To Poop or Not to Poop, That is Not a Question
Human wastes and animal manures have been replaced with petrochemical fertilizers, themselves dependent on fossil fuels. It's time we re-think this shit
The Dr. Pooper Papers, Issue #1:
We all poop. Peter Piper pooped, the popes all pooped, heck, even Penelope pooped. But even though poop is an undeniable fact of life – Benjamin Franklin might well have said "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death, taxes, and poop" – does poop occupy its rightful place in the grand pantheon? Not even close.
That this is the case should come as no surprise to those aware of the short shrift that agriculture currently gets in our lives and societies. Although the passage "from the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat until thou return unto the ground" (or something similar) has not been the central tenet of any civilization that I know of, it would nonetheless be tough to describe any peoples so disassociated from the land as ours is. (The modern transformation of that ancient saying? "From the tapping of thy thumb shalt thou photograph thine meal and upload it unto Instagram.")
Similarly, although I'm not aware of any shrine that has ever been erected to the god of feces, never has human waste been so "out of sight, out of mind" that its existence could be conjured away with the flick of a lever.
Why am I putting such emphasis on that putrid stuff, and why am I even writing about this in the first place?
For starters, I've recently gotten the ridiculous idea that I should start putting up posts to my blog once a week rather than twice a month. Not only does this have me concerned with whether I'll be able to pull it off or not, but even if I am able to, it's also got me concerned about how watered down these posts are going to get. As a result, I've figured that if I'm going to end up writing like shit, then I might as well go ahead and write about shit. (Expect to see an on-again, off-again series of posts about compost toilets and such.)
But more seriously, and to quote the great agricultural scientist Sir Albert Howard, nature consists of a cyclical pattern of "birth, growth, maturity, death, and decay." Central to this process is the existence of waste. As it is sometimes pointed out that "what is one organism's waste is another organism's feast," it's fair to say then that the very continuance of the biological process of agriculture is dependent on the organisms in the soil getting their fair share of our waste as their feast.
But except in rare locales, it's not very common that that ever happens. For what does happen is that nutrients are removed from the soil via the food that is grown from it, we (and other organisms) eat that food, then produce waste. In modern society this waste is then whisked away with drinking water, which is sometimes fed through long pipes and dumped into the oceans "far enough away" from the shore, or it is "treated," the solids thus removed and often either landfilled or incinerated, while the leftover nutrients are disposed of into nearby bodies of water and which cause havoc with the those ecosystems.
As a result, the land, the soil, and the organisms within are starved of the sustenance needed to sustain them and thus sustain us.
"Sustain us?," one might rebut. "We've got that licked! The stores are overflowing with food!"
Well, back in 1898 the chemist William Crookes addressed the British Association regarding – as is the title of his book in which his remarks are recorded – The Wheat Problem. Crookes was a knowledgeable man who was familiar with traditional farming practices already in place and who was well aware of the possibility of recycling organic materials back into the soil.
There is still another and invaluable source of fixed nitrogen. I mean the treasure locked up in the sewage and drainage of our towns. Individually the amount lost is so trifling, but multiply the loss by the number of inhabitants, and we have the startling fact that, in the United Kingdom, we are content to hurry down our drains and water-courses, into the sea... [an] unspeakable waste... and no effective and universal method of converting sewage into corn.
Taking that and more into account, it was his Malthusian belief that
England and all civilized nations stand in deadly peril of not having enough to eat. As mouths multiply, food resources dwindle. Land is a limited quantity, and the land that will grow wheat is absolutely dependent on difficult and capricious natural phenomena. I am constrained to show that our wheat-producing soil is totally unequal to the strain put upon it.
At first appearance a pessimist, Crookes was actually little more than its similarly all-too-simplistic mirror image – an optimist. For rather than call for the establishment of methods to salvage and utilize the fertilizing potential of human effluents and/or for a discussion on the obvious problems of unbridled population growth, Crookes had a wholly other idea.
It is the chemist who must come to the rescue of the threatened communities. It is through the laboratory that starvation may ultimately be turned into plenty.
Not the first to assert these sentiments, Crookes was actually echoing the chemical-industrial approach to agriculture propagandized earlier in the century by the German chemist Justus von Liebig, the founder of modern agro-chemistry.
To Liebig, factors such as microbes, organic matter, soil texture, tilth, crop rotations, or even one's locale were but a quaint throwback, for it was his belief that the rich humus (the living soil) would not be as effective at growing plants as soluble forms of mineral additives and synthetic chemicals which plant roots could directly feed upon – specifically, that plants predominantly, if not only, required nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium to stimulate growth.
As it was, via Liebig's teachings and the two succinct sentences in the latter quote by Crookes, the stage was set for the methods of farming that have dominated ever since, and particularly after World War II.
Having begun in the early twentieth century, and as strange as it may seem to believe, the vast majority of fertilizers applied today to our fields today are not derived from human waste and animal manures, but from methods and sources that are fossil fuel-based.
Sometimes referred to as the "NPK mentality," the first two portions of these petrochemical fertilizers – phosphorous (P) and potassium (K, also known as "potash") – are derived from geological deposits and require fossil fuels to physically mine them from the earth and then process them. The third main portion – nitrogen (N) – not only involves an energy intensive process for its production, but also directly requires fossil fuels as a feedstock.
Together, the energy required to create petrochemical fertilizers in the year 2000 was the equivalent of 191 billion litres of diesel. That's a lot of energy.
As well, the dependence on mineral-mining and energy-usage should be of particular concern when it's realized that there's only so many minerals – cue peak phosphorous – that can be mined from the ground, and there's only so much energy to go around to make it all possible.
In other words, since feces are going to be with us whether we like it or not, and since the petrochemical fetilizer bonanza is coming to a close, there's no time like the present to acknowledge and give the due respect to the "wastes" that make it all possible.
I'll be talking more shit next week.