The Origin of Feces

By David Waltner-Toews

Shit – a mass-produced, everyday product – is something that for various cultural reasons we don’t talk about much. For veterinarian and epidemiologist David Waltner-Toews this is a mistake, as we (that is, all of us on this crowded planet) are at risk of drowning in a rising tide of shit. And “shit” is the preferred term, as Waltner-Toews surveys a wide array of words – crap, dung, manure, feces, excrement – but most often returns to shit as helpfully straddling popular and academic culture, science and everyday life. The point of the book being that we can’t find our way out of the shit we’re in if we don’t know shit (there is a lot of this, so be ready).

The material covers a lot of ground, from the cellular and chemical level of excrement to the precarious state of the planet’s health, and from the history of waste disposal to its future. Throughout, a layered approach is taken that fits with the author’s “holonocratic, panarchic” vision of how everything fits together. This is an awkward and not very well defined bit of terminology that basically means taking a holistic view of life, with different, interconnected levels of organization nested within one another and going through complex processes of growth, collapse and change. It is, the author suggests, only such an integrated approach that can deal with the “wicked” (difficult to clearly define or resolve) complexity of the problem shit poses.

Waltner-Toews obviously had a lot of fun writing this book and adopts a jokey tone throughout (the title is actually one of his weaker efforts). But he can also be very serious, and makes big claims for the subject, opining that “the natural order of life is based on shit,” and sounding an alarm over how “We are transforming a wonderful, complex planet into piles of shit”: a degraded and dangerous environment to find ourselves in.

Most readers familiar with environmental issues will be aware of the problem. Waste in all its forms is the dark side of consumption, and has been the subject of much thoughtful analysis. And the particular solutions suggested – chiefly finding new ways to make use of waste as fertilizer or fuel – are also well known. But it’s put into an informative and entertaining package here, and there’s some original consideration of important issues involved; in particular, given Waltner-Toews’s background, the nexus between the mass production and globalization of shit and the spread of infectious disease. Most impressive, however, is the the way The Origin of Feces challenges us to engage in new modes of thinking in order to find new solutions.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, May 2013.

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