Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Big Necessity by Rose George

George, Rose. The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why it Matters. New York: Metropolitan, 2008.

Rose George wants people to talk about something they don’t usually talk about: shit. Human excreta is a huge problem in much of the world. Even in the West where flush toilets are nearly ubiquitous, safe disposal of the waste is a daunting problem. There is probably nothing that could do more to improve human health, productivity and prosperity worldwide than to improve the disposal of human excreta, i.e. to really deal with our shit.

George deals with both the highs and the lows of disposing human waste. The pinnacle is found in Japan, the land of high functioning toilets. Japanese butts are pampered with heated seats and built-in warm-water bidets just for starters. On the other extreme, some people have nothing better to resort to than open defecation in the bushes or even the street.

There is no simple, one-size-fits-all solution to sanitation. One reason is water. The waterborne sewage systems of the relatively water-rich, flushing West would not even begin to work in the dryer parts of the world. Even where great and affordable technology exists, sanitation can be thwarted by misunderstandings of culture and society.

George’s look at how culture effects sanitation make a lot of sense, but it is easy to overlook. Many sanitation programs have failed because well meaning planners have imposed solutions from the top. The successful solutions seem to be coming from the bottom, where people find solutions that fit the local customs or where local awareness is awakened before solutions are proposed.

Another interesting thing about the book is that George has talked to many people who are trying different ways to solve the sanitation problem in different parts of the world. There a lot to be learned from their successes and failures. Maybe by openly discussing the shit, and seeing what works and doesn’t from both a social and engineering standpoint, we can come up with better policies and programs—or simple human interactions—that will lead to better living for everyone through sanitation.

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