Thursday, November 11th, 2010

Day after the election and, wow, there it was, a story in my local paper that cried out that the world was changing in a sensible direction. I simply had to stare at it for a while before I could even read it.

The world-changing aspect was simply the fact that the paper – the Chicago Tribune, which I don’t expect to cross serious taboo lines – ran it at all, as a feature story in its Chicagoland section: “Taking the ‘waste’ out of human waste,” by Lauren R. Harrison.

It was a story, to put it indelicately, about the composting of human excrement for eventual use as garden manure. It was straightforward and informational, above the fold, with photos and graphics, 1,500 words, a jump to page 5. That’s all: a feature story about a small, innovative program with a cute name, Humble Pile, and a daunting mission to turn an aversion-shrouded waste product into what it really is, an extraordinary resource.

Critical as I am of the mainstream media for dumbing down or sensationalizing so much of the news and reporting it in a context that feels like a padded cell, I take a moment to applaud the Tribune for stepping out of its comfort zone and risking censure by the easily offended. We live in a society that has so many layers of euphemism protecting us from the realities of our bodily functions, this couldn’t have been easy.

If we are going to change our relationship with nature, which is the beginning of environmental sustainability, then addressing the aversion and shame surrounding this basic function of life is an important place to start. Only human beings create “waste” of any sort, and in so doing proceed to waste enormous resources futilely attempting to remove it from the circle of life.

Thus, as Harrison points out in her article about Nance Klehm, “bio-instigator” and founder two and a half years ago of Humble Pile, Americans used more than 120 billion gallons of water – 30 percent of the total water usage – flushing their toilets in 2005, according to the American Water Works Association. And vast quantities of electricity are used at water treatment facilities around the country to remove the waste, a hygiene model that ultimately will not be sustainable.

“I’m just interested in people understanding that their body is producing soil all the time,” Klehm told the magazine In These Times, which also wrote about her program, “and there’s no reason not to return it back to earth.”

“Compost is our future,” writes poet Maxine Kumin in “The Brown Mountain” (quoted in an excellent essay by Christopher Todd Anderson, “Sacred Waste: Ecology, Spirit, and the American Garbage Poem,” in the literary-environmental journal Isle):

The turgid brown mountain steams,
eleasing the devil’s own methane vapor,
cooking our castoffs so that from
our spatterings and embarrassments –
cat vomit, macerated mice, rotten squash,
burst berries, a mare’s placenta,
failed melons, dog hair, hoof pairings –
arises a rapture of blackest humus.

Before waste disposal is a technical problem, it’s a spiritual one. Just as we fear death, we shudder in disgust at rot and feces and other elemental aspects of life, in the process vaulting ourselves into a state of perpetual alienation from it.

Policy decisions at the national and international level on the control of pollution are crucial, of course, but I also remain vigilant about what I call the infinitesimal shift in psycho-social consciousness that suddenly transforms the way we as individuals see the world. What if we began regarding waste and garbage as sacred? What changes would that set into motion?

The Tribune article notes that 22 families in several Chicago neighborhoods are taking part in Klehm’s program, replacing their flush toilets with “composting toilets” – five-gallon buckets, with snap-on seats, filled with sawdust that breaks down the waste and controls odor. The waste is collected and transferred in 32-gallon drums to a “secret location” somewhere outside the city for composting. The secrecy is necessary because the process violates various municipal ordinances.

The participants described the procedure as clean and no more odorous than the flush-toilet method; and the composting is a two-year process, with samples of the resulting manure tested for the presence of coliforms before it’s distributed for garden use.

Humble Pile is part of a slow shift in attitude toward our own bodily waste. In October, for instance, Reuters reported that the U.K. has begun pumping biomethane gas generated from sewage into its grid for home heating and cooking usage, and the country plans, by 2020, to meet 15 percent of its domestic needs with biogas. Also last month, San Antonio announced the opening of the first sewage-generated biogas plant in the United States. The city also composts the remaining sewage.

These tiny changes, cautiously reported, are, I hope, the beginning of the end of our polite denial and superstitious exorcism of half the life cycle, at a cost ultimately fatal to the other half.