Living Among the Shit

10 Oct

I am reminded of an old Dead Kennedys lyric: “anarchy sounds good to me, then someone says ‘Who’ll fix the sewers?'” This is a serious consideration, because as a people we produce a lot of waste. A lot. In my city of New York alone, we produce 1.3 billion gallons of waste water every day. You should really let that sink in. That would be almost half a trillion gallons of poop and pee every year. It’s really something to consider, especially if you’ve got a mind to change the status quo and shake things up a bit. If your social plan doesn’t include dealing with people’s shit, then you haven’t thought things through.


This is a problem that’s plagued all fauna since the beginning. Indeed, one of the reasons human beings led a nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle for much of our early existence was to escape our own poop. We’d set up camp for a little while, spread our waste around willy-nilly, and then move along once hunting prospects thinned out and the place became too smelly. The issue of waste management became a dilemma once humans began collecting in larger and larger groups, until the nineteenth century when cities grew in populations exceeding their locality’s natural ability to deal with crap. It’s all detailed in the interesting but dryly-written book The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, the true account of London’s cholera epidemic of 1854. It wasn’t the first or last of London’s cholera epidemics, but it was significant in that science began to suspect contaminated drinking water, and not “miasma” or “bad air,” for the plague. And what contaminated the drinking water, of course, was poops.


Johnson details the world of sanitation in pre-Victorian London, which involved people crawling into dank spaces with brushes and scrubbing away the shit. Implied by the fact that cholera kept breaking out, this method wasn’t exactly foolproof or entirely sanitary. There were rudimentary sewage lines, but these fed from the wealthiest homes and simply led straight to the Thames River, which was befouled beyond any use in short order. Most people crapped in outhouses, which sat above large holes in the ground. When the holes were full…well, someone had to crawl down there with a shovel and brush and clean it up. It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it.


Dealing with waste is still a tremendous problem for every major metropolitan center around the globe. If a city of nine million is cranking over a billion gallons of brown water every day, then imagine the vast quantities of stinky effusing from denser population centers in India and China. We are talking about a shit tsunami here, people. You can desire to dismantle the Federal Reserve, you can seek to abolish a corrupt political system. You can espouse socialism or anarchy or benevolent monarchy if you think that will get the job done. But if you haven’t considered who and how will we deal with our lemonade and fudge, then you haven’t figured out shit. Because all of the personal freedom in the world isn’t worth a hill of dung if we’ve got to wallow in our own filth.

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