Last Thursday, we hosted with friends at The POOP Project and Rich Earth Institute a book club conversation about David Waltner-Toews' book The Origin of Feces. We shared an intimate conversation with seven sanitation enthusiasts about the book.
Waltner-Toews explores why human and animal waste are important to address for our sustainable environmental health. He also takes the reader on a historical tour of our culture's relationship with feces. Waltner-Toews tackles the feces questions through a multidisciplinary approach, altering a microcosm and macrocosm lens from etymology to ecology and biodiversity and human health. Of course, he remembers to include some play in the book while he talks about a topic that is taboo and gets most people giggling. The author also discusses different words for feces and explains why he stuck to using the word "shit" intentionally. We loved that.
Animal Have Feces, Too
Readers in the book club discussed how the book surprised us sometimes, even though most of us work in sanitation and sometimes don't feel surprised anymore. One thing that stuck with us was how we need to focus on feces in its entirety – that means looking at animal feces in addition to human feces. The group acknowledged that the sanitation sector often overlooks animal feces because of the pressing challenges with tackling only our species' feces. We felt that the author is right. We have to look beyond humans to understand better the biological implications of animal feces in the environment and how to sold that.
Animal feces is something about which the public wants to know more. We shared experiences of community groups asking us how to deal with dog poo, and we didn't know how to help. One of the author's points was that there's a huge pile of shit that we don't cover; the unaccounted-for shit simply "disappears," though we don't always know exactly where. Waterways? Ground? Another reader mentioned how they had personal experiences dealing with bird poo, mentioning that bird poo is 15 times richer than horse poo; hence, so many farmers relied on guano.
The Limits from Poo Taboos
One of the author's points was that we need to diversify our ways to manage feces and use it for environmental good. The more solutions we have for dealing with shit in different environments, the more sustainably better off we will be. We discussed that, while we have some ways to manage feces (e.g., composted fertilizer and creating energy) the sanitation sector hasn't diversified our options that much. Is that because we're creatively limited due to the social taboos of poo? Are sanitation experts limited in their innovations because they have their own poo taboos? Or is it because our medium (aka, poo) is limited in its possibilities?
One reader mentioned that even anthropologists have stayed away with how people engage with poo. Even though it's everywhere around us and touches all of our lives, it remains invisible to experts because there is a tendency to silo poo to the sanitation experts. People working in organics recycling sometimes think that only the developing world uses human composted fertilizer in their fields. They don't even realize that potting soil for plants and gardens often comes from biosolids. Interestingly, according to the EPA, 51% of biosolids from wastewater treatment plants in the US get spread on land. And yet, even with biosolids used, practitioners sometimes have a sense of taboo about what kinds of poo can be composted – you can compost only animal poo or human poo.
Looking Beyond Feces
One of the key points in the book is how we can't solve any problem in isolation, which includes feces. Shit isn't a one-sector problem, and there is a level of skepticism that comes with listening to someone with a strong focus on one movement alone. Instead, shit leaks out to other sectors like animal rights, agriculture, the environment, women's rights, etc. While it may take time to create change, a multidisciplinary approach is key to educating people about feces and creating real, sustainable solutions.
This also means that sanitation experts need to look beyond human health and happiness when thinking about impact. Is using human compost healthy beyond our ability to produce crops? We discussed that we tend to focus on impacts related to humans without considering the long-term environmental implications. One reader mentioned that we couldn't afford not to use human waste as composted fertilizer for food. Another one asked if there are consequences to having compost with unfiltered heavy metals, plastics, PFAS, and pharmaceutical drugs applied to the ground we don't know about yet. How do we reframe shit as something that can be beneficial in the right circumstances but should better understand its implications in other circumstances?
How to Hold On?
Some book clubbers also admitted to not enjoying the book because it wasn't always easy to read. One felt that the narrative felt disjointed. Another reader echoed that, though everything ultimately connected, the author zoomed in and out too much, confusing them. Sometimes, the authors used words that felt too new and required a dictionary while reading, taking away the ease of understanding the author's thoughtful arguments. Others felt that the purpose of the book was murky – was it a call to action, or was the purpose of informing people and introducing a new way of thinking about shit?
Don't Forget to Chuckle
Lastly, we enjoyed a chuckle when the author talked about the joy of dung beetles! We even paused at the end to watch a video about dung beetles.
FLUSH's parting question we invite for consideration: how do we tackle the poo taboo that invites other sectors/industries to explore how feces could impact their work for better or ill, and start having multidisciplinary approaches to get our shit under control?