Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Ms. G – Philia vs. Phobia

While bearing the risk of at the least repeating myself and at the worst of clinging onto a disturbing subject and coming out as a disturbed guy, I want to discuss the concepts of faecophilic and faecophobic cultures in some more detail, if only to have it in writing for myself. So in short, this post is more about me myself trying to clarify and get my head around some concepts more than telling about my stay here, but bear with me! Or actually, don’t if you don’t want to and go enjoy the weather! Writing things down sometimes does help. One more thing: no promises, but there might be more of this stuff…

Why publish it then? At least because at one point I will have to present it all in a format that not only can be published but might with some fantasy pass for academic writing, and it is good exercise to write under the threat that someone might read this. And then there’s the best argument of all: Why not?


So, a general division of the world’s cultures into two groups with regard to their attitude towards human excreta can be proposed. In this very simplifying but as a concept or a tool for thinking useful continuum two opposite groups are introduced: the faecophilics and the faecophobics.

On the one hand, faecophilic cultures are presented as ones that do not have any serious cultural obstacles (such as values and norms) on handling human waste. These are common namely in the densely populated agricultural areas of East and Southeast Asia, for instance in China and Vietnam. Where productive agricultural land has for a long time been a relatively scarce resource because of the dense population, people have not been able to move between farming areas and have through generations been forced to stay in contact with their own waste and create systems of managing human waste along with all other garbage right there, on site. With time, the function of human excreta as a nutritious fertilizer has been recognized and it has become to be seen as a resource instead of something that should be gotten rid of. Faecophilics believe in simply burying their excreta and in the soil as a tool in treating the waste. They also consider reuse of excreta to be a part of the natural cycle of nutrients.

On the other hand, faecophobic cultures are ones in which the only thing seen as appropriate in these issues is to avoid all contact with human waste. Such attitudes have often been developed in areas where competition for land has not been as intensive and shifting your farm from one place to another or semi-nomadic lifestyles have been possible or even the best option. The mobile lifestyle has facilitated a system of waste disposal where human excreta and other waste is simply left behind as human activity moves to another location. The traditional lifestyle meant that there was no pressing need to recycle wastes and nature carried the responsibility of waste treatment. Faecophobic cultures have been found to be dominant in Sub-Saharan Africa, among some other regions, which can set some obstacles on the introduction of ecological sanitation systems. Faecophobics react more to the idea of contamination (that’s disgust) than the actual risk of contamination, which has been argued to be only partly rational. They also react mostly to the appearance of excreta, as studies show that treated excreta does not create the same reactions.

Of course, as with everything in culture, religion plays a role in both cases. Whereas I've understood that there is next to no mention of excreta or the reuse of it in the bible, it is in Hinduism and Islam seen as simply dirty stuff, no exceptions allowed. In the opposite corner we find the Buddhists, whose general belief in reincarnation directly promotes the reuse of everything.

Of course, as can be stated for most theoretical choices between ‘this or that’, most people and cultures of the world take a position somewhere along the phobic-philic-continuum, not at either of the extremes. Moreover, that stance is not necessarily fixed and can probably be altered. For instance, it can be said the western faecophobic cultures (that’s us), have developed their overtly negative attitude towards poo and pee only as technological development has facilitated our flush-and-forget or toilets (Out of sight, out of mind...) and created a certain alienation from nature. As excreta have been moved away from our everyday lives by new, convenient and efficient technology, it has become seen as something hidden, disgusting and dangerous. Technology has altered people’s attitudes instead of the other way around.

Can I conclude from this that communities with basically faecophobic approaches to sanitation can, through education, awareness-raising and provision of the right technology, be encouraged to take a more faecophilic attitude, thereby facilitating the introduction of more ecological and more sustainable sanitation solutions? I believe I can.

And of course the obvious big question goes: Which ones are the sick ones? The poll is still there on the right side, answer if you dare!

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