The Origin of Feces: What Excrement Tells Us About Evolution, Ecology, and a Sustainable Society
Toronto: ECW Press, 2013
Paperback list: $16.95, Kindle $10.52
Publication date: May 1, 2013
Poop. Feces. Excrement. Manure. No matter what we call it, shit is something that is part of our lives, however unwelcome. Whether we smell it driving by the stockyards, find it rising to meet us again when the plumbing backs up or track it in the house because someone didn’t pick up after their pet, waste products from ourselves and the organisms around us are something we don’t think about unless there is a problem.
David Waltner-Toews, a Canadian epidemiologist, argues in his new book The Origin of Feces that we ignore the excrement around us at our—and the Earth’s—peril. Whether it is pandemic disease, contamination of water supplies, destruction of ecosystems or loss of essential elements for world food production, the author wants us to know there are no easy answers to the world’s waste problem. We need to change the ways we deal with it before it’s too late.
Waltner-Toews leaves no turd unturned as he explores this intriguing—and yes, sometimes disgusting—subject. He first draws in the reader by sharing his fascination with dung beetles, the little scarabs worshipped by ancient Egyptians that you may have observed in nature films pushing gigantic dung balls up hills and through thickets to their nests. Dung beetles are nature’s super recyclers. They can pull more than 1,000 times their weight and can make three pounds of elephant dung disappear in a couple of hours. This is not just a marvel of nature; Waltner-Toews argues the insects literally live up to their ancient symbology as harbingers of death and rebirth by recycling nutrients, helping plants grow, controlling parasites and spreading seeds—adding value estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars to global agriculture every year.
There are a lot of science books these days that examine phenomena on a micro scale. They are entertaining and informative—think of Mary Roach’s works on corpses and alimentation. The Origin of Feces is all that and more. Whether the author is exploring the semantics of shit, describing in excruciating detail how it is produced and what constitutes different kinds of animal scat, know that he is working toward awakening the reader to problems that are truly global and catastrophic. But before we launch into the salient lessons of the book, let’s put on our junior scatophile badges and learn about the marvelous world of poop.
Did you know. . .
- A Japanese researcher reported in 2011 that he had fabricated artificial "meat" from sewage containing excrement. More than 60 percent protein, the material is said to taste like beef.
- Some perfumes are composed of ambergris, which consists of unregurgitated, indigestible materials mixed with feces from sperm whales.
- Paper can be made using elephant dung; the potential yield could be 50 million sheets a year.
- Each human being on the planet generates more than 100 pounds of shit each year.
- Vegetarians produce more feces because they eat more indigestible fiber.
- There are 100 billion bacteria per cubic centimeter in the feces of each adult human. Without bacteria in our intestines, we would not survive.
If we have the stomach to talk about it, we inevitably meet semantic limits. Words about shit are determined by biology and culture, the author argues. Excrement, which originates from the Latin word for sifting, denotes separation of valuable (organism) from worthless (excrement). Guano is derived by way of the Spanish from the South American Quechua word for fertilizer, harking back to the imperialistic takeover of rich bat guano resources on islands off the coast of Peru in the 19th century. Then there is crap, a gift of Thomas Crapper, the English plumber who popularized the modern toilet. Also, there is "night soil," a euphemism for human feces collected as fertilizer (more on this later). Even modern technological terms like nutrient recycling are less than precise, according to Waltner-Toews, because such words do not account for the beneficial and sometimes deadly presence of microorganisms in waste. Scat, a term derived from the Greek, beloved of biologists, merely signifies splitting—separation of shit from its origin. Such a surfeit of inexact words indicates a bigger problem, says the author:
Our language reflects our thinking, and our thoughts determine the kinds of options we can imagine to the challenges we face in life. If talking about what comes out of human and other animal bums is linguistically problematic, then, Houston, we have a much bigger challenge to deal with than simply one of better engineering technology.
The problem, he continues, is that a pile of shit is an inconvenience to some, food to critters, a public health hazard to others and a valuable fertilizer or fuel, depending on who/what and where you are. Our present aversion to excrement is uncharacteristic of almost all of human history. Hunter-gatherers abandoned middens and later found that their leavings had nourished plants that provided food. Farmers early on discovered the value of using dung (including human) as fertilizer. Chinese night soil, which to this day continues to provide fertilizer for farmers, has been used in agriculture for around 4,000 years. It is estimated that at least half of human waste in Japan is still treated and used as fertilizer. In the West, urban dwellers dumped their chamber pots out windows, much to the surprised chagrin of those below. Eventually European cities developed sewer systems as an answer to sanitation needs until it was discovered that rivers, where those systems emptied, happened to be the cities’ water supply, and they became sources of cholera and other epidemics. Writes Waltner-Toews:
The shift from a positive view to a negative view is thus rooted in shifts from people living in the country to people living in cities, to a loss of connection between food producers and consumers, and to our increased scientific understanding of causes of disease.
Today, in an increasingly urbanized world, excrement is processed in industrialized treatment centers for both animal and human wastes. Some treatment processes (called bio-mass plants) create energy from waste. Relying solely on technology, however, is creating more problems than solutions, the author says. Centralized, large-scale treatment of waste depends on economies of scale, which are "brittle." Changes in energy prices, for example, can result in rapid destabilization of such solutions. He writes:
This ability to separate reality into manageable pieces is at the root of the astounding success of industrial societies and modern science, and represents its greatest weakness. The strengths of disassembling the world and specialization are obvious. . . . The weakness has only become apparent after several centuries of success; indeed, the weakness may only be a weakness because of our success. We have saved so many babies, fed so many people, built so many cool cars that we are putting the whole globe at risk.
Another area where technology is failing us, says Waltner-Toews, the founding president of Veterinarians Without Borders, has to do with deadly microorganisms. A specialist in the area of food and water-borne diseases, he writes that many agents with global pandemic status (Salmonella, various bird flus, pathogenic E. coli, etc.) originate with animals and are spread by means of manure that are animal in origin and spread by means of manure: ". . . there is human and animal shit in the food and drinking water of billions of people and this sickens or kills them." Two million people die each year from diarrhea, mostly children, due to contaminated drinking water. The danger is cropping up in the developed world as well. Waltner-Toews cites an E. coli outbreak in Walkerton, Ontario, which killed seven people in 2000. These contaminations of food and water are occurring with greater frequency and the author surmises that much contamination and sickness may be unidentified. Many cases of contamination, and subsequent infection, may be under the radar. If that isn’t scary enough, there is also the persistence in excrement of antibiotics used in humans and livestock in bio-solids and manure, which leads to new antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. Processed human waste also can contain deadly heavy metals, which are difficult to remove. Researchers are just beginning to understand how bacteria work in the gut. Long thought of as a source of sickness, bacterial flora in the gut are now harvested and used to help patients who debilitated by a strain of bacteria called C. difficile after they have had their beneficial bacteria killed off by antibiotics. Fecal transplants, administered rectally or via nasogastric tubes, are more than 90 percent effective in treating C. difficile. (The FDA recently ruled fecal transplant therapy must be preceded by an Investigational New Drug application, which is designed to safeguard patients' health but adds red tape to the process.)
One of the greatest areas of concern in The Origin of Feces has to do with global need for nutrients found in manures. Animal poop (including the human kind) is rich in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, elements that are necessary for the growth of plants. In the pre-industrial era these elements cycled through local ecosystems efficiently. However, as waste has become a nuisance to be removed from population centers, naturally produced nutrients have been replaced by industrial production of nitrogen, which requires using a lot of fossil fuels and mined phosphorus. Excess nitrogen from fertilizers (nitrates) enters groundwater and waterways, causing environmental havoc and blood disorders, especially in children and livestock. Also, agribusiness is quickly depleting the world’s natural stores of phosphorus. Mention of this alarming trend, which some scientists estimate will happen in the next 50 to 100 years, was curiously absent from The Origin of Feces. (For more information on disappearing phosphorus stores, see "Are We Headed Toward Peak Fertilizer?", Mother Jones, Nov. 28, 2012.)
Waltner-Toews estimates that the yearly total of manure generated from livestock is 14 billion tons, enough to cover three million soccer fields to a depth of two meters. Add in another 400 million tons of shit produced annually by humans (not to mention the scat of wild animals and pets) and one can easily see that we need to see all this shit as a rich natural resource rather than a problem that should be eliminated using more technology.
Disease, pollution, ecological destruction—all of these problems and more have been subjected to linear thinking, creating additional problems down the line, says the author. For example, the need for sanitation in the Third World cannot be met merely by supplying more flush toilets because the contents that are flushed away end up polluting nearby water supplies. Building more treatment plants results in more nutrients taken away from ecosystems where they are vitally needed. Pointing to insights from complexity theorists, Waltner-Toews argues that comprehensive answers to the problems created by waste will only arise from a kind of crowdsourcing approach to complex issues. What would this novel approach look like? He says it will take scientists out of the lab and bring them into contact with people and their shit. It will involve sharing of information in true democratic fashion. And it will require moving beyond crisis management a la “disaster of the week” to seeking sustainable solutions. It will necessitate willingness on the part of the First World to make sacrifices—eating less meat, for example, so that undernourished children in other parts of the world can get more protein, which is vitally important to their development. As the author puts it, "Health for all means grief for many."
Waltner-Toews said he experienced the complexity approach in action a few years ago when he attended a conference on ecosystems, poverty and indigenous peoples in South America. There were scientists from many disciplines present as well as indigenous leaders, some of whom saw the scientists as representing the First-World "enemy." But the conferees persisted in looking at the complex problems from their many different perspectives: ". . .we argued, drew pictures, showed maps, yelled at each other, cried, laughed, got drunk.... What we were forging was an uneasy sense of common vision." They left the meeting with a consensus plan. The scientists engaged in dialogue; they did not lecture, he said. In that way everyone involved had an equal stake in the plan.
The author presents a refreshingly new approach to seemingly intractable global problems. His openness to the voices of the grassroots, the less powerful, to the viewpoints of disciplines from non-"hard science" backgrounds (literature, psychology, cultural anthropology and religion) acknowledges that science has overshadowed these other voices, to the detriment of human beings and other constituent parts of the web of life called planet Earth. In the latter part of this very readable and important book, he quotes psychotherapist Miriam Greenspan, who has likened shit to despair, "the dismantling of our meaning system." He sees a parallel in the coming apart of our global vision of sustainability even as we throw our best technological solutions at the problems. The psychotherapist said the only way out of despair is through it. Likewise, Waltner-Toews argues the only way out of this mess will require embracing sacrifices in the First-World, rethinking our reliance on technology, rediscovering some of the wise practices of pre-industrialized societies and leveling the playing field of problem solvers to include not only the powerful but also the disempowered, who are suffering profoundly because we can’t get our shit together.