13 - 19 September 2013 #673


When even sex has gradually stopped being a taboo, British journalist Rose George goes boldly where few men (and women) have dared to tread to tackle the last great taboo: shit.

We do it all at least once a day, we spend three years of our lives in the toilet, and yet we pretend that what comes out doesn’t exist. Out of sight is out of mind. The bacteria in human faeces has been the single biggest killer of human beings in history through cholera epidemics, diarrhoeal dehydration, or typhoid. Despite all our technological progress, our inability to separate what we digest from what we ingest makes it a killer of global proportions, as George tells us in her gripping book, The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters.

People prefer to snigger when confronted with the subject, laxative commercials cut away to tasteful animation to show the gut. And the only time we refer to it directly is when we use toilet humour. George converts the scatological into a respectable treatise on medical anthropology. The book is crammed with facts.

  • Two million people in the United States do not have access to an indoor toilet
  • 2.6 billion people in the world (35 per cent of all humans) defecate in the open
  • Milwaukee, New York and Vancouver empty untreated sewage into the sea or ocean
  • There is only one toilet for 60,000 people in the slums of Dharavi on the outskirts of Mumbai
  • High-heeled shoes were invented in Europe in the 19th century because there was so much open defecation in the streets of cities
  • Eighty per cent of the morbidity in the world is caused by faecal contamination
  • In developed countries toilet flushes use up to 30 per cent of the household water supply

Squeamishness about bowel emptying kills, is George’s message (see interview). We’d rather flush the problem down the toilet so as to not have to think about it. George goes around the world meeting people who are taking on excrement head-on. In Japan, she sees robotic toilets that do everything for you, even measure your blood pressure on the go. She interviews Indian toilet entrepreneur Bindeswar Pathak who has built millions of public toilets and pipes biogas for cooking. She meets cleanliness activists in South African and the inventors of the ‘Gulper’ in Tanzania.

For George, it is a criminal waste to flush human waste by mixing it with clean drinking water. As fresh water becomes scarcer, new sustainable ways need to be found to manage human waste. Reading The Great Necessity it gets difficult to tell who is more civilised: people in the ‘turd world’ where water is often used to clean up after defecation, or the industrialised countries where paper is used to wipe behinds. If you are not one of those who reads a book in the toilet, you can start with this one.

After picking through human faeces, George is now in Nepal researching the other great taboo: menstruation.

Kunda Dixit

The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters

By Rose George

Holt Paperbacks

304 pages

$10 for hardcover on Amazon

Read also:

Talking about toilets

Holding up half the district

Toilet trained