Updated: May 21
Last Thursday, we hosted with friends at The POOP Project and Rich Earth Institute a book club conversation about Lina Zeldovich’s new book The Other Dark Matter. We had a dozen readers join, and we were delighted that Lina could join our conversation. With the author present, the book club was of a discussion about her process of writing about a tricky topic – namely, poo.
Zeldovich’s book tells the story of how society has looked at poo incorrectly for much of recent history – as waste instead of a valuable resource. She looks at the history of good and bad poo uses in different parts of the world (sometimes comparing Eastern and Western approaches). She also explains why the perception of poo as waste can be dangerous due to poor treatment approaches and the resulting pollution, illness, and death. Zeldovich weaves together poo management solutions with the very real challenges we are seeing in the world due to poor treatment approaches and the resulting pollution. She covers a breadth of ways poo can be valuable – from being fertilizer to medical treatment for C.diff. Zeldovich convinces the reader that if enough of us understand the value of poo, we can drastically overhaul our current sanitation systems to make poo into a useful resource.
A Fuller View of Shit Use
Readers were impressed by how much new poo information was in the book. Our Loo Book Clubs typically consist of toilet and poo experts, and we were delighted with the chance to learn more about our work. One reader even mentioned with excitement that it must be even more exciting for laypeople who are new to the world of sanitation. Part of what made the story feel so new was how Zeldovich married sanitation reuse technologies such as biogas (our book club is well familiar) with new subjects such as healthcare-specific Fecal Microbiota Transplantation (FMT). These topics are usually separated in conversations and audiences, creating a culture that leaves the FMT to the doctors and the sanitation reuse to the toilet folk. Though they are very different uses of feces, we felt that it was a great marriage because both methods see poo as a valuable resource.
One reader wondered why Zeldovich chose to focus on the positive solutions before talking about sanitation problems first because it is a different approach from most journalist-style non-fiction books. Zeldovich explained that she uses solution journalism to write about gnarly topics to prevent readers from getting trapped in a cycle of doom and gloom while reading about often heavy topics. With the exposé journalism format of other books, it can be hard to mobilize people to act on fixes and solutions rather than fall into a sense of hopelessness. Another reader shared that the new psychology research about climate change agrees with Zeldovich’s approach to starting with solutions and positivity before getting into the challenges.
Embracing the Yuck
Readers also appreciated that, while Zeldovich celebrates the value of poo, she maintains a realistic response to interacting with raw sewage. In the book, she admits to being grossed out by the smell in some places she visits. She also talks about how she sterilized her clothes after visiting poo-laden warehouses. In some ways, the grossed-out moments made the book’s content more approachable for people who are easily grossed out by poo and find it a taboo topic. Zeldovich shared that she wanted to get people to care enough to learn more about poo, so it was important to be realistic in her writing – it’s still shit! With this yuck factor, she wanted to add a human element by keeping in the humor and a simple conversational tone for readers, hoping to crack the barrier of talking shit in public.
Getting Into Russian Sanitation
In the book, Zeldovich users her Russian roots as a way to share her journey in understanding poo as a resource, starting with her grandfather’s farming use for their outhouse pit. From this, readers were keen to learn more about the sanitation situation in Russia. She explained that, like in many large countries with a tapestry of cultures, toilets are diverse– from indoor bucket systems in Siberia to sewered wastewater systems in urban areas. While some regions have sophisticated sanitation systems, Western tourists could be horrified to see how rudimentary some toilets are in less trekked areas, such as a poorly-maintained “hole in the wall”.
Zeldovich is confident that many farmers in more remote areas of Russia had similar agricultural relationships with poo as her grandfather did; many are conscious of reusing the nutrients in fecal matter. She also shared that traditional Russian medicine valued intestinal flora and bacteria-rich diets before mainstream probiotics and the developing science of FMT. There’s certainly wisdom in Russia about our digestive health and what it can do for our food systems.
Making a Sanitation Reading List for All
In the last two years, the Loo Book Club has read many brand new books about sanitation. Maybe there’s a change in social perceptions in toilets and poo that have opened this up. Or maybe we are lucky to live in a time when authors pick up a fascinating topic that needs more spotlight.
We discussed how we could create a package of recent books for laypeople that can be a short primer reading list for those curious about toilets and what goes in them. This list would absolutely include Chelsea Wald’s Pipe Dreams and Lina Zeldovich’s The Other Dark Matter; the other books in the list are up for discussion.
We also think more sanitation history reading should probably be part of this primer list. Zeldovich touched on a story from sanitation expert Daniel Gerling about the US’s early sanitation work, including a “poop police” that targeted many Native communities aggressively, which didn’t go well. Given the constant work in sanitation-related behavior change that often doesn’t go according to plan in other countries, more reading about this would also be valuable for laypeople and the sanitation sector.