Wednesday, November 11, 2009

On humanure and straw men

My friend Seth forwarded the URL for Joseph Jenkins' book The Humanure Handbook to a bunch of us on email over a year ago. He sent it in the midst of my work researching and preparing to write the first draft of my thesis on water pollution abatement efforts along the Willamette River, so my mind was filled with various historical treatments of the science, psychology, economics, politics, technology, and sociology involved in waste treatment systems and approaches in the 19th and 20th centuries.[1]

My reading prompted a great discussion between Seth and I, using the old-fashioned technology of actual speech, but no one among the ten or so recipients of Seth's email and my response bothered to contribute. Below is the text of my initial response to reading The Humanure Handbook:


This is interesting: whereas I don't doubt the underlying science of composting that Jenkins provides, and though I do agree with his call for us to re-connect the natural cycle of things as it relates to human poo, the author definitely has an axe to grind and he lets his polemics carry himself away from any kind of accurate representation of history.

He's also got a fixation on Asian nations that are supposedly doing better at dealing with night soil without trying to get to the bottom of what might contribute to this difference between Western and Asian cultures as it relates to poo -- besides berating Western culture as being "fecophobic." It's far easier to decry and discount one approach to life over another than it is to try to determine the underlying reasons why such differences have come to be; it's far easier to ascribe difference to some amorphous, ephemeral "psychological" / sociological state-of-mind (and thereby create a straw man) than it is to really look at the complex intersections of science, technology, economic systems, cultural norms, and other such tangible things that actually constitute the reasons for the difference. The author has taken the easy road that avoids complexity and characterizes things in a simple -- yet false -- dichotomy.

Such an approach has the tendency to put me off, and then I question other things about the work.

My primary critique, then, is that the author lets his polemics guide his narrative, and he doesn't have to, because the real story is much more complex & interesting -- AND I support his call for a more responsible way of taking care of human poo.

Here's one element that I do know something about: the historical narrative of the science and technology related to the development of sanitation systems in England in the mid-19th century and beyond (Jenkins, pp. 79-80) is cursory to the point of being inaccurate, which is no surprise considering the polemical nature of this work. I see in his citations that he doesn't make use of ANY of the most recent scholarship on the topic of urban sanitation systems, such as Joel Tarr, The Search for the Ultimate Sink, Martin Melosi, The Sanitary City, and Andrew Hurly, ed., Common Fields: An Environmental History of St. Louis.[2] Another important source shows that France stopped using human waste as farm compost by 1939 because it was NOT economical[3]. This finding is echoed in Melosi's analysis of the topic in the U.S. in general and also in my analysis of options considered by Oregon cities in the 1920s and 1930s. This finding contradicts one of the Jenkins's primary contentions. So, my conclusion here is that when Jenkins finds a fact is inconvenient to his polemical narrative then it's easier for him to ignore it and continue his simplified narrative than it is for him to address it directly.

Here are an array of quotes that I find problematic for the reasons outlined above:

** "Fecophobia is a deeply rooted fear in the American, and perhaps even human, psyche" (p. 226). I find this to be overly simplistic pyscho-social mumbo-jumbo that obscures more than it illuminates.

** "I'm simply suggesting that we begin considering new approaches to the age-old problem of what to do with human excrement" (p. 227). Scholarship on the topic shows that the urban sanitation systems developed beginning in the mid-19th century were, at the time, revolutionary new approaches to the "age-old problem"; this is not to say that there aren't down-sides to the systems developed in the 19th century and beyond, but if Jenkins could stop stroking his own ego long enough to do some research he'd understand better the complexity of the issues involved; he's NOT the first genius to think about this stuff.

** "[humanure] could be collected regularly, emptied, its contents composted, and the compost sold to farmers and gardeners as a financially self-supporting service provided by independent businesses" (p. 233). Certainly it could, from the standpoint of logistics and technology. From the perspective of financial feasibility, however, it's not that easy. As much as I understand critiques of our current economic-focused culture, such considerations are, nonetheless, unavoidable. Until cultural priorities shift, of course.

** A big concern I have about humanure composting along the lines that Jenkins proposes aren't the pathogens -- which are relatively easily neutralized with thermophilic bacteria -- but all the concentrated chemicals from the foods we eat that won't be effected by thermophilic decomposition, i.e., ibuprofen, birth control hormones, caffeine, antibiotics, etc. How do we deal with this issue? Jenkins doesn't seem to have an answer to this question.


Anyway, those were my thoughts last summer, and they're still valid, from my understanding of the history of this issue.

[1] I can assure you that this was quite a lot of happy funness to have at the top of one's mind! I highly recommend it!!

[2] Another great source that I've come across since last summer on this topic is: Jamie Benedickson, The Culture of Flushing

[3] Sabine Barles and Laurence Lestel, "The Nitrogen Question: Urbanization, Industrialization, and Water Quality in Paris, 1830-1939," Journal of Urban History 33:5 (July 2007), 794-812.


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