Updated: Apr 6, 2021
A review of our discussion about Waste by Catherine Coleman Flowers.
Last Thursday, we hosted alongside friends at The POOP Project and the Rich Earth Institute a book club conversation about Catherine Coleman Flowers' new book Waste. It was a great group of about 12 sanitation experts and enthusiasts discussing our feelings on the book's lessons and ways to move sanitation forward in the US.
Flowers is an incredible advocate for improved sanitation systems in Lowndes county of Alabama. She's worked for years on raising awareness about the acute environmental and health issues in her community, where sanitation is poor, and the municipalities seem incapable of doing better. What's clear from Flowers' story is how the US has racial lines with sanitation systems – those who are white and with money have decent systems. Simultaneously, their low-income neighbors of color have poorly-managed human waste cesspools in their yards that the government isn't fixing. According to census data, over 72% of Lowndes County is black, and 26% is in poverty.
Our book club meeting discussed feeling surprised to be reading a narrative on organizing, instead of unearthing in detail the sanitation issues in the US. In many ways, the book is Flowers' memoir. The book is a woman's journey discovering the environmental sanitation challenges in southern black communities. It details her efforts to show sanitation failures to leaders who could deliver the message and hold local governments accountable.
Readers also felt surprised to learn that people of color in the south could get arrested for not improving their sanitation systems at home, even if they bought their homes as-is and cannot afford improvements. Though officials inspect houses before community members buy them, inspectors flushed the toilet to see if they work, which didn't indicate if the system was up to codes or not. It's clear from Flowers' book that the unequal application of the law that exists in the US includes sanitation – where some people get subsidies, while others get arrested.
We Want More
There was some disappointment that the book didn't go into more detail – the participants wanted more of everything. Readers felt they had many questions that they wanted the book to address. About Flowers' life, many wanted more details about some of her personal moments. They wanted to feel escorted more completely to understand Flowers's struggles and process to get where she is now. On sanitation, participants wanted technical details about local codes that could be thwarting progress, roadmaps or suggestions for moving forward, and why septic systems don't work in the region.
One of our participants contextualized why the southern communities had septic tank failures partly: it stems back from slave-worked cotton fields. For decades, white slaveholders forced black enslaved people to overwork the soil in harvesting resource-intensive crops like tobacco and cotton. This farming overused the soil and ultimately degraded them so that topsoil disappeared. All the land became clay wastelands in many ways.
Reframing the Focus for Readers
In some ways, the participants felt like maybe the book's focus wasn't matching the story's title, as the focus doesn't always feel like it's really about sanitation. Perhaps it was the book's marketing or how sanitation enthusiasts interpreted the subtitle "One Woman's Fight Against America's Dirty Secret" only to mean sanitation. We propose a reframing of how we think about the main storyline – it's about environmental racism. The dirty secret isn't really about sanitation. However, it is used as a specific example of environmental racism and how US racist systems create environmental disasters for people of color. More historical background about why septic tanks don't work in the region further strengthens this theme. This is why Flowers' journey is important – she walks us through the civil rights movement. She matches it with her realization that her community was suffering from environmental problems that only existed because of structural racism.
After reading the book, we all wanted to figure out what we can do about it. It's promising to see that Flowers is working with universities in her community to start addressing the challenges around the sanitation and the potential solutions.
Eco-San Solutions? Hold On…
Much of the book club conversation was around alternative eco-sanitation solutions because it seems clear that water-toilet options are not working there for a lot of reasons. Would compost toilets be the future for Lowndes County? We discussed simple solutions like the Arborloo and vermifilter composting toilets. However, there remains a real stigma and negative feelings globally around composting solutions. They are often considered outdated and "downgrading" from the more desirable flushing toilet systems we have normalized. Also, ecological designs are not what gets non-technical people excited; it's the public health solution that everyone gets behind.
While flush toilet options are not practical, it's less of a technology conversation than a cultural and societal conversation (particularly around aspirations) about what solutions are acceptable and not demeaning. What would it take for communities to be interested in using eco-san solutions? Many affordable solutions don't make people (who grow up with flush toilets) feel good about using them. Also, municipal codes may make it illegal for some eco-san solutions to be used in some areas, which could further complicate things.
It's also a question of how to help community members meet them where they are at, rather than giving them a technology they find gross or unusable. It's especially problematic if the community doesn't feel like they have a "choice." The work that's going on in Lowndes County on piloting and exploring options is a good start. Flowers also commented in this interview about how we need deeper dives than just proposing solutions after a brief survey; she has a point. It's also highly possible that she and the teams in the region have considered these eco-san solutions at some point and haven't publicly noted that. Sanitation enthusiasts should tread cautiously and offer help that aligns with community requests and respects what is already happening without objectifying community members.
We sanitation enthusiasts who attended the book club meeting were mostly not from the community where the book focused. After reading, many readers felt compelled to act now in a community that we only understand from a book. As professionals with privileges, it would take more listening and learning for us before we can become better qualified to make meaningful and desired impact as allies to the communities where Flowers works.
FLUSH's parting question we invite for consideration: how do we create culturally competent opportunities for communities of color in the US that need sanitation solutions that acknowledge a legacy of racially-based neglect?