George’s Big Necessity

In The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Wast and Why it Matters, Rose George reports about excrement and the importance of addressing how we treat it. The topic is obviously a critical one for humankind, as it involves something that’s common (we all excrete) and poses a substantial threat to our own and our environment’s health.

With a reporter’s skill, Ms. George shows the way through sewers, robotic toilets, cess pools, long-drop latrines, fields, and many other places where excrement goes. She brings wit and detail to the descriptions. She starts with some terrible stories:

A gram of feces can contain 10 million viruses, 1 million bacteria, 1,000 parasite cysts, and 100 worm eggs…. One sanitation specialist has estimated that people who live in areas with inadequate sanitation ingest 10 grams of fecal matter a day…. Diarrhea—nearly 90 percent of which is caused by fecally contaminated food or water—kills a child every fifteen seconds. (p. 2)

Throughout, she makes clear the tremendous importance of having the world come to grips with ways of managing sanitation. In many areas of the world, regardless of borders, people have adequate sanitation, but in other areas people simply defecate in fields designated for such. Even in the places where sanitation is better, the capacity of systems is often strained and poses an enormous threat to public health and safety; imagine what terror could be wrecked on a city if a few carefully placed explosives caused sewage to run in the streets.

The more people there are, the more substantial is the problem. So, it’s no surprise that Ms. George devotes chapters to China and India, two countries where conditions range from sanitary to shitty. In those places, as well as others, there are methods for improving sanitation that are championed messianically by some. They appear to have relatively local effects. But there are still people in this region of the galaxy who eke out livings carrying excrement away from others’ houses, and there are still millions of people practicing open defecation.

Of course, the task of dealing with waste is not just about excrement. There are all the other things that humans put into the waste stream, including the hand lotion that we wash off our hands when, as Ms. George notes, our hands grow dry because we wash our hands after we use the toilet. Substances from hand lotions, motors, and kitchens form solidified FOG (fat, oil, and grease). FOG blocks flow, and flow is necessary to keep excrement moving.

So, what’s to done? Well, that’s where Ms. George’s book seems to stop short. She examines some ideas and shows why they are untenable. But, her extensive study does not lead her to propose policies that will address the threats posed by our regular eliminations. I’m hoping for another book that presents systematic plans for sanitation.

George, R. (2008). The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why it Matters. New York: Metropolitan.

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