Energy Bookshelf: The Power of Poop …

To carry the book openly or to stash it away, that is a question one faces when reading Dave Praeger’s Poop Culture:  How America is Shaped By Its Grossest National Product.  That is an unusual reaction when reading something that, at its core, deals with a quite serious subject and deals with it well. And, that discomfort proves one of the core points of the book — about how American (and much of modern) culture seeks to suppress understanding and discussion of what is, at the end of the day (or whenever you hit the can or release gas or …), one of the most shared human experiences (after, perhaps, breathing …).

Reading this book provided an interesting experience, ranging from outright laughter to points that challenged thinking about daily activities to squeamish discomfort about the subject matter.  I learned, in some ways too much, about feces and humanity’s relationship with it.  Simply put, Poop Culture is a recommended read (and, if you wish, you can check out the website that started it all, PoopReport.com).

But this series, this review, is about Energy … and, well, poop and energy and what we can learn from Poop Culture

On consideration, there are several key arenas where Poop Culture relates to critical energy issues:

  1. Sewage systems are a huge infrastructural investment, that take major energy investments to create and operate.
  2. The system is quite wasteful in terms of resources and opportunities exist, in some ways, to turn this around toward a more fruitful energy path.
  3. The sewage system is an excellent example of how decisions made decades, even century+ ago, related to infrastructure drive our choices today and into the future, constraining options.  And, well, it is not just physical but cultural as well — our mental constructs sometimes constrain even more than the physical. (For example, how many of you recycle and do composting yet do not (as I do not) do Humanure using some form of a composting toilet?)

Think about the following, as Praeger discusses the infrastructure costs of ‘poop’, opening with a discussion about a play in which every visit to a toilet had to be paid for,

“a hilariously terrifying universe in which peeing and pooping cost money

“It made you glad to live in a society where the most important things in life are free

“But they’re not.  Glistening in the stark bathroom light, bobbing gently in the toilet bowl, framed by a chocolate halo on the water’s surface, your poop is unneeded by your body and unwanted by society. You need only flush to remove it from the consciousness of both. But the simplicity of that mechanism belies the intricacy of the infrastructure and the magnitude of the capital invested in the sanitary-industrial complex that makes it so easy.  The effortlessness of pressing a little lever to remove a fresh poop from any bathroom anyehwere in the country at any time of the day maby be teh birthright of every single American, but it is not free.” [p 90]

This an example of Praeger’s amusing and insightful style. And, he is raising an important point — just how many Americans consider the cost implications when they flush?  Quite roughly, based on one analysis, the average household flush (from construction to water to toilet paper) costs $0.41 or a total cost of perhaps over $26,000 over an eight year period. [p. 93] As Praeger comments, “The financial cost of all this is staggering; just as shocking is the general ignorance of the cost.”

This is all too similiar to the question of Cost to Buy vs Cost to Own when it comes to energy. Do you ever consider the life-cycle cost of owning a toilet? Have to say it hasn’t been on the tip of my toungue for cocktail conversations …

But, this fiscal cost is really just the start. Due to how the sewage system works, the oganic materials of human waste end up mixed (in general) with other wastes (toxic metals, chemicals, etc), making it difficult to safely return it to the environment.  Contaminated sludge isn’t the most fruitful way to fertilize food for the kitchen table. (Sadly, there are many parts of the world where contaminated water/contaminated sludge is a principal source of irrigation water.)

Yet, does it have to be?

Americans flush 108 million pounds of plant food down the toilet every day. … the US uses 12 billion tons of nitrogen fertilizer alone every year, 65 million pounds a day, 55% of it is imported.  Our poop is being wasted.

Yes, our poop.  We spend a huge amount of money, a huge amount of energy to support a sewage system that requires extensive amounts of clean water and ends up throwing out something that could be fruitfully used. 

Praeger advocates composting, “the process through which bacteria and heat break down organic materials into humus”. He then discusses composting toilets and The Humanore Handbook, discussing how some already are composting (and getting great vegetables from thsi soil).

But the foresightful and industrious few cannot avert the coming crisis. To drastically reduce our water usage and to stop contaminating our farmlands, we need a poop composting system that every American will use. It must accommodate city dwellers without backyards, the elderly and those who can’t lift 20-pound buckets, the lazy who would empty their bucket out the window to save a trip to the pile, and the indoctrinated — the vast majority, loyal to the institutions of fecal denial who would fight like hell in their refusal to deviate from it.  It’s conceivable that society can be persuaded to accept a neighbor’s poop compost pile if it doesn’t smell or attract vermin, but it’s hard to image most Americans giving up their beloved porcelain thrones for sawdust-billed, manually-emptied five-gallon buckets.

The infrastructure challenge is huge — to figure out how to and then invest to shift from over a century of investments in the current (and planned) sewage system to something that doesn’t waste over 54,000 tons of plant food every day — and, concurrently, reducing water and energy use to match.  But, compared to the social/cultural challenge, this daunting engineering challenge could be easy.

And, well, this is a parallel for the entire energy question.  We can move toward a far more environmentally friendly and fiscally sound energy system, rather quickly, but the challenge is — in no small part — cultural.  Are people ready to drive smaller cars or are SUVs an inalienable human rights issue?  Ready to turn off some lights? Set the air conditioning at a higher temperature?  Fly less frequently?  As Royal Dutch Shell’s CEO wrote

More than half the energy we generate every day is wasted.

What’s the point of producing even more energy if we continue to waste most of it? Instead, we should aim to become twice as efficient in our use of energy by the middle of the next century. That is entirely feasible, provided that the will is there.

And, well, the same is true for our sewage system.  We can move to a less wasteful, more sensible sewage system, “provided that the will is there”.  Sadly, based on the unease which readers encountered with Poop Culture, that will might be far away.

One response to “Energy Bookshelf: The Power of Poop …

  1. Pingback: What is the grossest national product?

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