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Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Three and a half good books on poop

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I seem to have this reputation among my students for having a fascination about poop.

Fair enough.  Can’t help it when you teach a course on wastewater.

But I can’t really rely on that to explain my choice of reading material.  Yes, I read about poop for pleasure and enlightment.

My latest find from browsing the shelves of Pulp Fiction, one of my favourite second hand bookstores in Vancouver: a slim book called Flush, by W Hodding Carter.  With a title like that, I could not resist.

Subtitled how the plumber saved civilization, the book describes the history of sewers and water supply, and that has the potential for being quite stultifying.  Except that Carter is no specialist, let alone a historian; rather, he is a do-it-yourself kind of guy.  So the book starts with a description of Jasmin, the brand new electronically controlled Japanese toilet cum bidet that warms you, washes you, dries you, and even eats up your smell when you do number two – and he just had to have one!  And get the neighbour to come and try it, and give his impressions.  He’s that kind of guy.

Upon learning that the Romans used lead pipes for their water supply, he had to try and make his own lead pipe, with mitigated success (and maybe a touch of neuropoisoning).  The book is funny and thoroughly enjoyable.  Carter gets a fair bit of the science muddled, if not downright wrong, but that doesn’t deter in the least from the fun.  But there’s also a serious side to it, in particular in the chapter where he details the work of Dr Pathak, of New Delhi, and his work on dual pit toilets.  These are simple latrines – except that through a clever design, they don’t need frequent cleaning, and when they are cleaned, what is removed is an innocuous material similar to compost.  But what is also lacking, in the process, is fascinating: the risk of water-borne disease (a scourge of rural India) and the need for servants from the untouchable class to clean the latrines.  This represents a major step in the emancipation of the untouchables, strange as it may seem to a western reader.  And the fertilizer elements of the waste can be returned to the field instead of polluting watercourses, a favourite peeve of mine.

Despite this, the book is relatively terse on its description of the main topic at hand: poo.  For that I’ll suggest the tiny book titled What’s your poo telling you?, by Richman and Seth.  This little gem of a book suggest that examine your business before flushing it down, to see what it may have to say about your health.  Well illustrated, makes a fine stocking stuffer.  In fact, it was a gift from one of my students, and I very much cherish my copy.

Anyone whose appetite has been whetted by these two titles, and who wants more details (and a better grasp of science than Carter) should get a copy of The big necessity by Rose George.  Subtitled the unmentionable world of human waste and why it matters, this is an amazing source of facts and anecdotes about how we manage our waste, from the performance of Chinese biogas digesters to the design of standardized artificial turds by the engineers of Toto, the world largest maker of toilets (if you make toilets, you have to test them, don’t you? The recipe for the artificial turd is secret, but it does include peanut butter).  I also learned that the waste from one human can fertilize over 850 square feet of garden, and that girls in India don’t want to marry someone from a village without a latrine, an indication of the success of the work of Dr Pathak, also discussed here.  And I learned that the words “shit” and “science” have the same origin, in an old Indo-European word that means “to separate”, which may explain a few things.  And – a key point when you want to tell someone about a weird factoid you just learned about – it has a good index.

One of my book of the year (so I’m a nerd – but I still recommend it highly).

If that’s not enough, and should you want a Canadian angle, there is Jamie Benidickson’s The culture of flushing: a social and legal history of sewage.  Everything you could ever want to know about sewage, water pollution (and litigation!), and their place in history.  A thick book, fairly heavy going at times – best for those readers passionate about the topic.  But it has a place of honour on my bookshelves.

None of these books, though, tackle future waste management to any extent.  Which is maybe a bit unfortunate.  The looming crisis in food security is one of fertilizers: we may soon run out of easily mined phosphorus, yet we are flushing it all to sea, where it causes all kinds of pollution problems.  A few years ago a tourist was bitten by a shark off the west coast of Florida, something unprecedented.  That’s because sharks are swimming to Florida trying to escape the dead zone off the Louisiana coast – a zone where there is no oxygen, due (in part) to all the nitrogen and phosphorus we dump in our sewage.  Necessary and convenient as they are, I hate sewers.  Sure, they have brought sanitation; as George points out in her book, child mortality in London dropped by over half once toilets, sewers, and soap became widespread.  Still, they waste what will turn out to be a vital commodity – and we should know better.  In some areas of Europe garbage is taken away by vacuum lines; why can’t we do the same with human waste?  They get so diluted in sewage that it stops being practical to reclaim the fertilizers from them.  Ah well, I’m now on the hunt for a book about toilets and sewers for the Jetsons.

Happy bathroom reading!

Carter, W Hodding 2005.  Flushed: how plumbing saved civilization.  New York: Atria

Richman, Josh, and Anish Seth 2007.  What’s your poo telling you?  San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

George, Rose 2008.  The big necessity: the unmentionable world of human waste and why it matters.  New York: Metropolitan books

Benidickson, Jamie 2007.  The culture of flushing: a social and legal history of sewage.  Vancouver: UBC press.

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Written by enviropaul

October 10, 2011 at 5:56 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. […] that I should call my blog “the poo blog”, especially given what my earlier book review (three and a half good books on poo ) was called.  I have to admit, it has a nice ring to […]

  2. […] written about this topic before, including a few book reviews (here and here), a paean to whale shit here, or a look at how the costs of sewers in a sprawling city can […]


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