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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters » User review

Flush with pride--if you can

  • Feb 1, 2009
What is the cheapest toilet in developing countries? It is a plastic bag. "Kenyans call them helicopter toilets. Tanzanians prefer flying toilets. Whatever the name, the technique is the same..." Go. Wrap. Throw.

The plastic bag is one step up from open defecation, which according to the author, is still widely practiced in India.

We live in what the author calls a `flushed and plumbed' nation. It is hard to believe that 2.6 billion people must do without a toilet--what the U.N. delicately refers to as `access to clean water.' However, we Americans shouldn't be congratulating ourselves on our bathroom habits. Really advanced countries like Japan think that toilet paper is gross. "Japanese toilets can, variously, check your blood pressure, play music, wash and dry your [back and front parts] by means of an in-toilet nozzle that sprays water and warm air, suck smelly ions from the air, switch on a light for you...put the seat lid down for you (a function known as the `marriage-saver'), and flush away your excreta without requiring anything as old-fashioned as a tank."

"The Big Necessity" is a serious book about "the unmentionable world of human waste and why it matters." Rose George, its author is by turns courageous, humorous (although she tries hard to avoid potty jokes), and indefatigable. Different chapters find her exploring the sewage disposal systems (or lack thereof) in Thailand, China, India, Africa, and even the sewers of London (37,000 miles) and New York (6,000 miles).

She also has a genius for the telling anecdote: when describing a slum family in Nehru Nagar, India she says: "They had one dim room for six people, smaller than the average American parking space..."

When struggling into a pair of `crotch-high waders' in preparation for her trip into a London sewer, she makes mention of "the online Yahoo! Sewer-boots fetish group..."

If you don't believe `waste matters' just take a look at Zimbabwe, which used to have one of the best waste disposal systems in Sub-Saharan Africa. Its sewage system was neglected by an inept government, and now over 3,000 citizens (as of 02/01/2009) have died of cholera. The same thing could happen in London or New York City. It almost did happen in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. This really is an important book.

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Elaine Lovitt ()
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I'm a retired geek whose goal is to move to Discworld and apprentice myself to Granny Weatherwax. I have degrees in Astronomy and Computer Science, but was seduced by the Dark Side a few years before … more
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Starred Review. With irreverence and pungent detail, George (A Life Removed) breaks the embarrassed silence over the economic, political, social and environmental problems of human waste disposal. Full of fascinating facts about the evolution of material culture as influenced by changing mores of disgust and decency (the popularity of high-heeled shoes dates back to the time when chamber pots were emptied into the streets)—the book shows how even advanced technology doesn't always meet basic needs: using toilet paper is shockingly unhygienic and millions of government-built latrines in developing countries have been turned into goat sheds and spare rooms due to poor design, a lack of regular water supply or simply because the subsidized (and expensive) cement and stone structures are often more appealing than the village huts. George explores how discussions on the importance of clean drinking water and the eradication of infectious diseases euphemistically address how to handle human waste. From the depths of the world's oldest surviving urban sewers in to Japan's robo-toilet revolution, George leads an intrepid, erudite and entertaining journey through the public consequences of this most private behavior.(Oct.)
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ISBN-10: 0805082719
ISBN-13: 978-0805082715
Author: Rose George
Genre: Professional & Technical, Nonfiction
Publisher: Metropolitan Books
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