The Big Necessity: Adventures in the World of Human Waste by Rose George
Portobello Books, September 16th, 2008
I don’t know precisely what got me thinking about how much I appreciate flush toilets over the last few years as I’ve rarely been deprived of one. I also appreciate the various occupations that design, install and maintain them and rate these men far above those in my own overrated vocation. This is mainly to do with the comfort they provide though I do certainly appreciate the health benefits that come from modern sanitation. I have even stated that if I had to choose but one of the many modern comforts I enjoy, it would be modern plumbing and water sanitation. I’d happily give up electric lighting, mass transit, commercial flight, my car and a lot more still to hold on to what Rose George rightly calls “The Big Necessity”.
It seems that much like the author of this work, I have given modern sanitation far more thought than the average person does. As she lays out in the introduction, the general reaction from people to her research was not exactly enthusiastic. As soon as I became aware of this books existence, I sought it out and there unfortunately aren’t more on the same subject. Certainly I’d wager there aren’t any as fascinating and entertaining.
While the comfort of the humble throne is certainly a feature of the book, the main thrust is concerned with sanitation and the health benefits it has brought to the world. George begins with a short history of the flush toilet and sanitation in general and while doing this corrects many popular myths. A big example would be the assumption that the sewer system is only used for toilets when human waste is actually a small part of what goes down there. Interestingly she travelled extensively in researching the book and even went into the London sewer system as part of her research.
The big take away of the book I think is George’s criticism of the way we dispose of waste and more importantly the attempts to implement the same technology across the world. She does this while stressing how much of an achievement these systems have still been where they have been adopted. However, the system is not without its flaws. This can be obvious in the way we take the toilet for granted as we can mostly just “flush and forget”.
It is quite normal for us to not care or wonder where our waste goes and understandable if we don’t want to know. The amount of waste generated by cities is quite astounding and their are problems that come with dealing with this. One is the enormous amount of clean water used in this process. Another is due to what else is flushed down with this waste into the sewerage system including various chemicals, pharmaceuticals, oils and many other things that shouldn’t be flushed at all. There are various ways that sewerage is treated and we are thankfully now far removed from the times when raw sewerage was simply emptied into our waterways — though far from all nations can claim this. I have been to a treatment works as part of a school excursion before and even given the relatively small size of the city, was still a very large operation.
The section of the book that most struck me and was the inspiration for the title was her experiences in the developing world. India features heavily and is the main focus of three of the books ten chapters. The continent of Africa gets two and China also has a chapter. Japan also gets a chapter but this is only to highlight their incredibly impressive toilet designs and I suspect this will be a highlight for most readers — particularly how they developed the bidet systems.
I remember asking my mother when I was young why the government (who I then imagined as being the source of all resources), didn’t just give poor people homes. My mother explained that they did but they didn’t look after them well. As I later learned, this is true and Australia has seen a lot of this in it’s dealings with Aboriginals who get given new homes that they strip for fire wood and even create bonfires by making holes in the living room floor. It doesn’t take long before these houses are a wrecked and unlivable.
George seems to appreciate this and her investigations focus on many innovators who try to address problems in developing nations not simply by giving them what they need but by giving something they’ll use properly and appreciate. There are anecdotes about poor Indian villages being given toilets only to turn them into sheds for goats or strip the building materials while they continue to defecate in the bushes. There are other stories of modern toilets simply being destroyed because they get used but not maintained and eventually become worse than what they were using before. One part of the book describes a man in South Africa finding school toilets completely clogged with excrement as nobody ever bothers to clean them.
This is something that it is hard for the average Western mind to get his head around, particularly those that drift leftward in their thinking. We tend to imagine that people are deprived of something (such as the Aborigines mentioned above), and it we simply give them what they need, we can solve the problem. An example of this is fresh water in Africa but these people forget that these people often have neither the intelligence or the will to maintain the technology they’re given. You create a freshwater dam and they’ll all start defecating in it and wonder a few years later why they’re getting sick again.
The answer often lies in meeting them at a point they can understand and giving them the right incentives to value it. Helping them to get something that isn’t just better but is something they can keep working. You could spend billions building a completely modern sanitation system and in many parts of the world and it will be a wreck in short order. I recall a story about exactly this happening in Haiti. A big problem in addressing these issues is the shrieking that ensues if one even suggests that many nations are not capable of emulating what the West has produced.
Though I’m sure Rose George doesn’t share my politics, I was pleased to see the nuanced thinking she presented in her book. Too often on any topic involving the downtrodden, we switch on our ideological blinkers. She covers a number of different ways people around the world are addressing sanitation in ways that work for the locals. This is something we need more of. Open defecation is still common in India where they don’t seem to have thought to at least bury their business. How can you expect people whose sanitation doesn’t rise to the level of a household cat to use modern technology properly? Things like self-composting latrines and simple but effective methods for removing and disposing waste are much more effective than trying to give the third-world technology that the first-world still struggles with.
This book was written over a decade ago as of writing but it remains very relevant today and could probably do with a sequel or at least an updated edition. It is worth reading if only for the anecdotes that will often provoke a mix of disgust and humour.