Make America Poopable Again: The Great Toilet Debate That Wasn't
The Dr. Pooper Papers, Issue #5:
With the United States' federal election on the horizon – a horizon that drags on for almost two years! – the media's seemingly insatiable appetite for its catnip of political polarization seems to be ramping up like clockwork, with one of the latest and oh-so-ungreatest issues getting bandied about being whether or not transgendered people should have the right to use the restroom they feel most comfortable using, or, whether they must use the restroom that matches the gender listed on their birth certificate.
For lack of a more appropriate word, let's get one thing straight: when God created public restrooms He didn't first create the man's wing, pull some pipes out from the walls, use those to create the female's wing, and then with his indomitable breath imbue the toilets with the spirit of His holy and flushable water. Put a bit less ridiculously, and contrary to what goes for common sense, there is absolutely nothing "natural" about restrooms separated based on a person's biological sex, nor with porcelain maws that like to gobble down our refuses.
First off (and with much thanks to Terry S. Kogan's article "How did public bathrooms get to be separated by sex in the first place?"), it turns out that the separation of male and female (restrooms) is actually a relatively recent emergence, something that didn't become much of an issue until the late 19th century (in the United States at least). And not only that, but their separation can be linked, if somewhat tenuously, to the introduction of fossil fuels.
Going back another century further, it wasn't until enough improvements were made to the steam engine in the late-18th century that a significant enough amount of the energy within coal was able to be utilized that allowed for the dawn of the Industrial Revolution as we know it. Prior to that time, not only did a large percentage of people live much more directly off the land than we modern people do, but a large percentage of economic production was done within the household – cottages, as they were called. But with the emergence of manufacturing towns centred around watermills, and then especially around the steam engine, the nascent Industrial Revolution led to people being usurped from the land and their homes, in exchange for metallic discs, pieces of paper, crowded cities, and placement in factories.
With the fossil fuel-powered Industrial Revolution having created a division between work and home, another new division began to emerge as well, this one between public and private space – the workplace / public realm was coming to be considered the territory of men, while the home / private realm was coming to be considered the territory of women. While it was initially men who did most of the work outside of homes (think mines and such), not many men (nor women) were all too excited about leaving the freedom they had of working for themselves and their communities in exchange for slaving away in factories. Until a new generation could be born to the agrarian-esque refugees now living in stultifying cities – a new generation that wouldn't have the first-hand experience of the freedoms that had been taken from their forbearers – the turnaround rate in factories was atrocious, which in England was often in excess of 100% per year. It was because of all this that women – and children – ended up becoming the favoured workers by factory owners since they were generally more malleable than men. That being said, with the life being sucked out of households and the country in general, many young women soon began to willingly flock to the cities where the opportunities were increasingly moving.
This latter situation didn't bode well with some (especially when some women got involved in social reform and suffrage movements), particularly those who adhered to the so-called "separate spheres ideology." Adherents to said ideology unilaterally decided that it was up to them to protect the virtue of women, all the while believing that women ought to stay home to raise the next generation of factory-worker-cogs. (The second half's liberation-from-reality thus didn't arrive until microwaves and other fossil fuel-dependant doodahs could be invented and until enough foreign nannies could be imported, all of which paved the way for the world of Mad Men to reach its full potential and be turned into the world of Mad People – which is what generally passes for the modern understanding of equality.)
"Scientific" facts were thus sought out to prove that women were the weaker sex (weaker of character and constitution, not physical strength), all the more reason for women to supposedly need protecting – shorter work hours, rest periods, prohibitions from certain jobs, etc. Moreover, said certain somebodies also couldn't handle the thought of women having their Victorian values of privacy and modesty tarnished by their casual frolicking with men, especially under "ghastly" environments that involved excrement. As a result, some architects and planners soon got in on the sham as well, and so following the creation of cordoned off areas that allowed women to have their own "home-like havens," one thing leading to another resulted in legislation eventually getting passed that mandated restrooms be separated by sex.
In short, it was sexist attitudes that led to what are not separate-but-equal but actually separate-but-not-quite-equal restrooms, all of which can be essentially summed up as the man cave and the powder room.
Relating this to one of the most touched-on topics here on From Filmers to Farmers, it's arguable whether any of this would have occurred, or even been possible, without fossil fuels. Up until the late-19th century, and before the implementation of the fossil-fueled modern sewage system, toilet facilities in workplaces were generally single-occupant constructions situated outdoors, emptying into large cesspits. But while it was coal that powered the factories, it was also coal that fired the bricks that allowed for modern underground sewage systems to be created. And it was the modern sewage system – which won't last without fossil fuels – that allowed for single-occupant outdoor privies to morph into multi-occupant indoor restrooms, by way of the mass-piping that enabled the centralization of cesspits.
Fast forward to today and, courtesy of the latest round of wedge politics, the separate-but-not-quite-equal restroom kerfuffle has blown up in our faces – or rather in the United States' face. In one corner, what can be called team-Obama is saying that people (specifically transgendered people) should have the right to use the restroom they're most comfortable with. In the other corner, what can be called team-Trump is saying that no, people should be using the restroom their birth certificate indicates they should be using (although Trump in particular initially came out in favour of transgender restroom rights, he later backtracked and said that individual states should decide on their own). The latter point of view ranges from the at least arguable type of reason (it could be awkward for little girls to see someone different from them entering the restroom) to the completely ridiculous reason that is hardly worth responding to (little girls are going to get raped). As is true to form, and of no surprise to some, neither side is willing to cede an inch. How then might we go about defusing this issue before regretful and irreversible circumstances occur, and/or before such political seizure migrates northwards and overseas?
As far as I can see it, our best opportunity for toilet-bowl/toilet-bomb defusal comes courtesy of what author and blogger John Michael Greer deftly describes in a recent blog post as "Burkean conservatism." I'll leave it to you to get a full understanding by reading the post yourself, but the relevant morsels, I think, are as follows.
First off, it needs to be understood that a "right" isn't something one snatches from the abstract ether to anoint oneself with. If so, people of opposing sides of an issue end up anointing themselves as they please, and when one side points to their supposed right in opposition to the other's supposed right (which is vehemently perceived as a wrong), then the general nonsensical and partisan war of words (and sometimes worse) generally ensues. Furthermore, much of what many people all-too-casually point to as rights of theirs actually aren't, and what they are often referring to are actually opinions they hold of which they've decided to unilaterally deem to be rights of theirs. Opinions are fine, but they don't confer rights. An opinion can of course become a right, but for that to happen requires that the members of a community agree that said behaviour should be allowed, and thus be constituted as a right. If you have an opinion that isn't your right but that you think should be, it's up to you to convince your community to bestow it upon you.
There are a few conditions that Greer describes as being necessary for a right to be conferred, one applicable one being that nobody is harmed by the change. Being "harmed," he notes, does not mean being "offended," and not being able to force others to do what you want them to do doesn't count as being harmed. To insert a little addition, make-believe stories don't count either – the notion that little girls will get raped due to more permissible restroom laws is not only false, but to me sounds a lot like an offshoot of the separate spheres ideology that led to separated restrooms in the first place.
As Greer offers in summation of Burkean conservatism,
given the arrangements just outlined, nobody would get everything they want. That’s... the foundation of Burkean conservatism, and of democratic politics in general. In the messy, gritty world of actual politics, nobody can ever count on getting everything they want – even if they shout at the top of their lungs that they have a right to it – and the best that can be expected is that each side in any controversy will get the things they most need. That’s the kind of resolution that allows a society to function, instead of freezing up into permanent polarization the way America has done in recent years – and it’s the kind of resolution that might just possibly get some semblance of representative democracy intact through the era of crisis looming ahead of us just now.
For starters, and having conveyed this much-too-short explanation of Burkean conservatism, does team-Obama's solution of inclusivity meet the criteria? Well, since allowing transgendered people to relieve themselves where they feel most comfortable doesn't actually harm anybody, yes, it does. End of story? Almost, but not quite. Those against permissible restroom rules might very well holler that they didn't get their concession as per the dictates of Burkean conservatism. True enough. But as Greer also points out,
Claims that this or that person is going to be harmed by a change thus need to evince specific, concrete, measurable harm. In this case, that standard was not met, as there are no Purple Hearts issued for being butthurt.
Having pointed that all out, there is however one undue accolade that team-Obama ought to be conceding, and that's the brownie points it receives. I'll explain.
If you boil down the right and left wings into their underlying principles, with a few exceptions they can essentially break down into this: the right give lip service to – and throw the occasional bone to – those on the white-ish, male-ish, heterosexual-ish (when that can be believed) spectrum, while those on the left give lip service to – and throw the occasional bone to – those on the multi-skin-coloured, multi-gendered, multi-sexual-preference, multi-multi spectrum. In the meantime, with bones and crumbs occasionally thrown leftwards and occasionally thrown rightwards, the meat is kept (in increasing quantities) for those at the top (which is concentrating smaller and smaller). In essence, the left and the right are essentially two faces of the same monolithic structure trying to prop up the wealth-concentrating system of industrial civilization. Purposefully and/or consciously done or not, it shows a different face at different times to preserve the illusion of difference, in effect egging on the inter-squabbling of the masses and thus allowing for the fewer and fewer to maintain, and even enlarge, their undue share of resources.
This, then, is what I think United Statesians need to ask themselves: What exactly is the big deal about being allowed to shit where you want, or to shit amongst who you want (or don't want), when the country around you is in certain respects being turned into a (figurative) shithole? Although that's fodder for other posts (some of which I've already touched on), in different ways this is all contributing to why we just saw the Brexit occur, why a demagogue is arising in the United States, why the "no we're not Nazis" Golden Dawn are getting a significant amount of votes in Greece, etc.
Anyway, if there were actually any sanity to this whole restroom kerfuffle, then the simple solution, as some have vaguely mulled (including Kogan), would be to make all restrooms unisex. If all restrooms were unisex – as they once were, but in the cesspit setup – then none of this would be an issue since everybody would have access to everywhere. Yes, during the period of changing over to unisex restrooms this could be rather uncomfortable for those who have long been used to the current setup. That being said, any kind of transformation to unisex restrooms would require new configurations that would take into consideration the safety of all users. This, however, isn't the place to be going into those possible setups.
Surprisingly, some countries look like they may even be taking baby steps in this direction. In Sweden, one can see restroom labels being covered over or even replaced with ones accommodating to male, female, handicapped, and transgendered. Furthermore, in its latest dictionary the Swedish Academy even recently added the word "hen," a pronoun with no gender.
However – and this is a big however – the notion of a Scandinavian utopia is to a certain extent a mirage. As I explained in a recent post about Denmark, oil underlies the Scandinavian socialist dream (as it does the rest of our dreams), and peak oil has arrived to throw a spanner into it all.
In other words, to simply revert to unisex restrooms would ultimately result in a return to a not-quite-golden-age (it was more like a cesspit-age) of the past. Sure, we've currently got modern sewage systems, but those are only going to last for so much longer. Due to this eventuality, what we need to start doing (and as I've been touching on in my previous Dr. Pooper Papers posts) is to start composting our humanure – and not just because of peak oil, other energy shortages, fertilizer shortages, and other issues brought about by the limits to growth.
That being said, it's not exactly common to come across somebody actually stating that we should/could compost all of our effluents – even Dan Chiras, whose book The Scoop on Poop I reviewed in my previous post, stated that
While I have no grand illusions of modern society figuring out that it has to be smarter with its waste and taking actions to recycle those valuable nutrients, I can imagine hundreds of thousands of readers like you taking matters into their own hands... or buckets, I suppose. I can envision this dedicated legion working to eliminate the concept of "waste" from their lives, building a path to sustainability that others will then emulate.
From what I've read, the exception to the dearth of talk about Industrial Humanure Man has come from the well-known polycultural farmer and author Joel Salatin. In his book The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer, Salatin actually stated that airports should be collecting our humanure to be composted. This wasn't because of looming shortages of petrochemical fertilizers, but because our soils need the organic materials regardless, that the diversity of life within our soils – which is ultimately what maintains agriculture itself (and thus us) – is dying out. Having said that, at the beginning of his book Salatin states that a friend whom he trusts has informed him about the notion of abiotic oil, resulting in Salatin stating that he's holding out on the validity of peak oil. In other words, for those familiar with peak oil and who recognize the notion of abiotic oil for the crackpot theory that it is, to think that we should be spending our time making airports sustainable (Industrial Humanure Man) belies the fact that airports as we know them probably aren't going to be with us for much longer (years? decades? anybody got a crystal ball?).
This of course doesn't negate starting on the path that Chiras describes. Just recently the Glastonbury music festival ran its whole operation with sawdust toilets (a quasi-compost toilet, as I also touched on in my previous post). Granted, you might not want to be growing and then eating food off of the effluents of Glastonbury, particularly if you're pregnant (which sounds like a joke, but may very well not be). Nevertheless, although the humanure collected at Glastonbury was probably carted off somewhere with a fossil fuel-powered vehicle, it does show that it's possible to deal with our humanures on a larger scale than just that of a homesteader with a compost toilet.
In conclusion, we (not just United Statesians) need to start thinking about what we're going to start doing with our effluents as the Industrial Age begins to wind down – and we need to start thinking about that regardless of whether transgendered access to restrooms is an issue or not. Meanwhile, the argument of whether or not the United States should be building separate transgender restrooms should be recognized for the straw-man argument that it is, evidenced with Donald Trump's statement that "It would [cost] hundreds of billions of dollars. I think people would rather have us spending money on other things." As I think I've made obvious by now, money isn't our ultimate problem – our shit is.
Moreover, the fact remains that we've still got quite a bit of fossil fuels left, and it's not looking very promising that much, if any of them, are going to be consciously left in the ground (at best it looks like their extraction and use will simply be delayed). A question worth thinking about then is, Do we put some of those remaining supplies of fossil fuels to good use to build and set up new systems for dealing with our effluents (which would be safely and properly returned to the land), or do we use them to fly ourselves around to ever more exotic destination-weddings, to make more movies, to catch the latest flick, etc., all the while letting our cities turn into (literal) shitholes?
Likewise, it might be a good idea to ponder over whether any of our politicians on high are going to take up the mantle of King (or Queen) of the Dung Hill, or if it's going to be "business" as usual. Personally, I'm not going to be holding my breath for much action from on high. That being said, if no action is taken on this (be it from on high or on low), then our cities are by default going to revert to the condition of yore as fossil fuels further deplete. And for those people in whatever it be that passes for the city/cities of the future, they're probably going to end up wishing they could hold their breath longer.
So although the United States' Independence Day just passed a few days ago, there's never a better time than the present for United Statesians to wave their fists in the air, and at the top of their lungs bellow out to the world "Stuff this! I'm not only taking back my country, but I'm taking back my shit!"