The Origin of Feces: What Excrement Tells Us About Evolution, Ecology, and a Sustainable Society

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Up Shit Creek, Sans Paddle: On David Waltner-Toews’s The Origin of Feces

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When you flush the toilet, do you know where your shit goes? Sure, in most cities, it flows into the main sewer system until it reaches a waste-water treatment plant somewhere on the outskirts of town. But then what happens to it? Do you have any idea? If your first response is, “Ask somebody who cares,” then you need to read David Waltner-Toews’s The Origin of Feces. Now.

Despite its goofball title and jokey tone, The Origin of Feces is a deeply serious work of environmental science that strives to do for how we think about shit what Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan have done for how we think about what we eat. In just more than 200 breezy, gag-filled pages, Waltner-Toews argues that by crowding people into cities and animals onto factory farms we have turned shit from a vital part of a healthy ecosystem into a toxic waste that must be managed. “We are taking a brilliantly complex diversity of animal, plant, and bacterial species,” he writes, “and transforming them into a disordered mess of bacteria and nutrients. We are transforming a wonderful complex planet into piles of shit.”

Unlike journalists such as Schlosser, Pollan, and Malcolm Gladwell who have led the charge in recent years to popularize abstruse scientific findings for lay readers, Waltner-Toews is himself a veterinarian and epidemiologist who teaches population medicine at the University of Guelph, near Toronto. Unfortunately for American readers, Waltner-Toews is also a Canadian whose new book is published by an independent Canadian publisher, ECW Press, which means The Origin of Feces will have nowhere near the public profile of a new Gladwell or Pollan tome.

This is a crying shame. I cannot think of a more necessary work of popular science since Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, which together pulled back the curtain from the American agricultural-industrial food complex and helped kick the slow-food movement into gear. In some ways, though, those books had an easier time of it. While industrial feedlots and food processing plants may be largely invisible to most consumers, we eat the results of this industrial approach to food, which in a lot of cases tastes pretty awful. You don’t have to be an organic farming purist to be willing to pay a little extra to buy whole foods that taste better and, by extension, do slightly less damage to the planet.

No matter how pure your eating habits, however, your shit still stinks, and unless you are living in a yurt in the wilderness, it still gets flushed into the same sewage-treatment system that everybody else uses. Like so many of the systems that undergird a modern industrial society, waste management is opaque to everyone outside a tiny coterie of specialists — until, of course, there is an outbreak of food-borne illness or a fish-killing algae bloom caused by agricultural runoff, in which case we run around looking for villains, who are almost by definition not ourselves.

Waltner-Toews aims to tear down the mental wall we have built between ourselves and our crap and show us that what we excrete is not simply toxic sludge, but an essential, nutrient-rich link in the life cycle of our planet. To do this, he says, we must first find a good way to talk about shit. Early on, Waltner-Toews takes his reader on a whirlwind tour through the etymology of dozens of terms we use to describe what comes out of our asses, from the profane (“shit” and “crap”) to the euphemistic (“poop” and “BM”) to the technical (“biosolids” and “fecula”). This chapter is hilarious and often enlightening. Who knew that “excrement” comes from the Latin word excernere, “to sift,” or that the Middle English word “crap” found a place in the modern lexicon in part by its association with Thomas Crapper, who popularized the use of the flush toilet?

But here as elsewhere in the book, Waltner-Toews’s purpose is deadly serious. The way we talk about shit, he points out, lays bare the way we think about this basic byproduct of human life — which is that, most of the time, we’d rather not think about it at all. Shit embarrasses us. It’s dirty and smelly, and in colloquial language it is the go-to term for everything from outrageous lies (“bullshit”) to illegal drugs (“really good shit”) and worthlessness (“a piece of shit”). But when we are forced to think about its real-world consequences, we quickly retreat to vague technical terms like “biosolids” that have the advantage of not having any real meaning to most people.

This matters, Waltner-Toews argues:
We can use precise technical terms when we want the engineers to devise a solution to a specific organic agricultural or urban waste problem…In so doing, however, we alienate the public, who are suspicious of words like biosolids. This public will need to pay for the filtration and treatment plants. They suspect that the solution to chicken shit in the water might not be a better filtration plant, but they don’t have the language to imagine and discuss what the alternatives might be.

Waltner-Toews spends the rest of the book giving his reader the language, and the knowledge, to begin imagining alternatives to our present industrially engineered solutions to our quickly multiplying waste problems. His central point is that in a healthy, bio-diverse ecosystem, shit is neither waste nor a problem. For millions of years, animals have been eating plants and other animals and shitting out whatever their bodies couldn’t use, in the process distributing seeds that have allowed stationary plants to spread and providing nutrients to fertilize the soil and feed billions of insects and smaller organisms.

But by concentrating people and the animals we eat into increasingly industrialized spaces, we have severed the vital link between shit and the natural biological processes that have been cleaning it up and re-using it for as long as there has been life on our planet. One result is pollution, which, as Waltner-Toews suggests, is just a word we use to describe what happens when a substance — carbon dioxide, say, or pig shit– gets concentrated in one place faster than the natural systems can recycle it. Another outcome is a rise in food-borne illnesses like salmonella and E. coli, most of which are caused by animal or human shit finding its way into our food. The separation of people and animals from the surrounding biosphere also contributes to broader systemic imbalances that lead to problems like extinction of species that depend on healthy ecosystems, famines resulting from nutrient-starved soils, and widespread use of petroleum-based fertilizers designed in part to make up for the lack of natural shit-based fertilizer.

The problem of shit, Waltner-Toews says, is a classic “wicked problem,” meaning a problem that can’t be solved by straightforward science and engineering without creating a whole set of new problems. We can, for instance, pump pig shit into vast manure lagoons and pump the animals themselves full of antibiotics that help them avoid diseases derived from eating shit, but ultimately the toxic brew in those manure lagoons has to go somewhere and antibiotics have a nasty habit of creating antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria.

The Origin of Feces is better at describing the wickedness of this problem than at articulating solutions, which get high-falutin’ and improbable in a hurry. Drawing on the work of scientists who see the complex interactions in natural ecosystems as “panarchy,” and quoting the philosopher Arthur Koestler, who saw each living thing as a whole unto itself and also a part of something larger, which together he called a “holon,” Waltner-Toews uses the term “holonocracy,” which he says “embodies a way of interpreting nested social and ecological changes and implies a new way to think about management and governance based on those observations.”

Yeah, I know. I didn’t really follow that, either. In later pages, Waltner-Toews thankfully returns to plain English and argues that the problem of shit is merely a particularly unpleasant manifestation of the more generally unsustainable nature of our industrial age, which has created “too much shit in the world, in all the wrong places.” He details some nifty small-scale solutions involving the repurposing energy-rich shit into fuel or animal feed. But at the macro-level, he seems to be saying that a comprehensive, systemic problem of this kind demands an equally comprehensive, systemic solution, which, if I am reading him right, means seriously rethinking industrialized agriculture and urbanized population. Which — call me crazy — I don’t see happening anytime soon.

But of course the very difficulty Waltner-Toews has explaining his solutions for a non-specialist audience underscores the fundamental wickedness of the problem. The Origins of Feces is a genial book, and often a kick to read, but I put it down thinking two things: 1. I will never look at shit the same way again; and 2. We are in deep shit. That Waltner-Toews, clearly one of the smartest guys in the room when it comes to this issue, cannot explain a solution in terms I can understand makes me think we are in even deeper shit than he claims.

Surprise Me!