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On Poop and Politics

— August 19, 2016

Our infrastructure, as Hillary Clinton pointed out recently in her economic plan, is old. We’re “living off the investments that were made by our parents and grandparents’ generations,” and many of those investments are starting to show their age. The functionality of municipal sewer systems is increasingly questionable: they’re falling apart because we don’t maintain them as well as we should. Because much of our sewer infrastructure was built so long ago, before we had this many people making this much use of it, we have simply outgrown the capabilities of many of our current systems. This is where poop and politics, which are barely distinguishable from each other even in the best of times, collide.

We don’t fix sewer systems very well for a couple reasons. One is that we don’t like the downtime or inconvenience, such as digging up streets or not being able to flush the toilet. Another is cost: in the current austerity fad, we’ve decided that taxation, especially to maintain any commons other than the military, is theft. In the public mind, it is a bigger moral imperative to make sure the wealthy can spend their money any way they want (such as on bank accounts in the Cayman islands, or perhaps orange toupees) rather than to tax them at a rate similar to what they paid back in the 1950s (when America was Great?) or even the 1970s, and spend that money on the upkeep of the infrastructure they used on the way to their riches. Perhaps the consensus among the “taxes are theft” crowd is that the wealthy will generously give this back to us in the form of jobs, despite the rich not spending nearly as much of their disposable income on the sorts of everyday purchases that create jobs. Maybe they’ll donate branded sewer systems as a modern form of noblesse oblige. I’m still waiting for this to happen. In the meantime, the infrastructure continues falling apart.

Historical graph of the marginal tax rates for the highest and lowest income earners, 1913-2015. Source:Tax Foundation, "U.S. Federal Individual Income Tax Rates History, 1862-2013", 17 October 2013, via Wikimedia Commons.
Historical graph of the marginal tax rates for the highest and lowest income earners, 1913-2015. Source:Tax Foundation, “U.S. Federal Individual Income Tax Rates History, 1862-2013”, 17 October 2013, via Wikimedia Commons.

Now, part of the problem is scale. In a perfect world, we would be able to manage our own waste products, whether it is trash or the sort of “compostable” waste that we currently flush, on our own property. This product used to be part of the nitrogen cycle, and the nutrients we consumed were cycled through us and back into the ground to become more food. In small amounts, such as family-level, this is still done around the world, safely and beneficially.

When population pressure is more intense, and more waste is produced in an area than the local bacteria can handle, such as in cities, we decided at some point to handle this communally. All the waste would be treated and the part that could be rendered safe would be sent down the river, and the remaining sludge would generally be incinerated. Because those nutrients are not returned to the soil, the soil is left wanting, and in order to grow more crops to feed us, we have to import nutrients from places like the seashore, where lots of birdcrap piled up over the centuries to a level we can mine for fertilizer. However, even that is running out (because so many people eat so much food, and flush the nutrients down the river), so we have to use fossil fuels to grow food, using more calories in oil energy to do so than we enjoy as food.

Anyway, I digress. When the rewards of economic growth were shared more widely and equitably, or even when the de facto aristocracy among us saw themselves as part of a patriotic collective (with responsibility towards the whole), we built our sewer infrastructure to handle the waste in the best way we knew how at the time. Now that we are receding as an empire, things are starting to fall apart a bit, and we are choosing to let our infrastructure be part of the sacrifice. In other words, when there’s less wealth to go around, when we’re on the downside of the bell curve of empire, we can no longer maintain all the luxuries to which we’ve become accustomed. Just like when you lose a source of income, we must, as a nation, decide what things we’re going to cut back on.

There seem to be at least two schools of thought about the best way to proceed down this path. One, which is currently ascendant, is that the nation should be largely privatized: that is to say, things like sewer and road infrastructure should be allowed to decay if that’s what the new owners want, in order to keep the remaining money in the hands of the upper class. The upper class is supposed to know way better what to do with it, such as “create gated communities” or “stash it in case they need to escape from incoming torches and pitchforks.” The rhetoric is that we all get to keep more of our money this way, but you probably don’t have as much money to keep as they do, and yours is likely getting funneled to them in other ways anyway, such as all those expensive car repairs you have to make because you’re traveling over craptastic roads to save them a few pennies. Believe me, if you are reading this, you are likelier than not to be shafted rather than saved by the “taxation is theft, so stop it” meme.

The other school of thought is that the costs that should be cut in the event of our general wealth drawdown are the more optional expenses. Let’s keep our sewer structure in good repair, but maybe not build as many publicly-funded sports stadiums. Or, better yet, let’s keep the sewers, maybe hooking them up to some better nutrient-recapturing strategy, but we won’t be able to afford as many idle rich with no sense of obligation to the people and society that enabled their good fortune. Let’s use our resources to create a mostly humane place for as many people as possible, rather than a spectacular wonderland for a few while keeping the rest immiserated. An annual visit to the Renaissance Faire is about as close as I want to get to feudalism.

Finally, it’s important to remember that even a fully-functioning, well-repaired sewer system is a hack, a patch put in place to deal with the waste output of more people than should really live in one place, and a poor substitute for the once (and, I believe, future) nitrogen and carbon cycle that moves from the soil to us and back to the soil again. That is the only system that is truly sustainable over time, and should be our eventual goal. Getting there might be politically difficult, but any long term plan that doesn’t take into account the sustainability of food production and waste management is simply full of poop.


Flushing the Toilet Has Never Been Riskier
Rich People Are Great at Spending Money to Make Their Kids Rich, Too
The Pitchforks Are Coming… For Us Plutocrats
The Stink About Human Poop As Fertilizer
Humanure: Goodbye, Toilets. Hello, Extreme Composting
Eating Fossil Fuels

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