Session 3: Dealing with our crap! Understanding Environmental Racism and Climate Justice through the toilet
Written by Sarah Nahar
PhD Candidate in Religion & Environmental Studies, Syracuse University and State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry.
Purpose: Understand how one of the most mundane of our actions, excreting poop and pee, is related to the questions of global climate catastrophe.
● Get a bit more comfortable talking about what we “produce” as humans, not only what we consume. In a phrase, break the taboo about poop!
● Increase awareness about the global sanitation crisis and need for defecatory justice, through the lens of the situation in rural Alabama.
● Begin to consider ecological sanitation alternatives to freshwater flushing toilets.
● Think about translating the golden rule onto our water systems, and “do unto those downstream as we’d have those upstream do to us.”
1. Reflecting on our experience
There is a taboo in western culture about speaking about poop.
Discuss your own experience of talking about poop:
How often do you talk about poop?
▪ Daily, Weekly, Monthly, Less? Invite a show of hands.
▪ Why do you think that is so? Give people a few moments to think and then invite responses. These are some examples to spur their thoughts:
▪ Too important not to talk about it
▪ I’m a doctor!
▪ Too personal
▪ Don’t see what it has to do with the other issues I care about
▪ I’m embarrassed
▪ I never want to think again about (remember) the outhouse I grew up with
▪ If someone else brings it up, I will happily engage in the conversation
▪ I would, but am nervous about what others would think of me if I did!
Why is there a taboo? (Name these if participants do not name them in their responses)
▪ European Christian development of anti-body theology; do not speak about what is shameful.
▪ Puritanical cultural norms discourage frank conversation about our anatomy, experiences of our bodies, and engender silence in any context outside the medical.
▪ Our actions are separated from us (those with freshwater flush toilets) by the technology we use to deal with them.
▪ People prefer to use petroleum-based fertilizers rather than humanure for fertilizer (though many use the manure of other animals)
Concluding thought to this section:
▪ The impact that this taboo has on addressing the sanitation crisis is severe. We can’t solve what we can’t talk about. Clean water is great to have, but it will only stay clean as long as it does not have pathogens from feces or leftover nutrients from urine in it. It is crucial that we speak about the resources we are discarding from our bodies as just that, discarded resources, and not as waste. There is no waste in nature. As animals, urine and feces are good parts of ourselves given to us by God to assist in the replenishment of soil. If urine and feces are safely reintegrated within the natural cycle of creation, this glorifies our Creator. Currently the global standard is a freshwater flush toilet, and excreta from in this system gets wasted as it is often combined with chemicals, processed and then incinerated, pushed downstream, or made into sludge. As freshwater becomes increasingly scarce, there will be less to poop in. We will need to make a shift [in how we shit]. How might ecological sanitation alternatives assist us in daily deepening our discipleship of the Incarnate One, and embrace the shift?
Watch the video or read this script
3. Biblical theme: 1 Corinthians 12: 12-26
Here in the flushed and plumbed world, you poop and it goes away…Where is “away?” There is no place called “away.” Somewhere receives our refuse. Because the earth is one whole body. But you’d be fooled living in most of the US. Our city architecture is designed to facilitate separation from the extreme consequences of our mundane actions with the press of a button or a jiggle of a handle. But as there is no “away,” and as people committed to the diligent study of our interconnectedness, we must care about the place that is “away” and the people (and the fish! and the plants!) who live there.
Though the mission for dignified, ecological sanitation for all is precarious and faces many obstacles—mostly people being resistant to change and addicted to comfort—we can be assured in our efforts that we are not alone. As well with other environmental issues, the Spirit of God is flowing in and through all of creation, and will help us make the structural changes necessary, create the alternative systems necessary, so that we, and all of the planet, may be whole/holy.
Watch the video or read this script
4. Changing Our Lives, Dealing with Our Crap
Host an open discussion, about whatever comes up with you from the video. The discussion can be in the full group, or in smaller groups to allow for more time for each person to speak and also provide a smaller group, since this topic is still new for many people to discuss.
Guiding questions –
- What is one thing you learned from the video?
a. (Can be many things)
2. How does environmental racism play into the sanitation crisis?
a. (People can have many observations…facilitators contribute something from the below points if they are not made)
b. Catherine Coleman Flowers would answer that the lack of proper waste sanitation in rural America and communities of color takes a phenomenal toll on public health and dignity. Because state systems traditionally and continually marginalize communities of color, their requests for infrastructure upgrades and maintenance are deprioritized.
c. When the US does invest in infrastructure, a disproportionate amount of wastewater treatment plants (often combining human excreta, industrial wastewater, and field runoff combined) are located near communities of color and rural communities and they face the chemical and fume impacts of these facilities more than white and wealthy communities.
d. It creates, or enlarges, a protection gap. Usually the same people who are impacted by other oppressions live in similarly impacted environments. That’s one way environmental injustice functions.
e. Colonization by European Christians brought specific technology with it. That technology overrode local technologies and was marketed as superior because of racism. This technology is not sustainable worldwide. This is one aftermath of colonization, worldviews that put indigenous communities at risk, and colonize their mentality.
3. We need a better way to treat our discarded resources. What ideas can you think of, or what ideas have you heard of working? Go ahead and brainstorm, even if you can’t think of how your idea would work on a “big scale.” We need people thinking outside the box [water closet]!
a. (Can be many things)
Author’s thesis: People have been pooping for a long time, and have their own wisdom about how to build soil and stay safe. If supported in a decolonized, reparative way, they can and will design systems that work for them. But we have to be willing to speak about it and give sanitation as much funding as we do for clean water projects in order to have the resources we need to protect all of our body, and everyone’s bodies.
Invite participants to pay attention for their poop and peeing patterns for a week, and remember to say “thank you” when they flush the toilet. Check in during the next lesson can include a question about this. See if more comfort has arrived. Giggles are welcome!
Get into small groups. View the websites of the following groups. Only one person per group needs a wifi connected laptop, or multiple people in the group can pull out their phones. After reading about the ecological sanitation organization (5-10 minutes) each group will make a 30 second or 1 minute “TV-spot” to the others gathered, advertising their NGOs services.
- SOIL Haiti, https://www.oursoil.org/
- A subscription-based service that collects excreta, and composts, and tests it at their processing site. They resell the humanure as a soil amendment. Farmers are experiencing positive impacts of the compost.
- Sanivation Kenya, https://sanivation.com/
- Works with municipalities to divert solid refuse from the wastewater pumped from pit latrines. Heats and processes the solid refuse (poop) with sawdust and wood shavings to make a 100% recycled briquette that burns better than tree-made charcoal and leads to reduced deforestation.
- Sanergy Kenya, https://www.sanergy.com/
- Provides safe toilet services that the government does not, then collects and transports the excreta, processing it at a huge scale, about 700,000 tons a year. Contributes to a circular economy as it creates numerous products out of one. Video here.
- MoSan Guatemala, https://mosan.ch/
- Delivers waterless toilets to rural areas with handcarts and uses microbiota to treat the resources on-site for reuse.
Organizations that can help you keep breaking the taboo
Shafner, Shawn. www.thepoopproject.org.
Articles, books, and weblinks
Bjerke, Lisa. “Is it a waste to call it waste?” TedX Dirigo. Link here.
Clark, Anna. Book Review of Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret. The New York Times. November 17, 2020. Link to article is here.
Flowers, Catherine Coleman. Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret. The New Press, 2020.
Lantz, Brianna. “Do Unto Those Downstream: Talking ecological justice and caring for our global neighbors with Sarah Nahar.” Nations magazine, October 30, 2019. Link is here.
Nahar, Sarah. “Discipleship and Defecatory Justice”. All Creation magazine, March 20, 2022. Link is here.
Nahar, Sarah. Research Note: Are We Flushing Peace Down the Toilet?: Discipleship and Defecatory Justice. The Mennonite Quarterly Review, 94(1), 103-115. Link is here.
Nahar, Sarah. Flushing Peace Down the Toilet: Strategies for the End of the World As We Know It. Notre Dame’s Kroc Center 20th Annual Dialogues on Nonviolence, Religion, and Peace. 2018 Keynote speaker. Link to video and transcript is here.
Thompson, Sarah. “An Ecological Beloved Community: An interview with Na’Taki Osborne Jelks,” Watershed discipleship: reinhabiting bioregional faith and practice, edited by Ched Myers and Denise Nadeau, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2016, pp. 102–120.
Thompson Nahar, Sarah. “Don’t Flush Peace Down the Toilet!” in Tikkun Magazine: Politics, Spirituality and Culture. Vol 34, No. 2/3, Spring/Summer 2019, pp. 97-102. Link here.