Book Review: On “The Origin of Feces” by David Waltner-Toews

We all do it, most of us do it at least once every day, but we don’t like to talk about it much. You never see people doing it in the movies or on TV, and there aren’t many songs* about it. When we do it, we try our best to hide the sounds, smells or sight of it from others. Despite the secrecy, it has implications for our health as individuals, but perhaps even more importantly, on a global level. What the heck am I talking about? Defecation.

originDefecation, also known as pooping, shitting, dropping the kids off at the pool, number 2, crapping, pinching a loaf, laying cable, dropping a bomb, taking a dump…I could go on…and on, BUT, someone else has already done that for me. David Waltner-Toews’ recent book “The Origin of Feces” caught my attention immediately from the title. I’m a sucker for Darwin and a good pun, plus who doesn’t want to learn more about poo? So I knew I had to check this toilet-twinkie tome out.

Waltner-Toews takes us on an exciting journey exploring the ecology of feces and how we as humans deal with it. The key question of the book is: how did shit become such a huge problem for us? But the subtext is why is it so hard for us to talk about feces frankly, and why are we so quick to flush and forget?

Early in the book, we learn what shit IS: primarily, it’s composed of undigested food, bacteria and toxins. Human waste is also about 75% water –and we each produce around 55 kg of it per year (vegetarians produce even more)! The potential benefits of feces are many – it serves as a fertilizer for plant growth, it provides nutrients to soil, helps animals disperse seeds, and can even help with parasite control. It can also, in the case of bat and bird guano, serve as an ingredient for making explosives.

In an ideal world, waste is just part of the eco-cycle – with a place to go – turning into either fuel or fertilizer. Other animals use feces to mask their scent, to communicate information to other animals, and mark their territory; there was probably a time in history where we did the same. Because of these important functions, in early human history, we probably had a positive response to the smell of shit (note: 70% of people in one survey reported liking the smell of their own farts). In the 1700s, the Japanese paid good money for human feces for use as fertilizer, and it was even a crime to steal it. The word shit has the same etymological base as “science” – skei – skat – “to separate one thing from another.”

It all sounds so good, so where did things go so wrong?

Photo by Beatrice Murch/Creative Commons
Photo by Beatrice Murch/Creative Commons

Waltner-Toews drives the point home in this book several times – we can blame our poo-filled disaster of a planet on two things: exponential human population growth and factory farming. When humans were nomadic, we could take a dump, bury it and move on. When we started settling, we used feces as fertilizer, but as we grew in number, the feces started accumulating. Add to that a whole bunch of livestock animals in a small space and soon you’re facing a “huge pile of shit.” With no way to escape that pile, contact with feces increased, which led to problems with water contamination and diseases such as salmonella and E. coli.

As the poo piled up in the 18th and 19th century, attitudes about waste and body odors became increasingly negative. To escape from the mess, people did everything from throwing feces out their windows, to building backyard latrines, to eventually developing our current day sewer and water treatment systems (which keep in mind, do not exist everywhere). Desperation and defecation can inspire huge scientific and technical advances (there are several websites and books on the history of plumbing).

Photo by Christopher Doyle/Creative Commons
Photo by Christopher Doyle/Creative Commons

Nowadays, despite our current plumbing systems, exposure to feces is everywhere – food is regularly contaminated by E.coli – and guess where that bacterium comes from? Poop. Fifty three percent of public pools in one study had feces in them, and cruises on ships are regularly seized with norovirus outbreaks (is that where the term “poop deck” comes from?), where in an apropos turn of events, fecal contamination leads to massive amounts of diarrhea. A quick web search found recent reports (as in, just the past week!) of water contaminated by sewage in England, Scotland, Oregon, Gaza, Malaysia, Bali, and Monterey Bay. Let’s not even talk about the hotel room remote control, the effects of homeless people having nowhere to go to the bathroom, or the amount of pet poop you might be handling on a daily basis.

[On a side note: Do you know what happens to your poop after you flush? Basically, it goes through sewage treatment centers, gets sifted, and the water is sorted out while the remaining sludge is fed to bacteria that eat pathogens. The water is filtered and goes back into the water system (i.e. rivers and lakes) and the sludge can become compost. More here.]

My main issue with this book was that the middle chapters were very repetitive in blaming overpopulation and agribusiness for the current mess we are in. As a vegetarian, I felt a little like he was preaching to the choir, until I realized that as a veggie, I am probably producing more than my share of poop. The emphasis on overpopulation and agribusiness started to feel like a broken record, where the focus was on the problems but not the solutions. Luckily, the last chapter of the book offers some salvation, in turning to the possible remedies for the overflow of feces we are facing.

Elephant dung paper. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Elephant dung paper. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

While Waltner-Toews may have more faith in humans’ ability to solve the current climate change and overpopulation crises than I do, he emphasizes that we can’t solve problems with the same thinking that has created them. This is not just a problem for science, but it is impacted by culture, poverty, and gender issues. There are some great examples of how these factors contribute to and will shape the solutions to reducing the impact of human and animal feces on our environment, including feces-powered community centers for the public in Kenya, which provide thousands of people with a place to shower and go to the bathroom each day. Feces can also be used to make bricks for housing, vanillin (!) and paper.

But rather than go to extremes to extract the good from the bad in our shit, perhaps we should look at the basics. Humans need to deal with the overpopulation and agribusiness “problem,” but in addition, we should look to conservation solutions such as using gray water for toilets instead of eliminating in drinking water.

In sum, this book was a short, enjoyable read with a great ecological perspective on why poop is so important, why it is a serious problem and why we won’t be able to just “flush it away” much longer. To really solve this dookie dilemma, we all need to take a look in the mirror and say, “I am, therefore, I shit.”


*When being a punk rocker has its benefits: I know of two songs by punk bands that focus on feces. Both are humorous. One is the Yeastie Gurlz’s “Talkin’ Shit” (NSFW!)

and Wat Tyler’s “Smells Like Dog Poo.”

and the Descendents have their song "Enjoy" about farting:


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