Since turning 35 and giving Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for Peace’s annual lecture on nonviolence, religion, and peace, I’ve plunged deep into the global conversation on sanitation (or lack thereof). This conversation is connected to everything I’ve done in the past…work with social justice movements, intersectional peace studies, community health & wellness, nonviolent direct action campaigning, and my ministerial training.
But it is also unique.
All my education and experiences have prepared me to engage this specific topic: the defecatory justice movement is where I plan to focus much of my life’s energy in the next decades!*
The heart of my work in the area is to redefine “waste” as a resource. It can be if we treat it well and return it to the source. SOIL (Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods) in Haiti is doing just that. I’m here learning from them, and their perspectives on liberation ecology. Here is their diagram:
The area of sanitation is one neglected place where I believe the violence of the interlocking systems of oppression is unseen and routine. You have the lack of adequate facilities for 2.5 billion people on one hand, and on the other, an excess, the practice of urination and defecation in fresh water in the global north. Unless you are using a waterless toilet, closed-loop system, or composting-toilet of us participate daily in perpetuating this crisis. Outdated sewage systems are being exposed, and ecological solutions are being revealed, but why isn’t there as much conversation about it as other needs on Maslow’s lowest rung—food, water, air, etc.?
The reason we don’t talk about sanitation is because it’s taboo to talk about poop. From little on up we are told not to use “bathroom words” in the formal western public, as it creates discomfort because it’s not considered polite. English doesn’t even have a neutral word to use to describe the nutrients and leftovers that come out of the body. The word “poo” is childish, “shit” offends people (though the word has noble roots), and “feces” and “excrement” are too scientific for a normal conversation. Our politeness conventions have gotten us stuck in not talking about it, thereby blocking new ideas from being shared in discourse at every level of society where innovation could be happening. I believe that our social movements, institutions, organizations, etc. are just like in our bowels, when something is stuck, it is not good. We need to get the flow going to be healthy.
Global North city & state architecture is designed to facilitate separation from the extreme consequences of our mundane actions by the push of a button, the jiggle of a handle, or the click of a mouse.
Me and many of my pals know in our bones that we cannot keep up business as usual, the Earth is breaking down and busting out under the weight of our militarized systems that enshrine endless growth and protect corporate profit over the lives of masses and other-than-human species with whom we share this fragile planet. We have to deal with our crap. This is both an internal and external process. In this infinite loop, it is my prayer that we can embrace our humanity and not throw anyone or anything away.
If we think of our daily duty as a “health smoothie for tree roots” then we’ll find ways to design for re-use and sanitation in ways that do not compromise the health of our neighbors and future generations.
Any ideas, reflections, jokes, or anecdotes you have on the topic of sustainable sanitation are welcome.
*What is the meaning of defecatory justice, you ask? It is indeed a word I made up (cuz being an academic I’m supposed to do that, it surfaced as a term while sitting with friends and being hilarious and sparkly in Berkeley, California on St. Valentine’s day in 2017). I’ve toyed with it since then and now I am publishing said word, so I have a record of when it all started. From now on I’ll toy with it some more. In a nutshell, defecatory justice is my thinking about how nearly everyone needs to make an adjustment to what they are doing, in order to move forward together as humanity. We need to make different adjustments in how we defecate, understand “waste,” and challenge taboos. Some of us need to reduce water usage, others must find ways to release that prevent disease-spread, and all of us can continue to reflect on ourselves in relation to the other members of the ecosystem we’re in. I’m planning to pursue this via doctoral work at place where my theological scholar-activism can continue.
Conventional farmers are also reluctant to use biosolids because such use can potentially decrease the value of their farmland. Some potential buyers would not want them. For example, organic farmers.
One big step would be persuading organic rule-makers to accept compost from human waist, which is known as biosolids. Conventional farmers can use biosolids as long as they are the highest grades- tested for disease bacteria and heavy metals. Organic farmers are not allowed to use biosolids.
So true! Composting toilets/systems are the future! Space agencies can’t deny it, nutrient recycling is absolutely a requirement for long-term space travel. Unfortunately the taboo is strong and many people would prefer to have modern plumbing than to be involved in some way in dealing with their poop. It’s an uphill battle but definitely one that is worth fighting. Thanks Sarah!
Ah hell yeah!
Thank you for talking about an issue that is taken for granted in some parts of the world. As always, I feel reflexive, touched and inspired by your words and action!