November 19th was World Toilet Day, an international homage to modern sanitation. One might imagine this being a farce plotted by Mr. Hankey on South Park, but it's a real day, with real environmental and health agendas. This past April my friend Shawn Shafner created the "The People's Own Organic Power Project," or The POOP Project, and has dubbed himself the "puru." He organized a World Toilet Day event and his expertise is fairly unique, so I asked him a few questions that I'm sure we are all pondering as we examine The Big Squat.
We need to shift the paradigm with which we view our human waste, and thus the way we view all waste.
Do you secretly laugh to yourself at home whenever you think of your project? Why or why not?
Definitely. I laugh because I know everyone now thinks I'm the poop guy. I'll get a text like, "I took the best dump this morning and thought of you." When somebody says, "I've got a poop story for you," I find that I get incredibly excited, and that makes me laugh at myself. Every so often I check in with myself to make sure that my interest is purely intellectual. So far, so good...
What is the most devastating poop story you've heard so far?
The statistics one reads and images one sees about the international sanitation crisis are jaw-dropping. I don't even know how to tell people that over 4,000 children die everyday because of easily preventable illnesses resulting from fecal-contamination. In developed countries, diarrhea is bad takeout and a day on imodium. In the developing world, it takes the life of a child every 15 seconds.
Any stand out moments in toilet history?
On the Island of Crete, they have excavated a water closet in the Queen's chamber that rivals the indoor plumbing we benefit from today. Another memorable moment is The Great Stink of 1858 in London. The crisis catalyzed the sanitary revolution of the 1860s, which brought modern plumbing to the West.
What country do you think is most in need of sanitary attention?
Sanitation falls under Millenium Development Goal 7, and aims to "reduce by half, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation" by 2015. It took two years for the "basic sanitation" part to be added, and even now, this goal will not be reached in sub-Saharan Africa until 2076.
What city in the U.S. is most in need of sanitary attention?
As a New Yorker, I'm a bit biased. But we are a huge tourist city with an infamous lack of public toilets. In fact, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said, and I paraphrase, "Why do we need more public restrooms? That's what Starbucks is for." Not to mention the fact that our sewage system is growing old and overburdened. The next step is reducing the water we use in our toilets, and I hope, eventually, going to a water-less system. Using fresh water to flush our poop is simply not sustainable.
Speaking of sustainable, how can thinking about poop shape enviromental activism?
This is a thoroughly green movement. We're so keen to connect to our environment through our food, which I love, but it does place the emphasis on our "inboxes," which is typical of our consumer culture. But what if, instead of "flushing and forgetting," we could use the bathroom as an opportunity to think about where our "waste" actually goes? Even better, what if we could come to the realization that, in nature, there is no waste. I think a poop-conscious world is an environmentally-conscious world.
Everyone in the Green "movement" focuses on global warming... does poop relate to global warming at all? Is there any validity to cow farts producing methane that causes global warming? Do human farts cause global warming?
Human farts are not a huge part of global warming, but cows and other farm animals are definitely an issue. If the manure they create is not reused on the land, it is often piled together in what becomes a poopie pond, and can leach into groundwater, which is bad news. One of the exciting things about poop, however, is that if you have enough of it, you can capture that methane and turn it into natural gas. Many farms are now jumping aboard this bandwagon, and generating enough electricity from their animals' by-product that they can sell it back to the grid. This technology is even being used in the UK to power homes and cars, like the Wessex "dung beetle."
What are some favorite highlights of your research?
I toured the Milorganite sewage treatment plant in Milwaukee, where they turn the city's grossest domestic product into a world-famous fertilizer. Just a few weeks ago, I attended the World Toilet Summit. Organized yearly by The World Toilet Organization, it took place this year in Philly as part of the American Society of Plumbing Engineers conference. The most important thing I do, however, is to talk to people. Everywhere, all the time.
Do you recommend any books for further reading?
The Bathroom by Alexander Kira. Cleanliness and Godliness by Reginald Reynolds, a compendium of toilet history. The edition is from 1946, but the original was 1943. The Vanishing American Outhouse by Ronald S. Barlow. I had to get that special. Dave Praeger, author of Poop Culture, loaned me a whole box of hard to find books, also one vhs about Le Petomaine, a French fartiste who performed regularly at the Moulin Rouge. He could blow out candles with his ass, shoot water through rings, and play the trumpet.
Two of my favorite kid books are Who Pooped in the Park? and Everybody Poops.
Yes! Kids love poop, and have not yet learned to automatically dismiss it as inappropriate.
What are the best highlights from your World Toilet Day event?
What really impressed me is that we created a supportive community. It was a packed house at Home Sweet Home on Manhattan's Lower East Side. There were great performances by storytellers and songwriters. The cultural dialogue around the potty is normally conducted by cartoon bears, so to get a room full of live people raising their hands to vote on toilet paper usage was actually a very brave thing. By the end of the night, there was a crowded room full of hip new yorkers, downtown artists, and one representative from the UN all squatting together without shame.
How else can people get involved?
All of these important sanitation issues will never be addressed if we can't learn to speak openly about our bodily functions. Connect to yourself, to your planet, and to everyone around you -- who also poops.
On his website, Shafner also offers a number of ways to learn about water and sanitation issues and advocate for change. While poop can be funny, ecologically sound waste management and basic sanitation are no joke.
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