Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Ms. G – The theory of Shit

As warned before, I will continue my, for most people boring, dive through the muddy sewage of theory even here. Sorry for that, here’s something more fun and representative of my own state of mind in doing this.


How does a society actually come to choose a certain way of getting rid of garbage and human waste? By the workings of research by smarter people, we've been presented with a conceptual model, a theory. Here, the ‘way of getting rid of garbage and human waste’ is called a ‘societal sanitation approach’, which is constructed (=created) in different ways in different cultures. At the level of the single household, the task of sanitation and waste management is to ensure a healthy living environment by handling human and household wastes in the safest possible way with regard to both humans and the natural environment. What that way actually is depends on the culture as well as the environment. In this model, the societal sanitation approach is divided into five stages of the individual sanitation experience (the most euphemistic way of saying ‘Taking a dump’ I've found so far) that are further divided into components that decide the actions an individual takes to attend to the urge.

1.       The Urge. The natural urge to relieve one is the primary driver behind the need for sanitation systems. The two components of this first stage are whether one feels a need to urinate or defecate, which plays a role in the decision-making of the individual (where to go and how to ‘just do it’). Nothing needs explanation there, I bet. How the urge is experienced and reacted upon is to some extent dependent on gender and age, as the requirements felt can differ between men, women and children.

2.       Place – the favorite word of geographersThe second priority in the sanitation approach is the need to find privacy and enough safety for answering to the primal urge. This brings into consideration the question of place, meaning where to actually make your mark. This is decided by “the contexts of the physical living environment as well as the specific situation”, meaning where you are and why. The behaviour of an individual feeling the same urge can and does often vary, for instance between home and public places (such as school or the workplace), between rural and urban settings and between activities taking place, e.g. attending a meeting or a party. Anyone can confirm this from personal experience.

3.       Process. The third step is the actual use of the toilet. This includes the posture taken by the individual (whether you prefer sitting or standing – not always a straightforward decision, you know) and the convenience required (and sometimes even met). All this depends on the particular culture, habits and gender of the individual.

4.       Hygiene. The fourth stage involves attending the hygienic needs, in particular cleaning yourself and the immediate making of enough distance between you and your waste by for instance flushing. These needs are taken care of in different ways depending on e.g. the availability of water, the particular technical solution being used and cultural aspects. For example some like to wipe themselves while others prefer washing with water.

5.       Waste disposal. The last stage of the societal sanitation approach is that of final waste disposal, which also decides what effect you have on the natural environment. This obviously depends on the technology available. It should be pointed out that this disposal of waste might be seen as final only from the perspective of the users of a sanitation system (meaning that flushing is not final disposal, really).

Of course, the attitude of a culture towards the primal urge, human excreta and the handling of it is only a part of the explanation of the sanitation solutions a population ends up using. Therefore, we need a more comprehensive and detailed (in short, a better) conceptual model of the system that strives to explain and understand a societal sanitation approach more comprehensively. So we need another model to understand the first one? I see the beginning of a vicious circle here... This concept involves four main factors that play varying roles in shaping the sanitation approach: The human settlement, the natural environment, the culture and the society.

“The human settlement is in the framework seen as the built environment that facilitates the preferred lifestyle of a community or society, also with regard to sanitation.” It explains where we live and how, and I’m sorry to confess that the quote came from my pen... The characteristics of the human settlement that most clearly affect the sanitation approach are the density and the natural setting of the community. In more densely populated areas, such as towns, toilets are more often preferred to be inside the house to avoid moving out of the home for excreting as we all understand. Meanwhile in rural areas, at least in developing countries toilets are more often built outside to prevent odors in the actual home (That one is not unheard of in rural Finland either), and even open defecation (doing it in the bush) is more often practiced in sparsely populated areas where privacy is easier to ensure. Sharing toilets with other households is also generally more easily accepted in urban areas due to lack of space, while in rural areas the privacy and exclusiveness for the household of the toilet is emphasized. On the communal level densely built areas tend to create and neglect more extensive infrastructure, such as a sewage system, serving or supposed to be serving a larger amount of households, while waste disposal is in rural areas seen more as the responsibility of each household. 

The surrounding natural environment decides to a large extent the characteristics of the human settlement and therefore also its waste management. The most important features of the natural environment are in this case water accessibility (is flushing even possible?), vegetation type, climate (dry climates make handling a lot easier) and terrain (Do you have to worry about your garbage flowing to the neighbour’s next time it rains? Or someone else’s running to your backyard?). For example, in densely populated and humid areas where water access is reliable throughout the year, different forms of flush toilets have been in use for the longest time. In dry areas waste is more often buried or left in the open as the dry environment is in itself an effective tool of treating waste. Most importantly the natural environment plays an important role in deciding whether a community is faecophilicor faecophobic.

As with all other aspects of human life and behavior, culture, to a varying degree formed by religion, controls the sanitation approach of a society. Islam considers human waste to be in general dangerous and bad and relies on different concepts of ‘unclean’ in restricting the handling and even discussion of human excreta. As for the bible, it makes next to no mention on either excreta disposal or its reuse. Buddhism even clearly promotes the reuse of all waste, a stance that is connected to the general notion of reincarnation. Some cultures consider excreta to be always filthy regardless of religion and stress the need to avoid contact with it. It is normal in such cultures that sanitation facilities are placed outside the home. It is reported that even witchcraft and other superstitious beliefs comes into it in some societies especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, possibly stemming from traditional religions that dominated in pre-colonial times. This is when maybe the strongest of cultural values, fear, is connected to human waste. Even here in the Taita Hills, outsiders handling someone’s poo can be seen as suspect to say the least. The governor himself lately had to address this, advising people to “to stop prioritizing witchcraftand find ways of enhancing development in the region”! 

Cultures also vary in exactly how offensive excreta are considered. When it comes to cultural meanings attached to human excreta, it is also important to note that a distinction is usually made between pee and poo and that the same values might not apply to both. These cultural values can have implication for e.g. how people working with handling human waste are treated and whether or not it is considered as suitable to only certain social segments. Who would like to be seen as a witch only for working in waste management, hey?

Messy, isn’t it?

I apologize to anyone who read the whole post, got a bit carried away there...

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