Like many who have traveled I am intimately aware that umpteen people around the world have dirty, nasty, and awkward toilet facilities. It is great to see the world but sometimes even better to get back to my own bathroom. What I didn’t realize before reading The Big Necessity is that “2.6 billion people don’t have sanitation … Four in ten people have no access to any latrine, toilet, bucket, or box.”
These figures are astonishing and are what drew me to read The Big Necessity when a biology professor recommended it for Freshman Seminar classes. Ever since reading it I have been recommending it to people, from my book club of older women to my husband as he was deploying to Afghanistan. All of them, after giving me a strange look and being initially reluctant to tackle a book with a cover picturing a roll of toilet paper, have said that it was well worth reading. “Fascinating” was a word I heard a lot to describe the book and I agree–it is a surprisingly engrossing read.
Perhaps it is engrossing because this is a subject that we are even more reluctant to talk about than sex, but it is vitally important and affects us all. In ten chapters, British journalist Rose George travels from east to west as she looks at aging sewer systems in New York and luxurious robo-toilets in Japan. The chapters on biogas and biosolids point out that the admirable goal of making use of the resources in waste has advantages and big disadvantages. If you like to read while you eat, the chapter “Open Defecation-Free India” is the one to avoid over lunch, but even it has positive notes.
The Big Necessity isn’t a simple tirade about how people in poor countries have terrible lives while rich people have life easy–it is more than that. It points out how we are very conservative about our toilet habits–conservative in the sense that we don’t like to change them–deep down we feel that what our mother taught us when we were toddlers is how we should conduct our business all our lives. In many cases, whether we have a squat toilet or a seat, a private room or no doors is immaterial to health and safety but is individually very important to us.
This is an important book on an important subject that makes a great read for anyone interested in topics as diverse as international development to the psychology of our private acts.
Check the WRL catalog for The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why it Matters.