John's Reviews > The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters

The Big Necessity by Rose George
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's review
Dec 30, 2008

really liked it
Read in December, 2008

If you glance over my previously listed books, you'll have noted that I'm on a "end of civilization as we know it" reading jag, and this book fits right into the series. In fact, in many ways it's the best of the lot. Excreting is something we all do and almost none of us like to think about it, let alone talk about it, let alone read a whole book on the subject. But, because of this, our ignorance is immense. Who would have guessed, for example, that the world divides between those who clean themselves after defecating using something dry (leaves, corn cobs, toilet paper) or with water (or other liquid substance like a disinfectant), and that the logic lies with the half we (you and me, pal) don't belong to. This alone was enough to unsettle me, whereas a whole book on where our trash goes utterly failed in making me a recycle nut.

But enough about me. Disposing of human waste is a huge problem in the world and only getting worse. If you think out of sight is out of mind, consider the arrangement for this in Dar es Salaam, called "flying toilets": you defecate into a plastic bag and toss it onto a neighbor's roof. He doesn't complain, because when you're not looking, he tosses his on your roof. Generally speaking, this is a metaphor for how we all deal with the problem. The situation in third-world countries is desperate, to be sure, but we have a long way to go ourselves. And this book isn't just eye-opening, it's jaw-dropping as well. And, if you want an interesting thought experiment to perform, ask yourself what might replace toilet paper (the average American uses 57 sheets a day) in our own lives.
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