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Book Review: The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters by Rose George

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The defecation has hit the oscillation.

“Eighty percent of the world’s illness is caused by fecal matter,” writes British journalist George Rose in The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters, her often staggering exploration of how we stem, or fail to stem, the ever-mounting tide of human waste.

Not exactly a subject for mixed company or polite dinner conversation. But it’s a modern-day ‘unmentionable’ that’s increasingly imperative to discernably dispute – and George digs in (so to speak) with fecal-factoid irreverence, incisive wit, and, moreover, persuasive resolve. After all, nearly two million people in the U.S. have no access to an indoor toilet. And worldwide, disease spread by waste kills more people every year than any other single cause of death. Yet, while there is a United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs, George notes, there is none for resolving the biggest public crisis on Earth.

And on this planet, George literally and figuratively goes the extra mile to delve into a subject most of us — when it comes to the crapshoot (so to speak) of finding a clean gas station restroom — are reluctant to even hold our breaths and get over with. All in the name of Big Necessity, our intrepid author’s research into the customs and approaches to the disposal, handling, processing, and use of human waste sees her giving sway to wander-must – if not wanderlust – by traveling to such locations as London, New York, India (whose “manual scavengers” remove feces wherever found), China, Tanzania, and Japan (where she examines the robo-toilets which do everything from check blood pressure to wash and dry private parts).

What George finds is that people dispose of feces or urine in toilets, pit latrines, buckets, backyards, roads, and streets. She’s taken aback by the severe deficiency of adequate public toilets and aging sewage-handling systems in both developed and developing countries. But the author commends the social reformers in the Third World who are developing modern methods of waste disposal to ease the unsanitary practices that lead to food contamination, illness, and death.

In addition to steadfast research and top scientific investigation, George interviewed engineers and bureaucrats, making Big Necessity a comprehensive and provocative account, an informative read that makes good use of the beneficial information she garners from the World Toilet Organization conferences she attends. Surely not a believer in wasted effort when it comes to efforts toward waste, she even covers everything you thought you didn’t want to know about excrement. Although I’m not sure how you’re going to work this into your next cocktail party – and I wouldn’t recommend it as an ice-breaker – one defecatory detail includes the distasteful fact that Martin Luther ate a spoonful of his own feces daily. Relatively more palatable is the fact that the popularity of high-heeled shoes dates back to the time when chamber pots were emptied into the streets. Oh, and in case you don’t already have it marked on your calendar, Nov. 19 is World Toilet Day.

But I like to think that every day is World Toilet Day. And in that spirit, everybody but the most coprophobic should appreciate the fact that The Big Necessity, in the author’s aim to investigate The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters, offers a far-reaching, cohesive, and well-considered exploration, with its dry sense of humor also evidenced in the chapter titles, such as “The Battle of Biosolids: Bad Smell, Big Tomatoes,” and “A Public Necessity: Frightening the Horses.” George also includes detailed endnotes that expands on many areas, while Further Reading consists of such intriguing titles as Sitting Pretty, An Uninhibited History of the Toilet, and The Anatomy of Disgust.

If photographs for documentation purposes could be said to be deadpan, the plain-Jane black-and-whites that head up each chapter make the case: there’s no way to make coffee-table arty, say, the panorama centered on the street sign “Solids Rd.” at the Blue Plains wastewater treatment in Washington, D.C., so why try? And I’m not sure I want to ponder the transgressions perpetrated by offenders who constitute the austere photo of the “Wall of shame, Kalyani, India” mug shots that introduce Chapter 8, “Open Defecation-Free India: Husband; Must Have Toilet.”

In any case, another thing these lavatory-less miscreants missed out on is Rose George’s gratitude as she thanks, in the Acknowledgments “everyone who shared their stories and showed me their latrines with no embarrassment and impressive pride.” That should put them to shame.

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch

  • Browsing is Arousing

    I’m sold on reading the book. Thanks!

  • matrixismyname

    Speak about that at dinner ! =) Haha