Notes on waste, water, whatever
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SH*T: Possibly the world’s most underrated resource

Rose George, author of 2008’s shockingly forthright and shockingly entertaining The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters, has a bone to pick with hydro-philanthropists, whether species Hollywood (Matt Damon excepted) or species Rotary Club. They’ll raise money to dig wells for thirsty Africans, but they’re loath to address the dire need for adequate toilets (or their culturally appropriate equivalent).

And yet: two thirds of the world’s population has no toilet or latrine, and diarrhea kills more children annually than AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined. (If that’s too abstract a number, picture a jumbo jet full of children crashing every two hours, every day.) Feces are indeed, as George notes, “a weapon of mass destruction.”

In “Shit: A Survival Guide,” the monothematic fall issue of Colors magazine, George introduces readers to sanitation evangelists and to the brave folks who clean our sewer pipes and alleyways. She also considers the roles of fear and shame in toilet use and looks at the wide world of alternatives to a porcelain throne (meet the flying toilet).

More than a cultural tour of toileting and its discontents, the magazine explores a smorgasbord of dichotomies: shit kills and it saves lives; it pollutes water and promotes plant growth; it stinks and it can be used to cook food. A graphically hip précis of Big Necessity, the Survival Guide goes well beyond the usual lamentations for decent toileting facilities to question some basic assumptions about where, when, and how we go. It’s become common in urban green circles to question the wisdom of using expensively treated drinking water — especially in water-short places — to flush away human excrement, but George forces us to question the morality of flushing away such a valuable fertilizer. There’s phosphorous and nitrogen in them thar feces.

To buy a copy or preview parts of the quarterly, go to the Colors Magazine website.

(November 19 was World Toilet Day, which is meant to draw attention to the importance of sanitation around the world. Check out Matt Damon “talking sh*t” [or typing, via twitter and facebook] for an entire week at Meanwhile, WaterAid and Amnesty International have launched Give A Crap About Human Rights, highlighting the rights to water and sanitation in the context of housing and women’s rights.  Learn more about the day that dare not speak its name at


1 frank@nycg { 11.22.11 at 12:39 pm }

I remember watching a video of some young ladies composting human shit with wood chips, maybe in Haiti, to use as soil amendments for farming.

I would be for this if we were to be able to control what goes down the pipes better. Or, just move to the cside and get me a composter toilet.

Cowpatties make good fire starters. Oh, and I love to shit outside -frankly.

2 eroyte { 11.23.11 at 4:04 pm }

Frank, I think you’re thinking of Sasha Kramer’s SOIL (stands for Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods) project, which builds latrines, trains and pays Haitians to maintain them, and composts the deposits for use in local gardens. You can watch a video about SOIL at

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