Sunday, December 06, 2009

humanure and steampunk

My first paid to write article was for Mother Earth News over 25 years ago concerning an interesting use for sawdust, so it is particularly gratifying to see that the world is starting to catch up and the concept of using sawdust in the treatment of human wastes has at least made it to the mainstream media. Humanure in Time Magazine describes the composting of human wastes to not only save water, but to create useful, safe, composted fertilizer for gardening. Years ago I made a presentation to the Berryville Arkansas Rotary Club about composting toilets during our self-proclaimed "National Water Week," and during our National Water Week activities here in Eureka Springs I taught a compost toilet building workshop. We were unsuccessful at getting a national audience for our "National Water Center" activities, but it was a matter of timing rather than one related to the importance of the cause. During my talk to the Berryville Rotary, one of the members noted that on-site waterless treatment of human waste was not a strange proposal to a community that had grown up with out houses. Now with clean water becoming an increasingly scarce resource due to mismanaged and inefficient waste treatment and industrial contamination of water, re-examining the concept of using water as a vehicle for the transportation of wastes is essential.
This is not a new idea as you can see from the sawdust toilet from Helsinki shown at left and as used over 100 years ago when some people had the idea that polluting water with human waste was wasteful, irresponsible, unhealthy and destructive.

Another article in this week's Time Magazine is interesting from a hands-on cultural standpoint. A Handmade World, Reclaiming Technology for the Masses, explores technology from a different angle. We feel greater comfort from the workings of machines in which we see moving parts and can discern relationships. And so there is a whole genre of novels exploring a more 19th century relationship with machines. From author Scott Westerfeld:
"The Internet is global and seemingly omniscient, while iPods and phones are all microscopic workings encased in plastic blobjects... compare that to a steam engine, where you can watch the pistons move and feel the heat of its boilers. I think we miss that visceral appeal of the machine... Plus, those Victorians dressed a lot better than we do."
Perhaps this new subculture will make kids do much more than just dress up funny. What if they became inspired to make things? Steam anyone? What a welcome change that would be... A subculture that aspired toward the hand made, and whose values were based not on outward appearance but on the ability to create.


  1. Anonymous10:28 AM

    We have to keep our attention on the young because they are very receptive to hands on. Just as I am feeding my two boys, now young adults in the idea of the hands and the exploration and findings of working with your hands. I am seeing more and more children coming into my store to work alongside mom or dad in the shop, yard, house and as you have found todays youth want to explore the real world versus the electronic world. I do believe we are coming full circle back to the idea, when the hands work the brain and body work so much better then sitting on ones butt staring at electronic mumbo jumbo.
    Scrap Wood

  2. Scrap, I hope you are right. Maybe we can go full circle but then lift it up a notch, so it forms a spiral.

    If enough people start to recognize the ways the hands shape learning, we will be ready for a revolution in education. But looking at how long it took for the composting toilet to make the pages of Time Magazine, I think we had best be prepared for the long haul, a revolution consisting of one smart kid at a time. I'm glad you have two. That is an extra boost.

  3. Anonymous5:52 AM

    Even in an area like ours, where 20% of all the fresh water on earth flows by our waterfront every day, using less is catching on. By the way, is that you in the picture at the top of this blog entry?


  4. Nope, not me. Another generation of waterlovers is arising. I hope they are more effective than the first.