What’s the single most significant factor in increasing the human life span? Forget antibiotics and penicillin—think toilets.
“Eighty percent of the world’s illness is caused by fecal matter,” writes British journalist George (A Life Removed: Hunting for Refuge in the Modern World, 2004) in her stupefying exploration of how we address, or fail to address, the rising global tide of human waste. It’s not just that 2.6 billion of the world’s inhabitants lack access to a toilet of any kind, so that “four people in ten live in situations where they are surrounded by human excrement.” Even toilets are no guarantee of proper feces disposal. Until a few years ago, Milan piped its waste directly into the river Lambro. When too much storm water overloads Milwaukee’s treatment system, it dumps raw sewage into Lake Michigan, which supplies the city’s drinking water. George writes unflinchingly and with great style on this rarely explored topic, agreeing with Freud that humanity’s “wiser course would undoubtedly have been to admit [shit’s] existence and dignify it as much as nature will allow.” She sallies forth into the bowels of London with its wastewater operatives. She examines the robo-toilets of Japan, which do everything from washing and drying the private parts to checking blood pressure. She attends a World Toilet Organization conference and returns with more beneficial information than could ever be gathered from the other WTO. She visits with India’s “manual scavengers,” whose job is to remove feces wherever they present themselves, including the numerous dry latrines that consist of nothing more than two bricks. She considers the agricultural use of sludge—what’s left after the water’s gone—in China and the United States. She familiarizes herself with innovations in latrine design, wastewater treatment, composting toilets and stabilization ponds. She turns a critical spotlight on our Puritanical shame of body products and advises us to wise up. There is a reason that most creatures, unlike humans, don’t foul their nests.
An utterly disarming and engrossing tour of all things excremental.