In 1994 an 11-year-old boy rode his bike through a Pennsylvania field that had just been covered in sewer sludge. Three days later he was dead of a staph infection. The incident seemed random. A year later a teenage boy walked through another Pennsylvania field dusted with sludge, and he also succumbed to a staph infection. Suddenly things seemed not so random. The company that distributed the low-grade fertilizer, Synagro, insisted the infections were unrelated to its product, but the company’s insistence wasn’t steadfast enough to keep it from settling out of court with the boys’ families. As a condition of the settlement, the distressed parents had to declare publicly that biosolids-aka sewer sludge-did not cause the deaths of their children. Nobody who knew anything about sludge bought a word of it.
The same book that so gravely details these incidents-Rose George’s The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters-also tells us that actress Jennifer Aniston demurely deferred to a body double in a movie where her character was called upon to clean toilets. Further, it notes that Nov. 19 is World Toilet Day, that a man named Thomas Crapper “did not invent the toilet but improved its parts,” and that the Japanese have popularly embraced the “Intelligent Toilet,” a commode that can check blood sugar levels by testing urine. The Big Necessity goes on to condemn the flawed physics of modern bowel evacuation, noting that “squatting frees up the colon and aids defecation” while “sitting squeezes it shut and impedes release.” It ponders the phenomenon whereby London sewer rats run from people whereas New York City rats attack them. Over and over again, The Big Necessity amuses, disgusts and offends. It’s a thorough and inarguably entertaining miscellany of crapola.
This juxtaposition of gross-me-out fecal factoids and potentially dire environmental dilemmas might strike sensitive readers as noxiously inappropriate, especially in light of the untimely deaths here detailed. Can there possibly be room in a single volume for an earnest analysis of the world’s human-waste disposal crisis and a broad compendium of defecatory trivia including the distasteful fact that Martin Luther “ate a spoonful of his own excrement daily”? George swears she’s “no scatologist,” but I respectfully demur. There’s far too much scat in these pages for her to escape such a label.
Fortunately, George turns out to be an accomplished reporter as well. Her exploration of this neglected global question-what to do with the waste of almost 7 billion people-rests on first-rate scientific investigation, impressively dogged research, and a seductive narrative voice. And anyone who thinks her poop humor is misplaced would do well to recall the strategy employed by Mechai Viravaidya, the man who introduced the condom to prophylactic-averse Thailand with his “cops and rubbers” campaign.
“You have to laugh at yourself first because people are going to laugh,” he explains, “but after they laugh at you, people will listen.”
George not only quotes this phrase, she allows it to guide her approach to this unfortunately taboo subject.
Her biggest challenge-and her actual goal throughout much of this book-is to desensitize readers to her subject matter. “No one wants to talk about shit, do they?” asks Ronnie Kasrils, South Africa’s former minister of water affairs. No, in point of fact, they don’t. Any Hollywood figure with canned liberal values and a conspicuous social conscience is perfectly happy to stump for clean water, clean air and clean food. But as George sees it, water, air and food are easy causes to adopt. Shit is different. Still, ever the optimist, she writes with the hope that sanitation will soon find a sexy spokesperson willing to tell the world the bad news that 40 percent of humans defecate in the open air-with “no access to any latrine, toilet, bucket, or box”-and that 90 percent of the world’s sewage flows untreated into oceans, rivers and lakes.
“We need a champion,” George pleads. “A Bono or a Geldof. A Nelson Mandela or an Angelina Jolie.”
Hence the ultimate if somewhat grammatically garbled point of this unexpectedly delightful and relentlessly forthright book: “to make toilet talkable.”
It’s no mean task, but George succeeds. She quotes an employee from the International Water Association who, well aware of the challenge, notes, “The best and the brightest of people generally don’t end up in your environmental sanitation department.” Undeterred, George uses several tactics to raise awareness. For one, The Big Necessity exposes the schizoid nature of the global attention paid to environmental concerns. “There is a United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs,” George tells us, “but none for resolving the biggest public crisis on this planet.” Even the U.N. Development Programme admits to “a surplus of conference activity and a deficit of action” on the issue. As for USAID, the largest aid donor in Washington, D.C.: nada. “The health sector of USAID does not see investment in sanitation as a public health investment,” explains a World Bank employee. “That’s a huge problem.” Donor groups are more likely to focus on quick and easy fixes to development problems-such as giving away cell phones-than on deeper complexities like functioning sewer systems and access to clean public toilets.
But this is not a whiny book. Yes, there are the requisite complaints about inadequate media attention and misplaced aid, but George’s most effective strategy is competent reportage from a range of international venues. George covered some impressive ground and talked to a lot of unsung heroes to write this book. Much of her appeal comes from the chatty travelogue documenting her quirky exploratory experience. It’s an effective journalistic tactic: Draw the reader in with personal anecdotes that skew toward the absurd, then hit them with the straight dope.
Thus in India we meet the agricultural scientist Kamal Kar, who meets George and announces, “You can’t be a doctor and be scared of blood, and you can’t work in sanitation and be scared of shit.” George then details Kar’s efforts to institute a sanitation methodology called Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS). Although CLTS has so far had only limited success, one thing has become universally clear, and it keeps Kar going. As George writes, “once you get a toilet, you can’t tolerate a dirty environment anymore.” Although Kar is a sanitation pioneer, George places him in the larger context of sanitation reformers in India, including Gandhi, who defied the tradition of “untouchables” cleaning latrines to insist that every person should take care of his own shit.
Another captivating chapter centers on sanitation in China, where Communist authorities have lent supreme political importance to excrement. The result is that “15.4 million rural households in China are connecting their toilets to a biogas digester, switching on their stoves a few hours later, and cooking with the proceeds.” George (who is led around China by a Mr. Wang and a Mr. Fang) is enthralled: “… biogas deserves a bigger place in our future, because of how it has so far transformed the present.”
From a biosolids treatment plant in Alexandria, Virginia, to a convention of robotic-toilet experts in Tokyo to a New York City sewer clogged with grease, George takes us to places we’d assuredly never go on our own. More important, she effectively makes the case that-all the poop jokes ever told notwithstanding-her topic is deadly serious and, despite its common-denominator status, woefully underappreciated.
A final compliment for The Big Necessity: Unlike many writers who cover environmental disasters and disasters-in-waiting, George not only has a sense of humor, she refuses to wag her finger and yell “shame!” Her hand-holding approach may very well have come from advice doled out in a British trade publication called Toilet Talk. “Sometimes,” the editors explain, “grassroots activism involves a great deal of scolding and finger pointing … [but] this kind of stuff has limited utility. People in power are more likely to pull back inside their bureaucratic shells like bumped turtles, the minute you start pelting them with awfuls and shamefulls.”
Rather than lecture, George charms, and in doing so she raises awareness that, one hopes, will translate into action in “the toiletless world.”
Contributing writer James E. McWilliams is the author, most recently, of American Pests.