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Toilets vs. Life as We Know It


Toilets are a surprisingly important subject for maintaining ‘life as we know it.’  Most of us don't even connect toilets and sustainability.  The reasons are not immediately obvious; and have essentially escaped Humanity, especially Western Humanity "forever." Individuals have realized the importance, but not cultures.  Therefore, the cultures have disappeared.  The links below are revealing and very interesting.  They have certainly changed my world view.


There are some scientifically compelling reasons not to use water-flush toilets.  The ‘John’ causes substantial pollution, excessive energy consumption, and the unsustainable loss of vital nutrients that are necessary for the maintenance of life, and 'civilization as we know it'.  Improved methods of ‘sanitation’ can help resolve these issues, which will cause the end of our civilization before seven generations have passed,  if we don't change our actions. 

The Story:

For the full story we have to look to Systems (Industrial) Ecology, which is a relatively new "stealth" academic field that has grown up in the last 30 years, or so, with little to no public fanfare.  It should come as no surprise that most people don’t know anything about it, since most of us went to school before it was in the curriculum.  However, we do need to pay attention to the things they have discovered since it provides a scientifically sound basis for many of our "folk ways" "traditional wisdom," and "intuition" and still provides some new and rather startling (to me at least) insights into what must be done to achieve sustainability. 

It's important to theoretically know what must be done without going down too many dead ends with too many resources and too many people; but, that is what we’re doing now.  A certain amount of efficiency is required or our culture will go the way of the Anasazi, the Maya, the Easter Islanders, Assyria, Babylonia, Angkor Wat, the Roman Empire,  and many others.    

The environmental movement has often used moral rhetoric to try to convince the mainstream citizen-political-military-government-industrial complex that ecology is important enough to override conventional economics.  That approach has had very limited success in only specific cases and has caused a lot of strife. It is important to be able to counter the arguments of the vested interests that care more about ‘profit’ than ‘the environment’ with valid scientific facts, data, and theory.  Arguments based on tradition, belief, or intuition (I just know it's so) won't work with the ‘money-based’ decision makers.

Systems Ecology is cross-disciplinary, looking at Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Geology, Metrology, and more), even including human Culture and Sociology. It's also been used to analyze the progression of human governmental systems.  They basically look at the flows of energy and material (nutrients and pollutants) and relate them to the maintenance of living systems.  To a Systems Ecologist, the interconnected web of life is a scientific reality; not just an article of faith or belief.  Enough on that for now; but it's a bare introduction. 

Toilets vs Cultures:

Regarding toilets, separating-composting is the way to go.  This is against all mainstream conventional Western practice, rules and belief.  And, dear readers, I hope I haven't lost you right here.  The cultural blocks against even discussing this are strong in many people. 

In the West, the New World, and the Middle East in particular, near total ruin of agriculture in many areas has happened repeatedly due to nutrient depletion.  Some areas, such as the ‘fertile crescent’ have experienced the rise and demise of cultures many times.  Actually, in some areas once fertile, desert now rules due to human mismanagement.  If you don’t believe agriculture has caused deserts, follow this link and click on Greening the Desert to see what good agriculture can do to a desert!

In the West, civilizations seldom last more than a few hundred years.  In the East, Chinese civilization has been able to continuously provide food for sizable populations without industrial fertilizers for a continuum of, say, 4000 years.  What is the root-cause difference?

It is a great simplification, but basically true, that the Chinese civilization’s long continuity is due to returning the "night soil" to their fields; and, in the West, the relatively rapid succession of civilizations is due to not returning the "humanure" to the fields where the food is grown.  This is not without problems in the propagation of diseases and parasites; since in traditional Chinese peasant agriculture much of this resource cycling is direct… raw humanure to the fields, paddies and ponds.  Composting, properly done, would essentially eliminate that problem.  Improved agricultural techniques going beyond  organics to sustainable, permanent agriculture (permaculture) would provide the rest of the solution.

Now that China is following the Western industrial model more, they are moving into cities and flushing their vital resources (night soil or humanure) down their toilets, using their drinking water, just like we do.  Since about 1960 they have gone from using virtually no mineral fertilizers to using over 30% of the yearly world mineral Phosphorus production!   Egypt, due to the sequestration of formerly river-borne agricultural nutrients  by the High Aswan Dam, now averages about 3 times more chemical fertilizer per hectare than the  USA and is no longer food self-sufficient!  

A highly suggested read is Geodestinies by Walter Youngquist  (The link is to Amazon.com for reviews and reference. You can probably get it at the library.  The updated new edition is due out in September 2004).  His chapter on the rise and fall of the Roman Empire explained it better, for me, than “The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.”  There were wars and political issues, of course; but the basic demise was caused by resource depletion, which led into the centuries of the Dark Ages.  We face the same fate unless we become supporters of our Mother Earth, not exploiters that damage her.  It also appears that the next collapse of  civilization will more or less involve the entire world at the same time, not just the Western Eurasian area.

The Scientific Rationale:

In a nutshell, Phosphorus is the critical nutrient for agriculture, and all life.  It is a macronutrient needed in balance with the other two: Nitrogen and Potassium.  Nitrogen can be fixed from the air by microbes, so is available everywhere.  Potassium widely occurs naturally in about the right proportion in soils.  The reason Phosphorus is critical is that it has no gaseous phases, so it cannot be transported in the atmosphere; and living entities need it at about 10 times the concentration naturally found in the earth.  This means that living systems must recycle the Phosphorus very efficiently (90% or more recycle), replace it by the expenditure of energy (the present human solution), or eventually die. A human needs to consume about 1.5 pounds of phosphorus per year to live.  This is also the amount that is needed to grow our food.

In simple terms, human society, especially in the industrial West, now mines mineral phosphorus, transforms it to fertilizers, and transports it to agricultural uses (where much of it is wasted), using fossil fuels.  Then, the food, with the critical phosphorus in it, is eaten and deposited in our drinking water, where it becomes a pollutant.  We then try to remove the phosphorus, nitrogen and potassium in waste treatment plants using still more energy and getting the water almost as clean as the average domestic “gray water” discharge.  All this is accomplished with the use of (polluting) fossil fuels. This constitutes a linear "flow" of phosphorus in Systems Ecology terminology. It is no longer recycled as in nature. The rise of "modern" industrial style farming and the growth of cities has transformed the usage of phosphorus from a natural "cycle" to a "flow." making us vulnerable to depletion of the phosphorus mines, loss of "cheap" energy supplies, pollution, and political instability.  The energy usage entailed in sustaining the flow (wastage) of phosphorus is more than 100 times what would be required to recycle it optimally!!!!  

Recycling of phosphorus is necessary for 'life as we know it’ to remain on earth.  Well-developed, natural ecosystems recycle it extremely well, over 90%, as a rule.  Virtually all of the world’s commercial guano sources are depleted.  Mineral phosphates cannot substitute for natural manures in soil health or micronutrients for plant (and therefore, our) nutrition.  And, in the long term, the phosphate mines will be depleted.  That end is in sight, but decades out; and highly unpredictable since it is very sensitive to cost of transportation (petroleum prices). 

Lake Sammamish, near which I live, had blooms of blue-green algae in 1999 that caused some deaths of pet dogs and cats drinking from the lake.  The entire lake was closed to swimming for at least a week.  The cause of the algae blooms was mostly pinned to fertilizer runoff, mainly from lawns.  Steps have been taken to correct the problem; but it illustrates the point that excess nutrients in aquatic systems can be a dangerous pollutant.  Hood Canal, a beautiful arm of Puget Sound is troubled by a "dead zone" growing larger and more troublesome.  Chesapeake Bay, Gulf of Mexico and even the oceans worldwide are thought to be having problems due to human activity.

Phosphorus on land is a vital resource; in the water it is a pollutant except in very low concentrations.  Phosphorus-containing material from the land should not be mixed into water since it is very difficult and costly to remove, and that is just what the ‘John’ does!  My sewage treatment bill is twice as high as my water bill!! The nutrient imbalance caused by mixing urine and feces makes bio-treatment fail to go to completion.  And, the increased volume caused by the added water further compounds the problem by causing the reactions to have to occur in dilute solutions that are hard to treat and require large, expensive facilities. 

"Modern" humans deliberately waste the nutrients in their urine and feces into the water; upsetting the nutrient balance in the water.  This causes pollution, the unwanted effects of aquatic nutrient imbalance. 

Human "wastes" are really resources in disguise.  If you put them where they do the most good (composted and on the earth) instead of the most harm (in our drinking water and waterways) they are a resource, not a problem.

So, What Should We Do?

It turns out that urine is great stuff; although we don't normally think of it that way.  As it comes from the body it is essentially sterile, is self-sterilizing in a holding tank, and can be mixed with water at about 8 parts water to 1 of urine for direct fertilizer application.  When mixed with feces, urine causes odor problems, makes the feces too wet to compost well; and, due to the Nitrogen/Phosphorus nutrient imbalance, causes the mixture to not compost completely.  Composting needs about a 10:1 ratio of Nitrogen to Phosphorus.  Note that "sawdust" toilets use the nitrogen-poor wood to balance the mixed urine and feces nutrient ratio for more complete composting.  Sawdust toilets are surprisingly odor free and satisfactory systems, but no composting system is as unthinkingly easy to use as a flush toilet.  Unfortunately, most of us city dwellers don't have access to sawdust.  In fact, I don't think there is enough sawdust in the world to allow all of us to use this method.  It works great for some of the more connected folks, though.

Feces, composted separately, are close to nutrient-balanced, require less moisture evaporation (energy consumption) and, after proper composting, are safe for application to crops.  Feces mixed into water, or urine, pollute them and cause treatment problems.

You will probably think that more development is necessary before human manure composting becomes a mainstream process.  However, some of the separating-composting toilets now available seem to be fine for homes. Mostly what we have to do is change our minds; and then our habits, rules and laws.

Naturum is one of my favorites for retrofit in a residence.  It uses no electricity, can handle overloads gracefully, and produces fine compost in the toilet.

Many others are indexed here.  Not all meet the criteria for optimum energy consumption and nutrient recycling, but all are better for the earth, and us, than the 'John.'


The following articles, by my friend Folke Gunther, are references that explain all this, and more, in better detail.  They are well worth reading and studying.  Although many of the examples are based on Sweden, the principles apply anywhere. He is a consultant and academic, but the discussions are readily readable. 

    Structure. Ecological Economics, 21, 159-174. Elsevier

I urge you to explore Folke's site further.  Many other topics are well presented, very interesting and accessible. The deep links to other sites are well worth following and will "bend" your mind in a good direction some more.

Joe Jenkins is a really great human being working to change the Western view on Humanure.  His points are well presented.  Although they are not presented from a Systems Ecology viewpoint, they are consistent with it.  The Humanure Handbook

Editorial Notes: An early example of land degradation was documented by Plato in 360 B.C.E.:
“The land was the best in the world, and was therefore able in those days to support a vast army, raised from the surrounding people. Even the remnant of Attica which now exists may compare with any region in the world for the variety and excellence of its fruits and the suitableness of its pastures to every sort of animal, which proves what I am saying; but in those days the country was fair as now and yielded far more abundant produce. How shall I establish my words? and what part of it can be truly called a remnant of the land that then was? The whole country is only a long promontory extending far into the sea away from the rest of the continent, while the surrounding basin of the sea is everywhere deep in the neighbourhood of the shore. Many great deluges have taken place during the nine thousand years, for that is the number of years which have elapsed since the time of which I am speaking; and during all this time and through so many changes, there has never been any considerable accumulation of the soil coming down from the mountains, as in other places, but the earth has fallen away all round and sunk out of sight. The consequence is, that in comparison of what then was, there are remaining only the bones of the wasted body, as they may be called, as in the case of small islands, all the richer and softer parts of the soil having fallen away, and the mere skeleton of the land being left. But in the primitive state of the country, its mountains were high hills covered with soil, and the plains, as they are termed by us, of Phelleus were full of rich earth, and there was abundance of wood in the mountains. Of this last the traces still remain, for although some of the mountains now only afford sustenance to bees, not so very long ago there were still to be seen roofs of timber cut from trees growing there, which were of a size sufficient to cover the largest houses; and there were many other high trees, cultivated by man and bearing abundance of food for cattle. Moreover, the land reaped the benefit of the annual rainfall, not as now losing the water which flows off the bare earth into the sea, but, having an abundant supply in all places, and receiving it into herself and treasuring it up in the close clay soil, it let off into the hollows the streams which it absorbed from the heights, providing everywhere abundant fountains and rivers, of which there may still be observed sacred memorials in places where fountains once existed; and this proves the truth of what I am saying.
classics.mit.edu/Plato/critias.html -AF

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