The Big Necessity and Why Are We Doing It Wrong?

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Sanitation–disposing of what our bodies dispose of–is essential to a civilized society. Or any society that doesn’t want to drown in its own filth. So why haven’t we figured out how to solve it yet?

That’s the overwhelming question that “The Big Necessity” left me with: why haven’t we gotten our shit together and taken care of our shit? Like, as a species? New York City and London are cities where sanitation workers are in actual physical danger. Most cities take their raw sewage and pump it into the rivers, lakes, and oceans, where whatever it’s doing cannot be good. In countries that aren’t as squeamish about their poop, it’s used as fertilizer and biogas. But it’s still full of diseases.

One of the most interesting things I learned was that our own poop actually isn’t that dangerous to us, personally. That’s why all American cell phones can have traces of our fecal matter on them without everyone dying of cholera. The problem is other people’s poop. Unhealthy people’s poop. And we still can’t figure out how to keep other people’s poop out of our food or off our fields.

Most people in the world don’t want to think about this. They don’t want to deal with sanitation, with the embarrassment associated with toilet duties. And, interestingly, I’m not talking about first world problems–even people whose idea of a toilet is a pair of bricks to elevate them over the shit-covered ground are rarely interested in talking about sanitation, much less doing anything. Across the world, latrines are built by aid organizations only to be completely ignored by local poor villagers, or used as storage space (when the latrine’s nicer than your house, why the hell would you waste it by shitting in it?). People are pretty much the same everywhere: they shit, and then they don’t want to think about shitting anymore.

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