Guns, Toilets, and Steel: Different customs regarding humanure explain a lot of the differences in economic development.

The Humanure Handbook, by Joseph Jenkins, is a pioneering guide for people who want a simple composting toilet system.  I have used toilets that were inspired by the Handbook both in Guatemala and at a community a couple hours drive from Washington DC. It is basically a bucket composting system and it requires minor regular monitoring and management which most people don’t want to do, but it is extremely cheap and simple and effective for those who can get past the ick factor.  The Handbook, which the author kindly offers as a free download, also delves into some history of how differently human manure was dealt with in Asia versus in Europe.  Here is an excerpt:

Asians recycled human excrement for thousands of years. The Chinese have used humanure agriculturally since the Shang Dynasty, three to four thousand years ago. The Chinese, Koreans, the Japanese, and others evolved to understand human excrement as a natural resource rather than a waste material. Where Westerners had “human waste,” they had “night soil.” We produced waste and pollution; they produced soil nutrients and food. Asians have been developing sustainable agriculture for four thousand years. For forty centuries these people worked the same land with little or no chemical fertilizers and, in many cases, had produced greater crop yields than Western farmers, who were quickly destroying the soils of their own countries through depletion and erosion. A fact largely ignored by people in western agriculture is that agricultural land must produce a greater output over time. The human population is constantly increasing; available agricultural land is not. Therefore, our farming practices should leave us with land more fertile with each passing year, not less fertile. Back in 1938 the US Department of Agriculture came to the alarm-

Why didn’t we follow the Asian example of agronutrient recycling? It’s certainly not for a lack of information. Dr. F. H. King wrote an interesting book, published in 1910 titled Farmers of Forty Centuries.2 Dr. King was a former chief of the Division of Soil Management of the US Department of Agriculture who traveled through Japan, Korea, and China in the early 1900s as an agricultural visitor. He was interested in finding out how people could farm the same fields for millennia without destroying their fertility. He wrote:

One of the most remarkable agricultural practices adopted by any civilized people is the centuries long and well-nigh universal conservation and utilization of all [humanure] in China, Korea and Japan, turning it to marvelous account in the maintenance of soil fertility and in the production of food. To understand this evolution, it must be recognized that mineral fertilizers so extensively employed in modern Western agriculture have been a physical impossibility to all people alike until within very recent years. With this fact must be associated the very long unbroken life of these nations and the vast numbers their farmers have been compelled to feed.

When we reflect on the depleted fertility of our own older farm lands, comparatively few of which have seen a century’s service, and upon the enormous quantity of mineral [and synthetic] fertilizers which are being applied annually to them in order to secure paying yields, it becomes evident that the time is here when profound consideration should be given to the practices the [Asian] race has maintained through many centuries, which permit it to be said of China that one-sixth of an acre of good land is ample for the maintenance of one person, and which are feeding an average of three people per acre of farm land in the three southernmost islands of Japan.

[Western humanity] is the most extravagant accelerator of waste the world has ever endured. His withering blight has fallen upon every living thing within his reach, himself not excepted; and his besom of destruction in the uncontrolled hands of a generation has swept into the sea soil fertility which only centuries of life could accumulate, and yet this fertility is the substratum of all that is living.

According to King’s research, the average daily excreta of the adult human weighs in at 40 ounces (2.5 pounds)… Multiplied by 330 million, a rough estimate of the US population in the early twenty-first century, Americans each year produce 3.63 billion pounds of valuable agricultural nutrients just by relieving themselves in a toilet. Almost all of itis discarded into the environment as a waste material or a pollutant, or as Dr. King puts it,

poured into the seas, lakes or rivers and into the underground waters…

The International Concession of the city of Shanghai, in 1908, sold to a Chinese contractor the privilege of entering residences and public places early in the morning of each day and removing the night soil, receiving therefore more than $31,000 gold, for 78,000 tons of [humanure]. All of this we not only throw away but expend much larger sums in doing so.”

In case you didn’t catch that, the contractor paid $31,000 gold for the humanure, referred to as “night soil” and incorrectly as “waste” by Dr. King. People don’t pay to buy waste; they pay money for things of value. Furthermore, using Dr. King’s figures, the US population produced over three hundred billion pounds of fecal material annually in the early twenty-first century. That’s a lot of gross national product.

Admittedly, the spreading of raw human excrement on fields, as may be done in Asia, will never become culturally acceptable in the United States, and rightly so. The agricultural use of raw night soil produces an assault on the sense of smell and provides a route of transmission for various human disease organisms. Americans who have traveled abroad and witnessed the use of raw human excrement in agricultural applications have largely been repulsed by the experience.

That repulsion has instilled in many older Americans an intransigent bias against, and even a fear of, the use of humanure for soil enrichment. However, few Americans have witnessed the composting of humanure as a preliminary step in its recycling. Proper composting converts humanure into a pleasant-smelling material devoid of human pathogens.

Although the agricultural use of raw human excrement will never become a common practice in the US, the use of composted human refuse, including humanure, food scraps, and other discarded organic materials can and should become a widespread and culturally encouraged practice.

How is it that Asian peoples developed an understanding of human nutrient recycling centuries ago, and we didn’t? After all, we’re the advanced, developed, scientific nation, aren’t we?

…Strange as it may seem, says King, there are not today [early 1900s] and apparently never have been, even in the largest and oldest cities of Japan, China, or Korea, anything corresponding to the hydraulic systems of sewage disposal used now by Western nations. When I asked my interpreter if it was not the custom of the city during the winter months to discharge its night soil into the sea, as a quicker and cheaper mode of disposal [than recycling], his reply came quick and sharp, “No, that would be waste. We throw nothing away. It is worth too much money.” 7 The Chinaman, says King, wastes nothing while the sacred duty of agriculture is uppermost in his mind.8

While the Asians were practicing sustainable agriculture and recycling their organic resources and doing so over millennia, what were the people of the West doing? Why weren’t our European ancestors returning their manures to the soil, too? After all, it does make sense. The Asians who recycled their manures not only utilized a resource and reduced pollution, but by returning their excrement to the soil, they succeeded in reducing threats to their health. There was no putrid sewage collecting and breeding disease germs and attracting rats. Instead, the humanure was, for the most part, undergoing a natural, non-chemical purification process in the soil. Even the returning of humanure raw to the land succeeds in destroying many human pathogens in the manure and returns nutrients to the soil.

Although it is true that raw sewage naturally purifies in the soil, it takes a while and in the meantime, any food growing in the sewage is likely to be biologically contaminated with bacteria and other pathogens. However, all pathogens are killed by cooking and in Asian cultures that used raw humanure in the fields also developed practices to prevent the pathogens from infecting people. In particular, many Asian cultures such as the Chinese got into the practice of cooking everything that came out of those fields. For example, when I lived in Taiwan, I noticed that the locals ate nothing raw except tree fruits (and fish — sashimi)! I sometimes really craved a raw salad and there were only a very few Western restaurants that served salads. When I ate salad in front of my Chinese friends, they would tell me how revolting it is. Some said they were physically disgusted at the sight of me eating a salad! Now that I know the historic humanure practices in the region, it makes a lot more sense. They were disgusted because historically, eating raw vegetables was akin to eating raw human sewage because the vegetables were grown in humanure. Even though the practice of using raw humanure on fields had probably mostly ended a few decades before I arrived in Taiwan, the cultural taboos lived on. I’m happy to report that I never got sick, so the salads were not grown in raw humanure.

Similarly, when I worked with Greencorps Chicago, an urban gardening organization, I heard that some of the poor immigrants from Southeast Asia were saving their humanure each day instead of using the toilet and bringing it down to fertilize their vegetable plots in some of the community gardens we helped with. It was cheaper than buying compost and better for the soil than synthetic fertilizer. And It is fine to eat the vegetables as long as they used their traditional hygiene practices to cook everything that touches a plate and use good handwashing before touching any cooked food or plates.

This might seem barbaric to modern readers, but traditional Asian humanure practices were less barbaric than what Europeans did because at least they kept it out of the water supply. Because humanure was seen as a waste to get rid of in Europe rather than as a resource to conserve, humanure was sometimes dumped in the streets or often dumped in rivers and streams where it would infect the drinking water. Unlike in many Asian cultures which always boiled all their drinking water, Europeans frequently drank cold sewage tea. The habit of drinking boiled water in Asia was so strong, that many Asians refused to drink water that wasn’t piping hot just to be sure it is clean. For example, the gas stations in Taiwan didn’t have a cold water fountain when I was there. The only water to drink was from a boiling water dispenser. And at Asian hotels, guests always got a thermos of boiling water along with their room key. When the water is boiling hot, you knew that was safe to drink. Even in tropical Indonesia just south of the equator, we got a thermos of boiling water at every hotel for drinking. Ice often wasn’t available and even when there was ice, people were suspicious about whether it was truly purified or not.

What was happening in Europe regarding public hygiene from the 1300s on? Great pestilences swept through Europe throughout recorded history. The Black Death killed more than half the population of England in the fourteenth century. In 1552, sixty-seven thousand patients died of the plague in Paris alone. Fleas from infected rats were the carriers of this disease. Did the rats dine on piles of human waste or festering garbage? Other pestilences included the sweating sickness (attributed to uncleanliness), cholera (spread by food and water contaminated by the excrement of infected persons), “jail fever” (caused by a lack of sanitation in prisons), typhoid fever (spread by water contaminated with infected feces), and numerous others.

Andrew White, cofounder of Cornell University, wrote that …It’s now known that the main cause of such immense sacrifice of life was a lack of proper hygienic practices… “For century after century the idea prevailed that filthiness was akin to holiness.” Living in filth was regarded by holy men as evidence of sanctity, according to White, who lists numerous saints who never bathed parts or all of their bodies, such as St. Abraham, who washed neither his hands nor his feet for fifty years, or St. Sylvia, who never washed any part of her body except her fingers.

… Today, Asians are abandoning the harmonious agricultural techniques that Dr. King observed nearly a century ago. In Kyoto, Japan, for example, “night soil is collected hygienically to the satisfaction of users of the system, only to be diluted at a central collection point for discharge to the sewer system and treatment at a conventional sewage treatment plant.”

…A Humanure Handbook reader wrote an interesting account of Japanese toilets:

My only real [humanure] experience…. comes from living in Japan from 1973-1983. As my experience is dated, things may have changed (probably for the worse as toilets and life were becoming “westernized” even toward the end of my stay in Japan).

My experience comes from living in small, rural towns as well as in metropolitan areas (provincial capitals). Homes and businesses had an “indoor outhouse.” The Vault: Nothing but urine/feces were deposited into the large metal vault under the toilet (squat style, slightly recessed in the floor and made of porcelain). No cover material or carbonaceous stuff was used. It stunk!! Not just the bathroom, but the whole house! There were many flies, even though the windows were screened. Maggots were the main problem. They crawled up the sides of the vault onto the toilet and floor and sometimes even made it outside the bathroom into the hall. People constantly poured some kind of toxic chemical into the vaults to control the smell and maggots. It didn’t help — in fact, the maggots really poured out of the vault to escape the chemicals. Occasionally a slipper (one put on special “bathroom slippers” as opposed to “house slippers” when entering the bathroom) fell into the disgusting maggot-filled vault. You couldn’t even begin to think about getting it out! You couldn’t let little children use the toilet without an adult suspending them over it. They might fall in! Disposal: When the vault was full (about every three months), you called a private vacuum truck which used a large hose placed in an outside opening to suck out the liquid mass. You paid them for their services. I’m not sure exactly what happened to the humanure next but, in the agricultural areas near the fields were large (ten feet in diameter) round, concrete, raised containers, similar in looks to an above ground swimming pool. In the containers, I was told, was the humanure from the “vacuum trucks.” It was a greenish-brown liquid with algae growing on the surface. I was told this was spread onto agricultural fields.

Japan has one of the most fastidious cultures in the world about hygiene.  For example, they never wear outdoor shoes inside their homes and even have special slippers just for the bathroom.  They have probably the most advanced toilet culture in the world.  They spend vast sums of money on computerized toilets that also automatically wash and dry your bottom (if you can figure out how to control them) and yet many Japanese have been using humanure in agriculture right into fairly modern times. 

Joseph Jenkins says Korea has had similar traditions:

In my youth I listened to army veterans talking about their stints in the Korean War. Usually after a beer or two, they’d turn their conversation to the “outhouses” used by the Koreans. They were amazed, even mystified about the fact that the Koreans tried to lure passersby into their latrines by making the toilets especially attractive. The idea of someone wanting someone else’s poop always brought out a hearty laugh from the vets. This opinion sums up the attitude of almost anyone raised with a flush toilet. Humanure is a waste product that we must dispose of and only fools would think otherwise. One of the effects of this attitude is that Americans don’t know and probably don’t care where their “human waste” goes after it emerges from their back ends as long as they don’t have to deal with it.

Another system of human waste disposal was animals. Some toilets in Asia were right over a pig pen. I remember on pig pen toilet I used in the Philippines which was extremely clean. I looked down through the toilet seat to a completely flat surface of soil about 6 feet below where there was no evidence of any humanure. But I did see some eager pigs looking up at me who started squealing and grunting when I opened the outhouse door. The pigs ate all my poop as fast as I dropped it. I tried to avoid eating any pig meat in Asia after that experience and now I understand well why the Old Testament calls them unclean animals that should not be eaten.

The Humanure Handbook has a photo of this kind of outhouse below and it also discusses how humanure has been an important source of dog food in many human societies.

I spent a few months in southern Mexico in the late 1970s in Quintana Roo on the Yucatan peninsula. There, toilets were not available; people simply used the sand dunes along the coast. No problem, though. One of the small, unkempt, and ubiquitous Mexican dogs would wait nearby with watering mouth until you did your thing. Burying your excrement in that situation would have been an act of disrespect to the dog. No one wants sand in their food. A good, healthy, steaming turd at the crack of dawn on the Caribbean coast never lasted more than sixty seconds before it became a hot meal for a human’s best friend. Yum. Today, roughly 892 million people still practice open defecation, down from over 1.2 billion in 2000. Of those who still go outdoors, 90percent live in Central and Southern Asia and in sub-Saharan Africa

Several scientists have studied why most dogs will eat poop and it may be one of the distinguishing behavioral traits that separates dogs from the wolves that they were domesticated from. 

The most extensive treatment of this unsavory topic is a series of papers by James Butler and his colleagues. They studied the diet of free-ranging dogs in Zimbabwe. Fifty-six percent of 1,000 dog scats they sampled included human feces. The dogs would roam from homestead to homestead, searching for garbage and poop. They would locate human feces by smell and dig it up if it was buried. As dog food goes, human feces was surprisingly nutritious. Indeed, Butler found that poop contained twice as much protein as the dogs’ most common food (a porridge called sadza). He concluded human feces was “comparable to the upper range of energy content for mammal tissue, vegetables, and fruit.”

In a 1996 paper, the anthropologist Fredrick Simoons documented many instances of human feces consumption in areas of sub-Saharan Africa. In Liberia and the Cameroons, a dog’s waste disposal functions included licking the bottom of infants after they defecated. Simoons noted that the !Kung people of South Africa did not eat dog flesh because dogs eat human excrement.

It is getting less common for dogs to clean up human poop as more places get latrines, but progress with toilets has been amazingly slow.  Moneybox reports that progress with mobile phones has been much faster because, “it is now more common to have a mobile phone than a working toilet:”

Surprisingly, the UN reports there are now more people with mobile phones (six billion for world population of seven billion) on earth than there are with access to clean toilets (4.5 billion).

That phenomenon is easily visible in Indonesia, for example, where it is common to see people who live in metal roofed shacks without bathrooms surfing Facebook on their smartphones or feature phones. And it shows how, in the developing world, multinationals are often better at responding to peoples’ needs than governments are.

Open defecation, while not widely discussed, causes illnesses such as diarrhea that kill 4,500 children daily. Poor sanitation also hobbles emerging markets economically. According to the UN, the problem costs India $53.8 billion a year, while Nigeria loses $3 billion annually.

In rich countries we tend to think about technologies in terms of their order of adoption and [from that perspective it would seem] obvious that plumbing is more basic. But from an infrastructure investment standpoint, it’s easier [and more profitable for a private company] to build a mobile phone network than a sewer system. For that same reason, even though there tends not to be all that much competition in wireless telephony it’s a lot less monopolistic than electricity.

Both electricity and sewage service require constructing an expensive network to physically connect every home whereas cellular phones just require a few relatively cheap cellphone towers and they are MUCH more fun than toilets.  Cellphones are status symbols whereas toilets are never shown off. 

“So you’re telling me you have so much clean water that you shit in it?”

Unclean water is responsible for 1.2 million deaths each year. That is terrible, but it is dramatically better than it has ever been since the adoption of agriculture due to better treatment and improvement in sanitation.  However, 60% of the world’s population still either lacks a toilet entirely or has an unsanitary one that transmits fecal diseases.  Most people in nations with less than $5,000 GDP per capita lack hygienic toilets:

Humanure is still a valuable fertilizer and it is mostly being wasted or even worse, it is creating ecological problems because it is dumped into waterways where it creates algal blooms that kill off other life and creates dead zones. Eventually I predict that it will become common again to recycle this fertilizer for growing plants.

Posted in Development
2 comments on “Guns, Toilets, and Steel: Different customs regarding humanure explain a lot of the differences in economic development.
  1. […] and much less dangerous occupations. Their servants had to empty and clean their pots of “night soil” by hand every day and work in their mines and sail their ships and fight on the front lines […]

  2. […] points out that ironically one of the main ways the 1918 flu pandemic transformed society was the promotion of toilets and cleaner water to prevent infections even though water-bourne bacteria had nothing to do with […]

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 96 other subscribers
Blog Archive