What Goes In Must Come Out

The problem of excrement in a seven-billion-person world

David Waltner-Toews’s latest book, The Origin of Feces: What Excrement Tells Us About Evolution, Ecology and a Sustainable Society, is an extraordinary document. My thesaurus offers no term beyond “comprehensive” or “all embracing,” but that is the descriptor I need. This tome offers more than a superficial (or even “superfecial”) exposé of matters scatological. It engages its subject matter at every conceivable level of enquiry, curiosity or serendipity, and this is accomplished not with subjective and arcane musings or the author’s personal philosophical preferences, but for the most part with empirical observations and quantitative arguments, drawn from a wide range of disciplines and experiences. Caution: The book is oblivious to treading on (or in) anything socially unpleasant, and in this regard appears to have little or no sympathy with the more delicate reader who must prepare both for vivid descriptions of every type and source of excrement, as well as for a collections of puns that far exceeds the merdiocre.

By combining his training in veterinary sciences and public health epidemiology with his enthusiastic worldview of economics, ecology, anthropology, agriculture, food distribution and biodiversity, Waltner-Toews presents simultaneously a microscopic, macroscopic and sociocultural analysis of excrement, its significance, its potential and the consequences should we fail to restore its inherent balance within the natural world. The work does come across initially as somewhat restless and meandering, and in this sense a random dip anywhere into the text may reward the reader with a wealth of information. But it is worth remembering that this clearly is not a topic that follows a single thread, with items being addressed in logical sequence. The multidimensional aspects of animal and human excrement, its significance, symbolism and status, and, especially, its passage through other species and treatment cycles are more reminiscent of a web than a thread, or even better described by the Spanish word maraña (a “tangled web” or thicket).

This is the topic that is perennially fascinating to little boys and cited by the rest of us in its single-syllable Saxon form through every conceivable metaphorical conjugation as noun, pronoun, gerund, adjective, all forms of the verb (except, curiously, the imperative), and of course as the celebrated expletive. It is, as Waltner-Toews points out, as ubiquitous in our guarded private contributions as it is in our less-guarded linguistic contributions, but this, the author insists, conceals a widespread lack of appreciation and awareness of the true role of feces in our global existence.

Instead of a dry “scientific” investigation, The Origin of Feces is a carefully delineated two-dimensional phenomenon. Indeed, Waltner-Toews delights us with the Saganesque complexity of worlds-within-worlds as he takes us into a still-steaming deposit of elephant dung. With the recently relieved pachyderm only metres away, the arrival of her evacuations has already caused intense excitement among several species of dung beetles in the vicinity. Through the author’s experience and passion for dung beetles, we marvel in the strategy and subterfuge between competing species of scarabidae as they gather and roll away their prizes for feasting and breeding purposes.

We are treated in excruciating detail to the microbiological minutiae of numerous pathogens and parasites lurking within the waste stream from animals of every dimension and habitat, from elephants to termites and from whales to mollusks. We are reminded that it is not the triatomine bug’s gentle feeding on the wetness at the corner of the sleeping Peruvian’s eyelid that spreads trypanosomiasis (Chagas’s disease), but its act of defecation just before it retreats. On awakening, the victim rubs his or her eyes and becomes infected with the parasite that waits in the fecal pellet.

Waltner-Toews’s historical perspectives begin with the primordial ooze, meander through ancient myth and legend, to the privy middens of the Middle Ages, focusing at length on the very real part played by human excrement and its lack of adequate disposal that allowed epidemics of cholera and typhoid fever to sweep through Europe’s burgeoning cities following the industrial revolution more vigorously than when most of the population lived simple rural lives. Even today, epidemics of enteric illnesses self-propagate wherever fecally contaminated drinking water is ingested as a result of collapsed infrastructure or where monitoring systems have been rendered ineffective or non-operational by disaster, conflict or incompetence.

But this is manifestly not a thesis that urges mass adoption of the type of water-carriage system to which “more fortunate” populations have become accustomed. Indeed, the author takes great pains to point out that the advent of the water closet, widely attributed to Thomas Crapper but in fact invented far earlier, has actually contributed to the massive problems of transportation, treatment and disposal of human waste, as well as to the growing shortage of water in many parts of the world. The “out of sight, out of mind” ideal, appropriately translated as the “flush and forget” ethic, while convenient, and pleasant to our sensibilities at home, is seen as extravagant, especially to the millions who live without running water of any kind, and the (mostly) women who must walk great distances to bring meagre quantities back for cooking and drinking. From this perspective, the dumping of four to six litres of perfectly good drinking water for each flush of a standard toilet can only be considered as immoral and depraved. Successful composting is discussed at great length, and it is evident that Waltner-Toews supports a far greater investment in alternative methods of waste disposal, some of which have been developed by societies less sophisticated in their technology but more efficient in meeting their disposal needs.

The work brings home the meaning and language of feces and examines a staggeringly wide range of concepts, traditions, cultures and practices relevant to the waste stream. It proposes the rightful place of the materiae merde in global ecology, as well as its specific role in maintaining a crucial balance in regional food production, soil remediation and bio-economics.

In this endeavour, the author holds forth at length about the unequal transfer of resources inherent in global food production and consumption. The export of food is seen as a depletion of the soil in the growing area and the removal of its water. The importation of that food represents an accumulation of waste solids and its attendant water in the consuming region. Were we to follow a logical path to correcting the imbalance, we might consider exporting equivalent volumes of high-protein natural manure back to the producing region to enrich the soil, as well as to organize restoration of water. Clearly, this is an oversimplification. Workable solutions are far more complex and should avoid the unconscionable wastage of resources and carbon costs inherent in such a massive transportation. Waltner-Toews agrees, citing excremental complexity as a “wicked problem” that cannot be expected to be diminished by the type of science described by Thomas Kuhn as “normal.” Efficient and effective solutions, the author affirms, can only be possible through the deployment of multifaceted approaches and initiatives.

And in this lies, perhaps, the most compelling idea presented in The Origin of Feces: the eminently realistic premise that no single construct, rule or principle will bring about the needed changes to correct this or any other imbalance in the natural world, especially where human fingerprints are all over it. Any remedy, Waltner-Toews insists, has to encompass local as well as global perspectives and wisdom. There is no shortage of inspired creativity in this regard; since ancient times, herbivore dung has been used as a wide range of building materials as well as cooking fuel. In more recent times, paper has been successfully made from the fibre content in elephant dung, while other animal excrement has been converted or processed to yield plastics, fuel oil, water filter media and even artificial vanilla flavouring.

Waltner-Toews has a way of presenting his ideas, juxtapositions, contrasts and comparisons that at times can leave the reader frankly breathless. Leaping from one observation point to another, he explores the mysteries of the transformation of intestinal nutrients from a species-specific mass of fibres, proteins, fats and moisture into substrates—nutrients—that sustain and enrich subsequent realms of existence. The Surinam cockroach is held as a splendid example of such complex transformations and sequences involving biological waste. The cockroach searches for plant life near bird droppings that contain nitrogen and phosphorus, which encourage plant growth. While foraging, the roach can inadvertently ingest the eggs of a parasite that were contained in the droppings. In the body of the roach, the parasite undergoes several more stages of development, and when the roach is eaten by the bird, the parasite completes the remaining stages of its transformation in the nictating membrane of the bird. It matures, produces eggs that are swallowed by the bird and deposited once again on the ground to await another roach.

The author draws upon his extensive background in public health and veterinary sciences, and his experiences and observations in many obscure corners of the world, to present a multidimensional examination of the true role of excrement and its importance to the complex webs within the biosphere. Even global warming does not escape scatological scrutiny, in the form of a link—in fact, several—to excrement. In a marine setting, for instance, the total estimated population of 12,000 sperm whales in the Southern Ocean alone removes an estimated 200,000 metric tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere annually and deposits it into the ocean depths in the form of iron compounds contained in this cetacean’s feces.

The Origin of Feces is also much more than a novelty theme park trip through the alimentary canal and ending in the sewer. It is certainly descriptive in ways rarely, if ever, seen in a modern text. But we are also confronted with ominous predictions about the careless disregard that humans, particularly those in “civilized” communities, have about their waste and its ultimate fate. In this, Waltner-Toews is very clear in his admonitions that not only are we as individuals what we ingest, but we are also similarly, and perhaps with more consequence, defined as a society by what we do with our excrement.

This is a rare book in that it offers something for everyone on your Christmas book list: the epidemiologist, the economist, the microbiologist, the anthropologist, sociologist and historian. The classicist will appreciate the numerous knowledgeable references to Roman, Greek and Babylonian culture and mythology, the literary scholar the etymologies and derivations, as well as the quotations from Blake.

As a lay reader, on a sunny morning when I came to the end of The Origin of Feces, I found I had reached a certain level of satisfaction with it, and dare I say almost saturation; I felt I was dripping with malodorous goo, and needed to move on. As a scientist, however, I found myself asking why I had not made these obvious links between food and feces in quite the same way. Since the time of Malthus, we have been studying with growing anxiety the problems involved with feeding swarms of humans infesting planet Earth. We now are at seven billion according to the best estimates, and our growth is still exponential. What goes in has to come out sooner or later, and that is the point of this work. The problem of feeding everyone is mirrored about 24 hours later by the problem of disposal of roughly an equal amount of waste. Isaac Asimov may not have imagined such a parallel universe, and to my knowledge did not write about it, but David Waltner-Toews did, and has presented it in spectacular detail. The Origin of Feces offers a challenge to our R&D innovators to think about effective ways of attenuating both the global food and water crises and at the same time.

We may not be able to eat the stuff directly in the same way that the author’s beloved dung beetles do, although I would not be surprised if a particularly progressive food product development team already has on their drawing board a prototype high-fibre meatless burger along these lines. But there must be effective, modern ways of recycling nutrients on a large scale that would address both the oversupply of manure and the shortage of nutrients for growing food and water. This would need to be a vast improvement on traditional night-soilage, and in the economy of scale could also incorporate co-generation of methane for use as lower carbon fuel, or the extraction of fuel oil, while avoiding the recycling of pathogens which has plagued the organic movement.

David, I’m with you all the way!