REVIEW World’s End BY JAMES E. MCWILLIAMS The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters By Rose George Metropolitan Books 304 pages, $26 n 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 distrib uted 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’ fami lies. As a condition of the settlement, the distressed parents had to declare pub licly that biosolidsaka 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 incidentsRose George’s The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Mattersalso 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 questionwhat to do with the waste of almost 7 billion peoplerests 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 challengeand her actual goal throughout much of this bookis 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 airwith “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 12 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JANUARY 9, 2009
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