How Sustainable Can Cities Be When They Can't Even Deal With Their Own Shit?

How Sustainable Can Cities Be When They Can't Even Deal With Their Own Shit?

A sewage treatment plant in Hamburg, Germany: The shit never looked so pretty (photo by Mark Michaelis)

The Dr. Pooper Papers, Issue #3:

Just this past week the City of Toronto was informed by the Ministry of the Environment that it must now notify the public whenever water treatment plants are bypassed and raw sewage is sent into Lake Ontario. These occurrences are said to be due to heavy rains taking their toll on Toronto's "old sewer system," something that is said to occur about three times a month, year round.

According to Mark Mattson, director of the charity Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, Toronto's streets and harbours were inundated with more than a billion litres of sewage in July 2013, when more than 90mm of rain fell on the city in just two hours. This, however, doesn't seem to be a freak occurrence, as New York State similarly enacted laws this summer requiring public notification within four hours of raw sewage being sent into its watersheds.

"I think there's a real demand for this information," said Mattson, a point that's hard to refute since the "boaters, paddlers and hikers on many of the rivers and trails" that Mattson mentions likely don't want to come across invasions of floaters on their Saturday afternoon strolls.

But where Mattson gets it wrong, I think, is in his assessment of the problem. As he puts it, "people don't really realize that in Toronto we've got these 70-year-old pipes based on a totally antiquated understanding of how the city works." And as the Toronto Star article further explains, "the current sewers were built with different demands in mind, and... the aging infrastructure is failing to keep pace." In other words, Mattson (and perhaps even the Toronto Star) don't really grasp how cities "work," nor realize what are at the heart of the demands of "current sewers."

Could industrial civilization soon be shitting bricks?

First off, the gross expansion of cities, exemplified by London, England in the early 1800s following the enclosure of the commons, was invariably made possible by copious inputs to feed and supply the masses, inputs delivered via coal-powered rail transport. However, the massive amount of human effluent created by the massively accruing populations had to be dealt with somehow, and the only way to do that was by creating sewer systems – sewer systems that back in the day required millions of bricks for their construction. And to create those bricks required a corollary massive amount of heat to fire them. Short of completing the razing of England's forests, that would never have been possible were it not for the recently tapped into fossil fuel supply of coal. In other words, fossil fuels are required to create the physical conduits for sewage systems (the bricks, and now concrete and metal pipes), never mind all the energy necessary to bury (and maintain) those systems, as well as to operate the centralized treatment plants. (Prior to fossil-fuelled treatment plants, and in some cases continuing to this day, raw sewage was simply dumped into oceans and other large bodies of water.)

But here's the rub: supposing that the City of Toronto (or whichever other city) has the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars to revamp its aging sewage infrastructure, there's not a chance it's going to have the resources to do so again in the 70 years or so when its infrastructure once again becomes aged. Why is this?

Windmills and solar panels won't be able to power this (photo by Washington State Dept of Transportation)

The world is now on the cusp of peak oil, meaning that in 70 years or so it will very likely be impossible to do a do-over upon a large city's sewer system. We will be long past Hubbert's peak, and there simply won't be the required energy to power all the machinery to do all the heavy work, nor to maintain it all. As just one example, in 2008 a crack was discovered in one of Toronto's sewage tunnels, a problem which could have foreseeably seen the effluent of 750,000 Torontonians escape into the nearby Don River. Although three years of delays ensued, the repairs were finally completed, and below its $40 million budget. Nonetheless, since such occurrences are destined to occur in the future, it's worth wondering about how long such repairs will be energetically viable for.

This then begs the question: If the underlying infrastructure of industrialism's major metropolitan cities (as well as its smaller cities) is based on a system necessitating copious amounts of fossil fuels, how are they going to manage when that energy subsidy starts to shrink away? In other words, forget about all that feel-good local food stuff for a moment and ponder this: since the modern city and its packed-like-sardines populace (which produces obscene amounts of human effluent in historically unheard of concentrations) is dependent on fossil-fuelled porcelain goddesses to whoosh away its effluents (with potable water!), how do our megalopolis' (and even smaller cities) deal with all that effluent when the superstructure becomes less and less serviceable? Upon taking energy supplies into account, it should be readily apparent that myopic concerns over Saturday afternoon floaters is the wrong way to be looking at things. But while the situation in Toronto highlights a particular aspect of the systemic problem we face, oddly enough, Toronto also provides us with a hint towards the direction we should be taking here – but unfortunately only a hint.

Cob in the Park (photo courtesy of A Great Capture)

Just down the street from where I used to live, at Dufferin Grove Park, a community project was put together called Cob in the Park. It consisted of a beautiful cob structure, as well as a compost toilet for use by children using the nearby playground and wading pool. So I one day took a stroll over to the park to check out the loo. But after endless and fruitless searching I later discovered that although the project had the full backing of the local city councillor, the composting toilet aspect of it was nixed thanks to a tiny minority of nearby residents who claimed that the loo would (supposedly) not be properly maintained and so pose a health hazard. As a result, an excellent opportunity for Torontonians to learn about the ecological cycles of their own effluent was lost.

But since we can now readily see that our industrial approach to dealing with our effluent cannot be indefinitely maintained, it should be obvious that the problem isn't about straw-man arguments over compost toilets which (supposedly) won't be maintained, but that the true problem is that the status quo industrial system can't be maintained. In other words, instead of deferring to buttons, levers and other engineered advancements ("progress"), we're literally going to have to learn how to deal with our own shit, and methods are going to have to be devised to return the nutrients within that shit to the land.

To help us make the transition, it might be helpful for us to make note of how we got here in the first place. The reasons behind all this are of course wide and varied, perhaps beginning with our tapping into fossil fuels of which made the large-scale approach to human effluent possible in the first place. Couple this with bureaucrats and engineers who often have a penchant for applying techno approaches to every problem (and even non-problems!), and you get the centralized system we currently have, a literal mess waiting to happen (and now happening!).

To single out bureaucrats and engineers is a bit unfair though, since there also exists a widespread Victorian priggishness amongst the general population: the stuff that goes in the top end is endlessly glossed over by self-important sophisticates and the like, while what comes out the other end is quickly whisked away with the flick of a lever, out of sight, out of mind.

To see all this in action, one only needs to look at the tool which has very much helped us get to where we are today, which is our language. As already mentioned, there exists a fair amount of awareness about the need to protect our watersheds, and amongst foodies and the like, a concern (be it superficial or not) about our foodsheds. However, the trifecta is not complete, and our language thus lacks the necessary structure to fully comprehend the issue. This need to ultimately deal with our own effluent in an ecologically sensitive manner therefore begs the suggestion:

The next time you find yourself at a dinner soirée or cocktail party and the conversation turns rather dry, don't be afraid to turn to your neighbour, and with the utmost glee, excitedly ask, "So. Would you like to hear about my shitshed!?"

Jawboning on the collapse of industrial civili­s­a­tion & the renewal of culture. READ MORE