One of the characteristics that separates 21st century homo sapiens from the other species with which we share the planet is that we relentlessly take from the natural world but seldom give back. The flawed economic system by which we imagine we sustain our lives places a commercial value on the planet’s resources but not an ecological one.
It is almost a cliché now to say that when we throw our waste away, there actually is no away but only someone else’s door step or some other life form’s habitat. But raised awareness does not seem to have reduced our disposable habits.
Our dilemma is that we must consume natural resources to live, yet these resources are finite and many are rapidly depleting. We have belatedly begun to re-cycle but far from enough. So we need to change our mindsets. We must start using only what we need, not what we think we need. We have to learn from nature and treat our waste as food – to nourish ourselves and all the other life forms of the planet that actually do sustain our lives.
In Paris and London and other European cities, it was once common to gather night soil – what Joseph Jenkins calls ‘humanure’ – to be returned to the land. George Orwell wrote in the 1930’s of back-to-back housing with several large families sharing a single outside earth toilet. But as our lives have increased in affluence so has our squeamishness about our effluence. ‘Away’ is now the flushing toilet and the sewage works and someone else’s problem that we no longer need to think very much about.
In 2005, Louise and I went to France to set up a home and eco-centre to experiment with leading lives of less resource use and less waste. Circumstances have since conspired to hold up our plans, at least for the time being. But what follows are some photos of how we approached re-using our household waste-water and our valuable ‘humanure’ to nourish our land. In our largely urban modern society, few of us live in places where we can practically do this, but the same principles apply to how we need to think about all of our waste, be it biological, domestic or industrial. “Rethinking, Refusing, Reducing, Re-using, Repairing, Re-cycling” and – only when finally unavoidable – “Returning” back to nourish the land-base we all depend upon to sustain us.
Building a Reed-Bed Waste Water Purification System
(Links & Resources in English and French follow)
Useful Links & Resources
Constructed Wetland Association
Geoff Durno – Reeds from Seeds
Nick Grant – Elemental Solutions
Joseph Jenkins – Humanure
Centre for Alternative Technology
Wikipedia – Composting Toilet
Wikipedia – Reedbed Water Treatment
Joseph Orszagh – Eautarcie
Joseph Jenkins – Humanure
Association Eau Vivante
Association Toilettes du Monde