The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters
By Rose George
Metropolitan Books, 288 pages, $26
Let’s not be clever. The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters, Rose George’s perfectly disquieting new book, is very good.
How do I know? Because as I sat reading it in a small park in my Manhattan neighborhood, I became acutely aware that the soaring condos surrounding me were only possible because they served as chutes for the disposal of human excrement: All around me thousands of gallons of human waste and wastewater plummeted to the earth to be swallowed by New York City’s perennially overtaxed sewer system. It was like seeing through to the Matrix. I was suddenly a filthy-minded Roquentin. Not a pleasant experience. To flush or not to flush became a question of moral courage, or cowardice.
I realize that what I’ve just written is not so much an analytical or aesthetic judgment as it is a visceral response, but that’s all part of Ms. George’s plan. As she notes, “Anyone who doesn’t find excrement disgusting risks contracting twenty-five diarrheal diseases from getting too close to it.” So we stay away—in the first world we have plumbing to shield our bodies and euphemisms to shield our psyches—but that doesn’t mean that we should ignore the issue of human waste as a ubiquitous and eternal problem. With wit, narrative skill and compassion, The Big Necessity, all feculent humor aside, re-humanizes shit, allowing us to examine a major international public health nuisance.
LET’S STAY CLOSE to home for a moment, though. New York’s sewage system, Ms. George writes, is “heinously expensive to maintain and upgrade, excessively wasteful of water, and easily defeated by less than half an inch of rain.” Built in the 19th century, the city’s plumbing system combines all water runoff—sinks, streets, showers, toilets—into the same set of sewage pipes. Selected because it was cheaper to construct than separate drainage flows, the combined system usually functions. Once New York gets as little as “a tenth of an inch of rain,” however, the system buckles under the strain and does what it was designed to do: discharge raw sewage into the nearest body of water. This fouling of the nest is typical of first-world waste management. For instance, before discharging its sewage back into its drinking supply, much of Ireland’s raw sewage is treated only to “primary levels,” which means nothing more than “screening out the lumps.”
And we’ve got it good: Screening out the lumps is a luxury.
Debilitating fecal contamination of water supplies is endemic to the developing world. “Four in ten people,” Ms. George bluntly notes, “live in situations where they are surrounded by human excrement because it is in the bushes outside the village or in their city yards, left by children outside the back door. It is tramped back in on their feet, carried on fingers onto clothes, food, and drinking water.”
According to Ms. George, contaminated water causes 80 percent of the world’s illness. “These are all called water-related diseases,” she wryly observes, “because most travel from one host to another in water. More accurately they’re shit-related diseases.” The results are devastating, including inestimable loss of labor due to illness, children who refuse to attend schools because of the deplorable state of the sanitation, billions of dollars spent on health care, and more. In South Africa, H.I.V. kills fewer children than poor sanitation practices.
Nothing about this is mysterious. If nothing else—and there’s plenty else—instinct tells us that feces in water or food is harmful. But what Ms. George provides is a broad comparative look at the ways in which infrastructure breaks down—along with the will to fix it. She also reports on several large-scale programs to process human waste in an environmentally efficient and useful way, and she profiles several quixotic warriors who persist in the battle to bring sanitation to the less fortunate of India, China and elsewhere. But ultimately, The Big Necessity is a chronicle of a world that can’t keep itself clean.
That’s not to say that the book is all gloom and doom or a ponderous drag. In fact, it’s a breeze. Ms. George is a lucid, supple writer, and approaching the subject as a journalist, she’s able to tell her story on several different registers. And, quite honestly, the topic is fascinating. From the fecal transplant (let’s not discuss, please) to the politics of the public toilet to the Japanese obsession with toilets more sophisticated than most cars, the book abounds with creepy and compelling tales that blur the boundaries between health, fear, etiquette, custom and revulsion.
As Rose George writes, “To be uninterested in the … toilet is to be uninterested in life.”
Michael Washburn is the assistant director of the Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center, CUNY. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.