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Talking Poop With Author of “The Origin of Feces”

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?”)

Waltner-Toews gave Weird & Wild the poop on his new book, which is available for preorder before it’s published in May by ECW Press.

David Waltner-Toews rolls up his sleeves making paper out of elephant dung in Thailand. Photograph courtesy ECW Press.

David Waltner-Toews rolls up his sleeves making paper out of elephant dung in Thailand. Photograph courtesy ECW Press.

 

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.

Origin of Feces picture

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.”)

A dung beetle rolls its ball of feces in South Africa. Photograph by Chris Johns, National Geographic

A dung beetle rolls its ball of feces in South Africa. Photograph by Chris Johns, National Geographic

 

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.”)

Fungus grows on elephant dung in Malaysia. Photograph by Yusri Hashim, Your Shot

Fungus grows on elephant dung in Malaysia. Photograph by Yusri Hashim, Your Shot

 

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.

Comments

  1. Omar
    Accra. Ghana
    March 1, 2013, 6:06 pm

    After all it is TRUE that NOTHING is WASTE on mother earth. Our disgusting poop could be sooo pleasantly Life-sustaining. Bless YOU!

  2. Daniel Gunnard Beamish Gibson
    Rhinecliff NY
    February 8, 2013, 11:53 pm

    Saw the title of this article and came here to make sure there was some Type O Negative props; was delighted to see that there is! Very cool article; will be checking out this book!

  3. Jerry Haigh
    Saskatoon
    February 8, 2013, 10:16 am

    Great interview on an important subject. Elephant manure has been made into paper in Kenya for years and provides a nice gift as well as a good conversation topic (even at the dinner table!)

  4. Ima Ryma
    February 8, 2013, 1:37 am

    Humans have given us bad rap,
    Nastified in both act and word.
    Humans can be so full of crap,
    Blaming us for their ills – absurd!
    If humans would just use their head
    Half as much as they use their rump,
    They would know we have good to spread
    O’er Earth where humans tend to dump.
    More better food and energy
    Are found in nutrients we bear.
    Humans can use us usefully
    On this planet that we all share.

    Think of us as a giving group,
    Much good is possible with poop.