homes. Eighty percent of households had no water for washing or cooking in the home, nor sanitary facilities; those that did turned the water, as Sanchez recounted, into “fecal tea.” People defecated in the open, women under the cover of darkness, and men in the privacy of their milpa (corn fields). Chickens, dogs, and pigs, roaming freely inside and outside homes, used feces as a main source of food in their scavenger diets, dashing after the fresh pickings left by children, who defecated in their home yards.
According to government officials, the problem was clearly one of lack of education and poor personal hygiene. Given this diagnosis, the government response appeared sensible. A school-and clinic-based community hygiene program was implemented, and the penning of animals was promoted. The doctor at the local health clinic gave a talk on sanitation and disease, and at the end of the talk provided a sack of cement and instructions to build a latrine. To attract women to the talk, the clinic gave a free kilogram of corn flour to all who attended. Since men were the ones who were culturally supposed to build things, and since many of them were uninterested in the need for a latrine, the cement was often left unused.
Pilar was a local woman who took a strong interest in the water, excrement, and health problems of the community. A Jesuit-trained community health worker deeply interested in communities’ traditional stories, her diagnosis of the situation differed somewhat from that of the Ministry officials.
The population of the community had quadrupled over twenty years, and one group of people had cashed in on the coffee boom of the previous four years. Because of deforestation in the hills, the twenty-year-old water system was plagued by decreasing output in dry months. Responding to the periodic dry periods, the people who had become relatively wealthy from selling coffee used their extra cash to build home water storage tanks and flush toilets; sometimes they left their taps running, muddying the nearby streets, to the delight of free-ranging pigs.
Wastewater from the wealthy homes drained into a river upstream from an artesian well. The poor people in the community (who made up about 60% of the population) had to line up at public taps for their water. This was a task done by women and girls and often took much of the day, as the lines were long. Some simply did not have the time to wait: single mothers, women from households having someone with a chronic illness, or elder couples heading households with children whose parents had left home for work elsewhere or had died. The women and girls in these households then often had to do double shifts, working in the milpa and at home.
Eventually, the long lineups at the public taps caused these women to go to the artesian well near the river (downstream from the rich people’s wastewater outlet). This well was often flooded, and contaminated, during heavy rainfalls. A water vendor who sold agua fresca (fresh water) outside the Sunday church service also drew his water from the contaminated well.
Because of the increases in population, the fields used for open-air defecation were moved farther away from the community. When men got sick with “the runs,” they went to the field to relieve themselves, and came home to be cared for by their wives. Women could not afford this luxury. Sanchez heard stories of diarrhea-stricken women being beaten by men who came home after a long day of working at the milpa to find that the food was not prepared; or because there was town gossip of the wife seen going to the bush during the day, “probably to meet a lover.” Women and girls, seeking privacy, often waited to defecate until nightfall; this also made them vulnerable to harassment and assault. On top of this, walking in the dark to the defecation fields, the women feared stepping on poisonous snakes that, at night, spread out on the roads trying to absorb the heat soaked up by the earth during the day.
The poorer households, often headed by single parents or grandparents, or with a chronically ill family member, did not have the labor or time to build latrines. Pilar visited the municipal president and his wife, the head of social programs in the municipality, to put pressure on the local government to manage water with social equity and to lobby him to support a youth program to help the poorer sector build latrines.
After Pilar presented her version of events, she received a one-hour sermon from the president on democracy and equality of opportunity. He was unwilling to support such a program because, he argued, it was not democratic. Everyone had been offered the same opportunities to get a free latrine slab. Why should one sector now be singled out for special help?
Pilar returned home, determined to devise a new strategy. She began to build coalitions and partnerships in the community. She went over the head of the municipal president, lobbying NGOs to insert sanitation into the biosphere reserve management plan, a plan that had been developed and implemented by the state government. She lobbied her personal contacts and friends among the teachers and organized a nutrition and hygiene fair open to all, where she recruited volunteers for latrine-building groups. She kept the story in the local news networks.
When she returned to visit the municipal president and his wife, she came with a multi-stakeholder petition in hand for support of the latrine-building project. She organized a community meeting, where she helped give voice to dissatisfaction from community members about water waste, scarcity, and inequity. As the result of Pilar’s persistence and insight, a community water supply and sanitation improvement program was inserted into the management plan for the biosphere reserve.
Pilar understood that dealing with excrement was not simply a matter of providing better toilets. It required addressing interconnections in an evolving context: a growing population, the new wealth of some that had led to the hoarding of safe water available to the community, snakes, community violence, poverty, inequality, and increased fecal contamination of the river — all complicated by the heavy inertia of culture and gender relations.
Sanchez explained to me that the story of this community in Mexico has been repeated in communities around the world. Excrement and water management are systemic issues, tightly related to inequalities of wealth, power, and gender relationships. Without addressing the social and ecological context, the wicked problem of excrement will remain intransigent.
We tend to think of such stories in relation to poor communities in “developing” countries. However, solutions to shit-related problems in industrialized countries are also, equally, embedded in stories, most based on carefully selected and biased evidence. What are some of these stories that have framed how we respond to excrement in our lives?
Several of the stories we live by are bounded, in good bourgeois fashion, by the assumption that our households are the center of the world. This is a kind of 1950s “family values” story, where all that matters is our clean house and our healthy children. This can be accomplished with a flush toilet, running water, and some enforced rules of etiquette. If we want to save water, we can use the motto I first encountered in my sister-in-law’s bathroom in California more than a decade ago: if it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.
If the theme of our story concerns the invasion of a neighbor’s story into ours — say the offensive smell of our neighbor’s commercial pig farm and the sight of his manure lagoons through our kitchen window — we can recommend certain feed additives and feeding regimes that change the smell of their shit and reduce the volume they produce. Or one of us can move somewhere else.
In the story we tell ourselves, we may we want to slow down the depletion of soils in Brazil, and reduce the shit- contamination of waters in Europe and North America. If we have a choice and can afford it, we can eat local, preferably organic, preferably from smaller mixed farms. We can eat less meat. Michael Pollan’s advice is good: “Eat real food. Mostly plants. Not too much.” We can keep fewer pets.
David Waltner-Toews is a veterinarian and epidemiologist. He is the author of The Chickens Fight Back: Pandemic Panics and Deadly Diseases That Jump from Animals to People and Food, Sex and Salmonella: Why Our Food Is Making Us Sick. He lives in Kitchener, Ontario.