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Compost Toilets and Self-Rule

Compost toilet on an organic farm on the isle of Eigg, Scotland. Photo by Andy Wright, www.rightee.com
Compost toilet on an organic farm on the isle of Eigg, Scotland. Photo by Andy Wright, www.rightee.com

The ecological toilet is one of today's most hope-filled expressions of people's power and people's science. These toilets—which celebrate Gandhian simplicity and ecological sensibility—recover and honor traditional practices of healing and agriculture, related arts of non-violent living.

In contrast, the abuse of water via flush toilets renders it toxic as well as globally scarce. More than 40 percent of the water available for domestic purposes is used for transporting shit.

Mixing three rich, marvelous substances—water, urine, and shit—turns them into a poisonous cocktail. At a very high cost we seek to separate them again with dangerous chemicals and exotic technologies in “treatment plants.” We reduce our sacred waters into chemically treated H2O that pollutes our bodies and soils and waters.

Ecological toilet users cannot but smile with a certain sadness as they observe how their “free” and “civilized” flush toilet peers' stomachs are attached everywhere to the prisons of centralized, violent bureaucracies—the kinds Gandhi-ji resisted.

Returning our waters to the pristine purity of our ancestors' sensibility and sense of the sacred affirms the dignity and political autonomy of those who resist addiction to the technologies of professionals, bureaucrats, and centralized sewage agencies.

Just as Gandhi-ji's radical act of making his own salt at the culmination of the famous Salt March taught us about power and autonomy, a bucket-ful of soil collected from our own backyards, combined with some lime, can end our addiction to the chemicals and pipes of sewage empires. Incarnating our Mahatma in my own little mud hut, I enjoy the freedom I find in following him, taking hope from his first steps in humble living over a century ago.

And I take hope also in the initiatives for ecological toilets that are sprouting everywhere. Abby Rockefeller, the granddaughter of John D., for years has been championing the use of alternative toilets in New England. A few years ago, a town in Sweden stood first in the return to hu-manure, by rendering illegal continued addiction to the flush toilet.

True, it is not easy to abandon the addiction to flush toilets, and I can well imagine the challenge in places like Chicago or New York. Despite the difficulties of such struggles, serenely engaging in them is easier than continuing our blind race to the ecological, economic, and political disaster toward which we are currently running.

Gandhi was among the first to discover in the beginning of the 20th century that to follow in the economic, industrial, or political footsteps of England, we were joining in the global enterprise of violating and stripping the Earth bare like locusts. Honoring our “shit work” with Gandhi's regard for bread labor, we re-skill our hands and stop making waste, while offering golden soil to our garden's vegetables and fruit trees. Shit and food, no longer schizophrenically separated, come together organically in the great circle and web of life and daily living.


Madhu Suri Prakash wrote this article as part of Liberate Your Space, the Winter 2008 issue of YES! Magazine. Madhu studies grassroots initiatives that celebrate people's power in her books Grassroots Postmodernism and Escaping Education. She professes at Pennsylvania State University. Photo of Madhu Suri Prakash
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