Updated: Dec 23, 2022
Last Thursday, we hosted with friends at The POOP Project and Rich Earth Institute a book club conversation about Bryn Nelson's new book Flush (no relation). Several readers joined, and we were delighted that Bryn could join our conversation. With the author present, the book club discussed his journey by looking at his own poo and how he could tell its story from a universal lens.
Nelson's book details how to use poo to transform our lives by improving our health, saving lives, improving crops, and making people better stewards. Nelson also dives into why we are disgusted by poo, how it's potentially gone too far, and how to shift to a more poo-as-resource-oriented mindset. Throughout the story, Nelson balances science by sharing his discoveries about poo management – from history to science – and how it changes his life. For example, he studies his gut biome. As a result, he learns how little we know about how our bodies work and the extent of our poo's potential. He also learns about the benefits of applying treated poo to plants and tries it for himself in his garden, with impressive results.
Explaining Poo for Everyone
One reader mentioned that the book is intimate as it starts with the author's explorations and brings it to explore the larger sanitation systems. Why did Nelson feel like writing such a personal book?
He explained to the book club that he wanted to create a story to show why poo matters and how we can connect to larger stories and improve the world with our poo. However, to make that point, he felt he had to use himself to try out what tools and services were out there and show his personal experience. In particular, he wanted to ensure he could also share with readers how he became comfortable grappling with his own fecal matter; he can also be disgusted by weird things.
Practical Poo Data
Part of what the book club appreciated about this book was the "hot tips" on apps to use and fecal tests to take (or not) to learn more about our bodily health. For example, Nelson has been logging his poo for 2 years through tracker apps to identify when something isn't right. Which apps did he find most useful? Pcal is his favorite, but Poo Keeper is good, too. Tracking poo data can be another method to be mindful of our bodies and lives, even if considered offbeat.
We also talked about taking fecal tests that analyze our gut flora at a point in time – much like a DNA test. Nelson highlighted that while it can be neat to find out what bacteria live inside our gut, what the results tell us so far isn't much. We simply don't know enough about the different strains of bacteria that we excrete and their purposes. From the author's experience, they still seem like expensive experiences that don't really give us the information we can act on with any real meaning.
The book also talks about how dynamic our flora is and how a single test in time doesn't show how our bacteria change over time based on location, diet, and circumstances. After all, people can be healthy while hosting different gut bacteria. This also goes towards understanding the recommended probiotic-rich diets. However, while Nelson wrote about trying out this diet, the results from the fecal test he took simultaneously didn't show any of the 10 microbes in his probiotic supplement. Ultimately, this leads him and the reader to ask, how does this all work? Simply put – we don't know yet.
Collecting poo data can be tricky, though. There are questions about data security: How can we keep our fecal information private? Who can access that information? Again, what it means to have certain gut bacteria is still not well understood. Additionally, it could be problematic to have half-understandings dictating individual healthcare insurance policies, particularly in the US. For example, Nelson describes in the book that he is an asymptomatic carrier of C.diff, which can be common and not concerning if the rest of a person's bacterial community is in balance. However, insurance companies don't have that understanding and could have consequences regarding his coverage for other tests and treatments.
Reframing the Poo Story
Another thing that Nelson aimed to do was simplify the science to "set the record straight" so that everyone could understand how biology works and find an interest in it. He found tons of cool ways to bring it back to people easily. For example, some wastewater treatment providers are helping brew beer with the water recycled from the process. Some utilities offer tours so that facilities can demystify systems that may typically scare people. Finally, Nelson underlined that reclaimed and recycled water must be a part of our future. We must reframe the story about poo and recycled water to help people get past their disgust – for our environmental health.
Another reframing of the poo story: we need to stop making halfway science theories the default about how we handle our health and environment. Western and colonial societies have been overzealous about cleanliness and hygiene, approaching our health with a "science knows better" approach to our detriment. Now, we're reflecting on integrating wisdom from indigenous cultures to change the dialogue and find ways to rebalance what we pushed off kilter. Nelson showed that a lot of new research supports what many cultures have known for a long time – that we need to foster our gut and bacterial health to keep us and the planet healthy. This includes eating more fermented foods for gut health, and revisiting whether hosting parasites could help us find better health.
A few readers pointed out that we've lost our ways and separated ourselves from our environment in many different ways. It's as if we disregarded the importance of sanitation systems (ex: composting waste for agricultural purposes) when we shunned cultural wisdom about healthy eating. We've seen bacteria as bad, even though they keep us alive. Similarly, we have created misnomers about feces, labeling them as waste products. In reality, we've simply lost the understanding of how to deal with it productively. We've created these concepts that waste exists and certain foods are "good" or "bad", which are made-up concepts; we're now trying to come back to remembering the more symbiotic and integrative relationship that is healthier and environmentally harmonistic.
We need to figure out how to relate to nature more, which can help empower people. It's ultimately about reframing the poo story to help rebalance our ecosystems and educating ourselves and future generations to live differently.
Planning Upcoming Loo Book Clubs
When discussing the Loo Book Club plans, many loo readers mentioned wanting to read a group of articles instead of longer books. We will explore this; we may ask other organizational partners and friends to brainstorm some fun articles to share for a conversation.
There is also clear interest in reading Queering Bathrooms soon, which discusses gender and toilets. So stay tuned for more Loo Book Club events coming up in 2023!