Any talk of poop usually induces giggles, but for David Waltner-Toews, it led to a book.
Since the dawn of life, excrement has been a source of energy and food, and an important recycler of nutrients in nature. Yet in many modern societies, poop is perceived as a problem—potentially dangerous waste that has no place in our lives.
So, in the cleverly named The Origin of Feces, Canadian veterinarian and epidemiologist Waltner-Toews does the dirty work of dispelling that perception, detailing how poop can be a solution to many environmental and health challenges, especially energy. For instance, in the slums of Nairobi, human poop powers hot showers and other services. In California, dog doo-doo keeps a dog park electrified. (Also see “Human Waste to Revive Haitian Farmland?”)
How did you approach a topic as broad as excrement?
I looked at the way it had been dealt with by other writers. Some people dealt with it as a management problem, some dealt with it as a public health problem. I’m very much interested in evolution and ecology, so I wanted to do sort of the evolutionary story of poop—where does it fit into the evolution of life and the ecological networks on this planet? It seemed to me that was the root of the problem we were facing—we had somehow taken poop out of context, and I wanted to put it back in.
[That approach] fit into the evolutionary story, which is where the title came from. I later discovered [The Origin of Feces] is also the title of a gothic metal rock album [by Brooklyn group Type O Negative]. I don’t listen to gothic metal, so I didn’t know.
I see you went to Tanzania to check out dung beetles. What was that like, and what other adventures did you have in writing the book?
I spent a lot of time traveling to other countries looking at poop—much to my wife’s dismay. One of the best experiences I had was in Tanzania when we were out in the bush with a couple of guides—they had elephant rifles in case we got attacked by large wild animals.
Everyone else is looking for megafauna such as elephants, rhinos, and giraffes, and I’m looking for scat and dung beetles, because I’d never actually seen a dung beetle in action. In Thailand at an elephant sanctuary, I got involved in making paper from elephant dung. You make a soup of the dung, dry it on racks, and then it makes a very nice paper. (See “Dung Beetles’ Favorite Poop Revealed.”)
Explain what you mean by “Unless we change how we think about [poop], we are doomed to forever live in it.”
Until very recently, people thought of poop like just a big pile of manure [that needs to be disposed of]. So it ends up in waterways, creating pollution that leads to people getting sick. We need to think about ways to use the energy in that poop in various ways. For example, people are using poop to produce electricity and heat with biodigesters. Countries like Rwanda have mandated that public institutions have to take waste and put it through biodigesters—this creates methane that in turn produces heat or electricity. So it’s not just waste.
Can you describe some more unsung benefits of poop?
The thing about excrement in general is that it’s part of life. Part of the argument I make in the book is that as soon as you have life, you have essentially poop. As life developed, the waste for one animal became food for another animal. We depend on a web of recycling of nutrients, and poop is an important part of that. People get sqeaumish but they shouldn’t be. If you don’t think of it as poop, but instead think of it as recycling nutrients, this is a really interesting and sustainable way to produce food.
It seems like poop is stigmatized a lot.
There’s a reason for that. When people became urbanized, they were taking drinking water from places where they pooped, creating cholera epidemics. We have this cultural memory of people getting sick because there was poop in the water. That doesn’t mean we can’t use it—we have to be careful about how we do it [for example, composting poop before it’s used as fertilizer]. We’ve got this conflicted sense of poop—on the agricultural side it’s useful as a fertilizer, but as we get urbanized, it becomes a pubic health problem. We might be able to reclaim poop as important and essential. (See “Fake ‘Poop’ Created, Could Cure Infections.”)
What kind of reactions have you gotten to the book?
People think of it as a funny thing to be writing about. I tried not to make it too heavy of a book. I’m of the opinion if you’re going to write science you want people to read it. A lot of it’s funny and entertaining—it doesn’t have to be dry.
What are the main takeaways people should get from your book?
If we don’t know s*** we sholdn’t be talking about other types of energy and sustainability. If we do know s***, we can begin to understand not just excrement but different ways of organizing ourselves and feeding ourselves on the planet.
What does your wife think of the book?
She’s already told people not to ask what I do for a living at the dinner table.
This Q&A has been edited for length and content.