The Culture of Flushing: A Social and Legal History of Sewage
by Jamie Benidickson
Reviewed by Christopher Hamlin
Grannie used to say she was going out to the euphemism to euphemize. She meant the 1915-era summerhouse privy built on a granite ledge in Maine. To a child raised with water closets, as I had been, the span of the hole seemed dangerously wide and the pit below dark and bottomless. But the smell was bad only by association, and it was light enough inside the privy to peruse the old New Yorker covers that papered its walls. Yet why had it been built as a two-holer? Closeness in our extended family did not extend to companionable excretion with cousins or elders. But the privy was (and is) a good sanitary technology, and we acculturated to it.
The three books about human waste under review here operate at the intersection of embodiment, technology, sensibilities and permissible speech. The matter of two of them -- The Big Necessity: Adventures in the World of Human Waste , by Rose George, and The Last Taboo, by Maggie Black and Ben Fawcett -- is “sanitation,” itself a euphemism for excrement, or, depending on the venue, feces, dejecta (a wonderfully Latinate and Victorian term), pooh or poop, crap or, finally, shit. The latter vulgarity is increasingly the term of choice among developing-world sanitation professionals, so that we can be sure what we’re talking about. Occasionally this “sanitation” also includes urine or household grey water, but the real problem is the third of a pound of microbe-rich merde that each of the almost seven billion human bodies eliminates daily.
Both books attack a conspiracy of silence, an “if we do not speak about it, maybe it will not exist” approach. (Black and Fawcett refer to “The Great Distaste.”) That attitude reinforces ignorance, prevents effective technical response, and kills. The international public health and development literature takes insufficient interest in excrement. And even nosy anthropologists often overlook the answering of the calls of nature.
It is widely agreed that many more people lack adequate sanitation than lack adequate water. The usual figure for the former is 2.6 billion. According to Black and Fawcett, if the flush toilet is the standard that must be met for sanitation to be considered adequate, the number of people lacking it rises to 4 billion.
It has often been assumed either that “water” will somehow subsume “sanitation” or that addressing problems with the former will resolve issues with the latter (that if one takes care with the fluids that go in at the top, one need not worry about the semisolids that come out at the bottom). The former view reflects the imposition of the flush-wash mentality common to all who live in the piped world and see water (purified, no less) as the ideal means for moving excreta from dwellings. The latter view errs in regarding drinking water as the only important transmission route of fecal-oral diseases and in neglecting the physical problem of safely disposing of biological mass. In fact, the effects of inadequate sanitation go beyond waterborne disease to include ill health due to retention, physical and social dangers that come with exposing oneself during excretion, and unwillingness to attend schools that lack suitable places to ease one’s bowels or change a menstrual pad.
Repeatedly, international campaigns have been launched to combat filth. The 1980s were the decade of water; 2008 was the year of sanitation. The current millennium development goals (to be achieved by 2015) eventually included sanitation targets, but sanitation was not initially a distinct category. At best such campaigns have kept pace with population growth. Although the water problem, however formidable, may be soluble, these books do not hold out much hope for the dejecta problem -- at least by common criteria. The authors acknowledge a legacy of failed sanitation projects.
A water-closeted world is plainly out of the question. There are good solutions, such as composting toilets and communal latrine blocks, but they all cost. The cheapest options have been wrap-and-throw (containment of excrement in plastic bags which then can be thrown wherever) or open defecation in fields and streets or along tracks. Both books recognize the great problem of how to make something more satisfactory than those methods attractive -- human needs must become human wants.
The Big Necessity: Adventures in the World of Human Waste is a journalist’s guided tour. George moves from the familiar sewers and stools of London and New York to the challenge of Japanese high-tech toilets, with heated seats and automatic cleansing jets. They express bidet sensibilities: Surely a technology that relies on smearing feces with bits of the thinnest paper cannot compare to jets of warm water directed at exactly the right spots. George moves on to China, to admire home biogas fermenters, and then back to the United States to talk to proponents and opponents of sludge recycling. Her most powerful chapters are explorations of India and southern Africa. In India, she writes both of the lives of the dalits, the caste of fecal scavengers, and of the widespread practice of open defecation. She finally takes up sanitary provision in the streetless shantytowns. Effective means of emptying the few latrines that exist are minimal, and then there is the problem of where to put the waste once it has been removed from the latrine.
The Big Necessity: Adventures in the World of Human Waste is a book of impressions of meetings with sanitation reformers and toilet impresarios. It’s a “make you think” book, but readability comes at the expense of analysis and examination of solutions. There is insight here into a problem that is jointly technical and cultural. But the layperson’s perspective, although accessible, lacks authority with regard to the assessment of solutions.
The Last Taboo offers less intimacy but more authority on many of the same issues. Black is a journalist and Fawcett an environmental health engineer. They begin with the usual history of the sanitary revolution, but with two twists: First, they highlight that for most people sanitation has been (and is) more a matter of private comfort than of public health. And second, they remind us that even in crowded Britain, home of water closets and pioneer in public health, various modes of dry closet persisted well into the postwar era. They hint that for the purposes of most of the world, histories of public health and sanitation have not given us a usable past.
Black and Fawcett also take issue with a widespread view that sanitation is a problem of the ignorant rural poor -- of imagined village life, not of cosmopolitan towns. Those who make that claim have been misled by figures that leave out periurban shantytowns, modes of settlement that defy definition and accountability. Official statistics, even where they are numerically accurate -- as when 100 percent flush-toilet coverage is claimed for a central part of Harare, Zimbabwe -- may be silent about access, condition or use.
Black and Fawcett are adamant that most of the world’s poor are not fecklessly filthy. Any opposition to the ordering of excretion reflects a valid response to expense and poor quality. It also reflects the difficulty of sustained communal action: Environmental amenities and benefits to health do not accrue unless enough people decide to sanitize and can coerce most others to go along. These are delicate social processes that outsiders can as easily disrupt as facilitate.
Indeed, even to think in terms of discrete problems with technical solutions is inappropriate. The Orangi Pilot Project, which Black and Fawcett describe, involved the sewering of a neighborhood in Karachi, Pakistan, and has been seen as an exemplar of community organization. It represented a declaration of independence from governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and external technologies alike. To refer, as Black and Fawcett do, in NGO-speak, to the “replication” elsewhere of an achievement that took place over decades and required “extraordinary and outstanding personal qualities -- sanitary heroes” misses the point. Orangi was not a matter of research or policy.
That good fences may make good neighbors applies also to sewers. In the Occident, one’s defecating closet is as sacrosanct as the voting booth. Modern sanitation systems obviate a need to negotiate with neighbors about defecation habits and instead allow users to relate to one another as veritable nonexcreters. But for most of the world, negotiation is necessary. Where sanitation is truly communal, anyone’s bowels are the public’s business; where sanitation must be done on the cheap, technical fragility heightens demands on social systems. The condominial system of simplified sewerage used in much of Latin America links dwellings along a single line of drain. But it means that upstream neighbors rely on those living downstream to keep the line open.
Disposing of one’s own excrement may be hard enough; how can one enforce a similar expectation on all others? It would be naive to idealize such cooperation. Both books mention, but do not emphasize, the centrality of coercion; the dreaded “social control” is generally relabeled as education -- an education that goes beyond hygienic truths to inculcate finger pointing. This is no time for individualism; shame can work wonders.
To recognize the easing of bowels as a public matter is to admit that there are cultures of defecation, but culture gets little play in either of these books. Both mention the Chinese view of dung as wealth and its translation into agricultural practice. But the authors fail to follow up. Almost everywhere else, culture seems to be an impediment. It translates into “behavior” and is something to be fixed. (“If the Water Decade proved one thing,” Black and Fawcett say, “it was that, to bring about the sanitary revolution, the engineers would have to concede pride of place to the agents of behaviour change.”)
Madagascan objections to depositing the feces of different persons atop one another and to putting feces underground will prevent the use of most forms of latrine, Black and Fawcett note. They do admit that an open-defecation aesthetic may emerge in areas where bodies are used to squatting and climates are reasonably warm. Why do so many resist the boon of the latrine? “A more general answer is obvious: a place in the open air, with a fresh breeze and distant seclusion from the eyes of other people, has to be a nicer place to use for bodily evacuation than a tiny, hot, dark hut in the middle of the backyard, with the possibility of smells, insects, and unappealing remainders and reminders left by someone else.” In many coastal communities, a walk on the beach at night is the occasion of defecation; the tides are nature’s great flush.
It is often assumed that open defecation is universally objectionable, due to risks of rape or snakebite. And yet perhaps the problems of open defecation are better cast in terms of population density, land availability, disinfection technology and scavenging capacity. Enclosed sanitation will require other attractions. It may sell -- to individuals -- as an image of wealth and modernity, part of the great boon of global population culture.
The most conspicuous absences in these books are references to the anthropology of Mary Douglas and the psychology of Sigmund Freud. Douglas’s seminal studies of pollution (including pollution by excrement) as cultural transgression were grounded in but not derivative of Freud, for whom the mastering of excrement was a central existential and developmental issue.
The result is that both books are stuck in an NGO’s-eye view of the world. However much they purport to deplore top-down problematizing, here humans are problems for sanitary policy-makers -- “those labouring in the international vineyard of filth,” as Black and Fawcett nicely put it -- to solve. They take us some way in reversing the poles of orientalism. We are helped to see the water-closeted Occident from the majority’s viewpoint as exotic and bizarre. They help us appreciate that it may not always make sense to insist that excretion be a private affair, with defecation occurring inside the home, particularly if means are lacking for preventing odor or easily emptying the waste.
But the approach misses much. Among the many aspects that don’t get addressed in these two books are the status of excrement of persons at different life stages or with different relations to oneself -- surely no poop is as sweet as that of one’s own baby. There is also ambivalence to the scavenging economy. Black and Fawcett come belatedly to appreciate it as a legitimate economic sector, but they and George are more concerned with the continuation of caste-based scavenging in India. The unjustness of a society in which some women are destined to scrape a living collecting and transporting human feces (on their heads in dripping baskets) is plain, but it doesn’t affect the fact that there may be a need for a labor-intensive scavenging industry.
That said, these are fine books. They are sobering, and they deal with matters that need to be much more widely known about.
Musing over the variety of systems and sensibilities for excrement disposal, one might well ask how one’s own culture became so fixated on a single suite of engineering approaches, which, as Black and Fawcett put it, “took . . . sanitary choice out of the province of individual activity and into a ‘we will fix it’ public realm.” Jamie Benidickson’s The Culture of Flushing: A Social and Legal History of Sewage takes up that problem. Much of his book is the familiar story of the Victorian public health movement. (Thus he, like the other authors, relates the story of the “great stink” of 1858, which caused little disease but prompted the great sewering of London.) But Benidickson, a legal historian, sees these issues through the lens of law, rather than health, engineering, sensibility or state building.
The legal tradition Benidickson explores is English common law, the predominant heritage for water and pollution matters in England, Canada and the (eastern) United States, the regions of his book’s focus. Under riparian law, running water was a common resource. In order that water might be available to any stream-side proprietor, what was withdrawn was to be restored, and what was fouled, cleaned. No inspector or police officer was responsible for overseeing this; these rights were vested in riverside proprietors who were expected to defend them as a matter of self-interest. Under the heading of the common law of nuisances, similar legal means governed the excremental trespass by one householder on another or on public spaces.
But not all proprietors defended their common rights assiduously. Such defense was costly, and the outcome was uncertain. A prescriptive right to pollute could be claimed by a miller or manufacturer whose neighbors suffered deterioration of the watercourse without complaint. Sufficiently transformed by human action, streams could be relabeled as sewers, which would obviate any expectations of water quality.
Over time, civil law would give way to statute law (in organizing sanitary districts and in setting effluent standards) and to public technologies. The process was slow. Nascent statutes were often trumped by property rights. (One wonders equally at the naiveté of legislative draftsmen and the cynicism of legislators in passing unenforceable acts.)
But out of litigation and negotiation came communal solutions -- a water closet in each dwelling, installed according to exacting specifications, tied in to sewers leading to sewage treatment plants whose effluents are held to high standards. Those public hydraulic systems and the legal and administrative structures in which they are embedded may be seen without undue stretch as collective means of adjudicating the incessant conflicts of property rights that would otherwise occur. If they do not entirely supersede civil litigation, they do much to minimize it.
The Culture of Flushing: A Social and Legal History of Sewage is reflective history more than legal treatise, yet one must still get used to the odd view of the world from the high benches of appellate judges. It is a view that highlights conflict and ambiguity while underrepresenting the consensual and commonplace, the social and technical means of grappling with excrement.
Certainly a legal reading of the history of sanitation is a valuable complement to other approaches. Yet one must be cautious. First, not all sanitary nuisance law was tied to property rights. Second, hydraulic communality was adopted in legal systems that did not embody the heritage of common law. And third, other readings of the English traditions, like those of 19th-century scholars Beatrice Webb and Sidney Webb, emphasize the democratic and communitarian traditions of local environmental management over the conflictual. Still, there remains a strong case for finding the foundations of sanitary achievement in aristocratic institutions and values.
What happens when we apply Benidickson’s diachronic overview of hydraulic sanitation to the snapshots of a feces-smothered world found in the books by George and by Black and Fawcett? That rights (and responsibilities) vested in land should have been much more powerful than rights to health is unsettling. That may suggest that the real problem with fixing an unsanitary world is greater security of land tenure, in turn predicated on thoughtful and trusted judges and competent inspectors and enforcers, all of whom are concerned with various forms of trespass (rather than with health per se), thinking that more fences will do the trick. If Benidickson’s history is right, public health is founded in private property and is a private matter.
A moment’s reflection makes plain the limitations of that view. Benidickson’s story is of failure as much as partial success. Riparian law was predicated in a legal fiction of a pristine nature that humans, in whatever numbers they might exist, were not a part of, and which they could invariably restore. But repeatedly judges had to recognize that what was reasonable for individual humans did not always lead to a condition that could be reclaimed for the continued use of all (including other species). And, they ultimately discovered, injunctions are powerless in the face of excretion. Bulldozing may relocate shantytowns but does nothing to address poverty, insecurity or excrement.
Hence one comes back to the search for solutions from within cultures. Wrap and throw disgusts my students. It bothered me too, until I realized that the suburbs from which most of them hail practice the same technology in their use of disposable diapers. A well-closed bag is reasonably sanitary; the technology solves the problem of accessibility and enhances immediate removal, though there will need to be better means for collecting and disposing. Culture may indeed be the problem, but whose?