Tag Archives: Poop

The Ego and the Eco

The Humanure Handbook has a short-ish chapter entitled “Deep Shit” that touches on the convergence of humanure and spirituality. The author begins with a story about an invitation to speak at a convent. He was surprised that more than just composting the nuns were interested in humanure. “Somehow, I couldn’t imagine standing in a room full of holy nuns, speaking about turds” (69). Their response is worth quoting at length.

“We are the Sisters of Humility,” they responded. “The words humble and humus come from the same semantic root, which means ‘earth.’ We also think these words are related to the word ‘human.’ Therefore, as part of our vow of humility, we work with the earth. We make compost, as you’ve seen. And now we want to learn to make compost from our toilet material…” This was deep shit. Profound… Some people go to church on Sunday, others make compost. Still others do both (69-70).

The connection between ourselves and the earth is profound. I feel like I’m repeating myself and perhaps not getting anywhere, because I come back to this theme over and over. The truth is that this connection of human to humus is so utterly profound and largely lacking in our modern consciousness that we must come back to it again and again. Jenkins puts it like this,

In essence, the soil, air, sun and water combine within our mother’s womb to mold another living creature. Nine months later, another human being is born.That person is a separate entity, with an awareness of an individual self, an ego. That person is also totally a part of, and completely dependent upon, the surrounding natural world, the eco (70).

As we are enculturated to modern society our awareness of this connection diminishes. Our own ego is deeply tied up in our relationship with the earth. It is an act of great hubris to declare ourselves no longer bound by the limitations of nature and therefore apart from it. Likewise, it is an act of great humility to recognize our place in the ecosystem.

When the ego and the eco are balanced, the person lives in harmony with the planet. Such a balance can be considered to be the true meaning of spirituality, because the individual is a conscious part of, attuned to, and in harmony with a greater level of actual Being. When too much emphasis is placed on the self, the ego, an imbalance occurs and problems result, especially when that imbalance is collectively demonstrated by entire cultures. To suggest that these problems are only environmental and therefore not of great concern, is incorrect. Environmental problems (damage to the eco) ultimately affect all living things, as all living things derive their existence, livelihood and well-being from the planet. We cannot damage a thread in the web of life without the risk of fraying the entire tapestry. (74)

There is a tradition within Christianity of understanding creation as intimately related to our understanding of God and consequently our relationship to God and the world. I think because some conservative Christians are often reactionary against anything that smacks of New Age, earth worship, or even environmentalism, they have jettisoned this part of the tradition. Nevertheless it is right there in Scripture. Many of the Psalms use language about creation to describe God, God’s presence and character. Paul declares, “Since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities…have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (Ro 1:20). Perhaps a post tackling the nature of this triangle between God, humanity and creation is stirring. Jenkins goes on to explore further the implications on religion in particular.

When the ego gets blown out of proportion, we get thrown off balance in a variety of ways. Our educational institutions teach us to idolize the intellect, often at the expense of our moral, ethical, and spiritual development. Our economic institutions urge us to be consumers, and those who have gained the most material wealth are glorified. Our religious institutions often amount to little more than systems of human-worship where divinity is personified in human form and only human constructs (e.g., books and buildings) are considered sacred. (74)

On this last point, I probably agree with Jenkins about the nature of sacred texts, objects and places too much for my more religious friends and not enough for my more secular, scientific, skeptical friends. For me it is helpful to recognize that sacred rituals, texts and objects have come to exclude other things from the sacred. It becomes a zero sum game of the holy. If an object or text is sacred that necessarily excludes other objects from this realm. This way of thinking about the sacred and profane makes it possible to objectify nature and abuse it as we have done. Wendell Berry puts it this way in his poem “How to Be a Poet”, “There are no unsacred places. There are only sacred places and desecrated places.” Jenkins continues,

Today, new perspectives are emerging regarding the nature of human existence. The Earth itself is becoming recognized as a living entity, a level of Being immensely greater than the human level. The galaxy and universe are seen as even higher levels of Being, with multiverses (multiple universes) theorized as existing at a higher level yet. All of these levels of Being are imbued with the energy of life, as well as with a form of consciousness which we cannot even begin to comprehend. As we humans expand our knowledge of ourselves and recognize our true place in the vast scheme of things, our egos must defer to reality. We must admit our absolute dependence on the ecosystem we call Earth, and try to balance our egotistical feelings of elf-importance with our need to live in harmony with the greater world around us (72).

John Horgan in his book The End of Science explores some of the theories that Jenkins points to about the earth as a living organism and the idea that there are multiple universes. While ideas about multiverses (and superstrings and other dimensions) have at least a beginning in science, they are in fact really just speculations which, as Horgan points out, cannot and may never be able to be tested using the scientific method. Horgan is a little skeptical of the Gaia hypothesis put forward by some scientists that conceives of the earth as a living organism.

While I understand that some of these scientists veer into some mystical language that is more religious than scientific, I think it is clear from what we do know that the earth is more like an organism than it is a machine. The planetary ecosystem is certainly more than the sum of its parts in the same way that my body is more than just an amalgamation of bones, parts and systems. Again, while some people might be uncomfortable with some of the language about “levels of Being”, the point is to include our expanding knowledge of the universe (or perhaps multiverse, which is in no way a proven reality) in our theology and recognize that we are included as part of and dependent on these systems. When we recognize the humus in our humanity, we will find true humility.

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Poop, Preaching and Pestilence

I love alliteration, and the above trio of words really does the trick. What could I possibly be talking about? And why on earth would they all start with the same letter? Some things may remain a mystery, but I will try and unmask this one.

As I read The Humanure Handbook, planned and built my own composting toilet system, I was struck by many of the connections the author made between composting your own excrement and spiritual matters. One of the biggest hurdles to humanure composting is that our own dung has a history of causing problems. It’s not really our scat that’s the problem, but how we choose to deal with the inevitable end product of eating and digestion. It turns out that Christianity has often been a part of perpetuating this sanitation problem.

Nearly twenty centuries since the rise of Christianity, and down to a period within living memory, at the appearance of any pestilence the Church authorities, instead of devising sanitary measures, have very generally preached the necessity of immediate atonement for offenses against the Almighty. In the principal towns of Europe, as well as in the country at large, down to a recent period, the most ordinary sanitary precautions were neglected and pestilences continued to be attributed to the wrath of God or the malice of Satan. (Andrew D. White, cofounder of Cornell University quoted in The Humanure Handbook 77)

Many will scoff at the silliness of our predecessors and shrug their shoulders. What else were they to do with their limited understanding of diseases at the time? Perhaps. But it seems to be an unfortunate tendency of our faith (and perhaps faith in general, or even more the human condition) to find convenient scapegoats for the problems that plague us. The best scapegoats are the ones beyond our control. It’s much harder to think critically about the world around us and try to solve problems together with others. Furthermore, Jenkins points out the hypocrisy of this blame game,

The pestilences at that time in the Protestant colonies in America were also attributed to divine wrath or satanic malice, but when the diseases afflicted the Native Americans, they were considered beneficial. ‘The pestilence among the Indians, before the arrival of the Plymouth Colony, was attributed in a notable work of that period to the Divine purpose of clearing New England for the heralds of the gospel.’ (79)

Yes, it is the tell tale sign that we are just making stuff up when we flip an argument on its head when it serves our purpose and then do some impressive mental gymnastics in order to make sense of our own schizophrenic attitudes. The problem here is basic sanitation and how to deal with our own droppings, but we easily muddy the waters with our beliefs by making it about religious nonsense. Lest we think that this is simply a mentality of a bygone era the author has an interesting interview with himself in the final chapter which includes this exchange,

Myself: To give you an example of how clueless Americans are about composting humanure, let me tell you about some missionaries in Central America.

Me: Missionaries?

MS: That’s right. A group of missionaries was visiting an indigenous group in El Salvador and they were appalled by the lack of sanitation. There were no flush toilets anywhere. The available toilet facilities were crude, smelly, fly-infested pit latrines… But they didn’t know what to do. So, they shipped a dozen portable toilets down there at great expense…Well, the village in El Salavador got the portable toilets and the people there set them up. They even used them – until they filled up. The following year, the missionaries visited the village again to see how their new toilets were working.

M: And?

MS: And nothing. The toilets had filled up and the villagers stopped using them. They went back to their pit latrines. [The portable toilets were] filled to the brim with urine and crap, stinking to high heaven, and a fly heaven at that. The missionaries hadn’t thought about what to do with the toilets when they were full. In the U.S., they’re pumped out and the contents taken to a sewage plant. In El Salvador, they were simply abandoned.

M: So what’s your point?

MS: The point is that we don’t have a clue about constructively recycling humanure. Most people in the U.S. have never even had to think about it, let alone do it. If the missionaries had known about composting , they may have been able to help the destitute people in Central America in a meaningful and sustainable way. But they had no idea that humanure is as recyclable as cow manure. (229-230)

While missionaries (which is an unfortunate and problematic term in itself) have adapted and changed in many ways, the Christianity that sends them forth into the world to spread the Gospel continues to be clueless about many things. Only nuts like Pat Robertson blame pestilence on God or Satan anymore, but we still haven’t grasped some basic concepts about the nature of God’s creation, such as nutrient cycles. What’s even more disturbing for me as a Christian is that it’s right there in our own Scripture.

Designate a place outside the camp where you can go to relieve yourself. As part of your equipment have something to dig with, and when you relieve yourself, dig a hole and cover up your excrement. (Deuteronomy 23:12-13)

Perhaps this is the first compost pile. The first practitioners of humanure composting may have been those wandering Israelites. While I don’t want to bring back stoning, this is one Old Testament law that we could benefit from keeping.

Humanure: Waste or Resource?

CAUTION: I use many different words in this post to refer to human feces, most of which just make my four-year-old son laugh (OK.. me too), but some of which are slang and might be considered offensive by some. You have been warned.

The Humanure Handbook quickly and easily catapulted itself to one of my favorite books of all time. The plot is pretty simple. The human turd has been looked down on for much of Western history as a villain, a bearer of death and disease and something to be got rid of as quickly and cleanly as possible (at least for those of us who don’t work in wastewater management). But wait… Could it be that this much maligned malefactor is really only a misunderstood and much underutilized natural resource in disguise? It turns out that while there are lots of plot twists (pathogens, night soil, etc.), the reprobate pile of human excrement is actually a very smelly Boy Scout waiting to waltz with thermophilic microbial lifeforms until he turns your dung into the most delicious and nutritious tomatoes you’ve ever eaten. Only the topics of poop or compost can inspire me to wax so poetic. The Humanure Handbook combines both in a glorious tome destined to inspire generations to come and probably save the planet.

Stop Pooping in the Water Cooler

The world is divided into two categories of people: those who shit in their drinking water supplies and those who don’t. We in the western world are in the former class (15).

This seems to be the motto and rallying cry of the book. Author Joseph Jenkins reminds us that “Less than one percent of the Earth’s water is available as drinking water. Why shit in it?” (117). This is really what happens when we use modern, western toilets. We pull that innocent-looking handle and wave goodbye to our waste as gallons of water swirl around carrying our excrement off to unforeseen lands that we then promptly ignore. The truth is that the water in our waste systems is for no other purpose than carrying away our waste. If it weren’t for us using it to get rid of our excrement, then it would be perfectly acceptable water for our own consumption.

People around the world are trying to keep feces and contaminants out of what water supply they have, while we abuse our abundance by happily turning our water into an environmental hazard that is ridiculously expensive to dispose of properly, if indeed, it is even possible. In a world where “one out of four people in developing countries still lack clean water, and two out of three lack adequate sanitation” (Source: State of the World 1999, p. 137), it’s at least silly, if not criminal, for us to be using our own water resources this way.

Jenkins covers thoroughly all the systems used to dispose of our ordure (outhouses, septic systems, wastewater treatment, stabilization ponds, constructed wetlands and composting toilet systems), the structure and problems associated with them including handling of pathogens and toxins. In the end his beloved system of managed thermophilic compost (which is a fancy way of saying composting toilet systems) comes out smelling like roses, quite literally if that’s what you want to grow with it.

Wasting Away

The problem, however, is not just in the facts, which add up considerably in favor of humanure. The problem is really our understanding of what is waste. Jenkins points out that Asian countries did not develop western wastewater treatment systems and have used “night soil” (raw humanure) for millenia on agricultural lands. (He does point out that while this returns nutrients to the soil and destroys many of the pathogens through decomposition it can also be a vector for disease because the humanure is not composted.) They don’t even have swear words that refer to human excrement in many Asian languages, because it could never be an insult to call someone something so valuable. Think about that next time the hammer hits your thumb instead of the nail!

It’s a common semantic error to say that waste is, can be or should be recycled. Resource materials are recycled, but waste is never recycled. That’s why it’s called “waste.” Waste is any material that is discarded and has no further use… “Human waste” is a term that has traditionally been used to refer to human excrements, particularly fecal material and urine, which are by-products of the human digestive system… Humanure, unlike human waste, is not waste at all – it is an organic resource rich in soil nutrients. Humanure originated from the soil and can be quite readily returned to the soil, especially if converted to humus through the composting process (7-8).

The challenge is a radical shift in our thinking, not just a matter of where or in what we put the end product of our digestive system. We have come to assume that certain things are “waste” and must be disposed of through expensive and dangerous chemical processes or storage. His comparison of “sanitary” landfills (which use waterproof liners carefully folded up around the edges) to gigantic disposable diapers really stuck with me.

What in truth is human waste? Human waste is garbage, cigarette butts, plastic six-pack rings, styrofoam clamshell burger boxes, deodorant cans, disposable diapers, worn out appliances, unrecycled pop bottles, wasted newspapers, junk car tires, spent batteries, junk mail, nuclear contamination, food packaging, shrink wrap, toxic chemical dumps, exhaust emissions, discarded plastic CD disks, the five billion gallons of drinking water we flush down our toilets every day, and the millions of tons of organic material discarded into the environment year after year (9).

We’ve done such a good job at removing our own waste from sight and therefore our awareness, that we can hardly fathom that we, North Americans, produce 1,000 pounds of humanure in a year and another 1,000 pounds of solid waste. That’s one ton of waste per person every year, half of which can be turned into an agricultural resource (12).

Jenkins also does a thorough job describing exactly how to create an agricultural resource from your own droppings. There are plans for many different permutations of sawdust toilets you can build yourself, in addition to diagrams of many of the commercial products and composting toilets that are out there. There is also a design for the Humanure Hacienda which is two compost bins with a covered third bin that collects rainwater.

The problem of waste that’s created by our consumption, both through the food we eat and the stuff we buy, must be dealt with in more sustainable ways. One of the best things we can do is turn our own waste into a resource.