Reviewer’s Bio: Dr Alan Rice, (Doctor of Engineering Science) has conducted research in a number of fields, directing attention to environmental issues. He draws on experience from extensive global travel, having spent significant time in many countries.
NWNL Director’s Note: As one of 8 pioneers with Biosphere 2, Nelson saw that proper re-use of human waste could meet many goals needed for the survival of humans and watershed ecosystems. Having tasted “black water,” recycled from raw sewage, I can say it is great! So let’s get over the Yuck Factor.
I pray this book is followed up with a text for civil/environmental engineering courses offered globally, and also made available on the web. Two decades ago, drought-besieged Texas towns had to resort to raw sewage to reclaim drinking water. From ancient times, so-called “more primitive” cultures recognized the importance of returning to the earth (in the form of fertilizer) that which we take from it. This is the theme embedded in Nelson’s book. And, incidentally money may be made with it!
Most modern practices deplete the soils of their nutrients, leaving them barren. However, with 10% of its land arable, China has supported great populations by recycling “night soil,” a euphemism for human feces. Nelson also espouses recycling human feces. Which brings us to one of the charms of Dr. Nelson’s book. He doesn’t call it ‘feces’. He drops us into the ‘shit’ immediately. He calls a shit a shit and doesn’t try to hide the stuff under sobriquets as “B.M.” or “number two.”
The fastidious pretenses of many North Americans who’ve turned up their noses to recycling shit, squelched Chicago’s early hopes of providing clean, usable fertilizer from their own sewage treatment plants. Perhaps that “noses-up” is a holdover from the 1894 horse manure crisis in New York City. The city was “saved” with the advent of the horseless carriage, which brought with it more deadly pollutants. In any event, in a scholarly flair for his subject, Nelson employs the Anglo-Saxon descriptor deeply embedded in the English language since 500 BCE – and very likely long before: shit. This usage gives a playful and amusing lilt to the book, lightening the somber nature of the material it addresses.
US agriculture prefers guano instead to replace lost nutrients. Guano? Bird shit is held in higher esteem than people poop? But instead of either, the US replaces nutrients with manufactured phosphates, their excess being carried off to foul the seas and polluting every tributary along the way.
Outhouse in Montague, Massachusettes (2000)
Nelson’s tome brings ashore the mission of the Hudson River sloop Clearwater, which set out to clear “The North River” of swarming populations of “Hudson River brown trout” (another euphemism) that spawned in the upper reaches of Manhattan’s sewers to debouch into the river – raw and untreated – at the 125th Street outfall. That mission was successful. We can now swim the lower Hudson.
Nelson’s manual guides the way to similar success on land. On the Clearwater I encountered my second “composting toilet.” Its odorless contents didn’t go into the Hudson, but to organic farming elsewhere. My first encounter with something similar was on a Wyoming ranch that ran buffalo. There, the urine, sterile when first leaving the body, goes into one container. The feces – oops, the shit – goes into the other, which provides even more beneficial results. No water is wasted either way, as these commodes are not flushed. That avoids the extremes forced upon Texas towns. In some places, water is now more expensive than whiskey.
Outhouse in Kangatosa on Lake Turkana in Kenya (2013)
The innovative, pioneering spirit that typified the US in earlier years has moved offshore. Composting toilets are the new fashion in India where Indian Railways are retrofitting 43,000 coaches with them. The “proceeds” go to organic gardens. A number of so-called “Third World” countries are taking similar approaches: Burkina Faso, Georgia, The Philippines, Haiti, Cambodia, Rwanda…. It’s a long list.
Nelson offers engineering solutions for whole village programs, hotels, recreation areas – this list is long also. Their sewage – AKA, “effluent” – is released into an outside garden to be taken up by fruit trees, vegetables and flowers, which absorb that sewage. Giving back in return! What flows forth from the discharge end of the garden is clear, clean, safe water!
If sainthoods were given for saving the planet, Dr. Nelson’s canonization would be assured. I do hope one day to see luxuriant front lawns (waste water gardens need not be that big!), signaling the abandonment of sewer lines and transport of dangerous chlorine to expensive treatment centers. Interesting that the US never adopted the solution employed elsewhere: treat the water with ozone generated on site. Far cheaper, far safer.
At the WET Museum in Olympia, Washington (2011)
All photos © Alison M. Jones.