Salvaging the Excesses of Our Industrial, Consumer-Oriented Civilization

A couple of years ago, my family and I moved onto a small, abandoned piece of land that had once provided a thriving, subsistence existence for a family that had long since moved on to the supposed promises of glamour and wealth of the city. Since that time, the farm had become overgrown with thickets, and much of the first months on the farm were dedicated to clearing the mess of vines and brush, enough to at least build a small space to live.

Out of necessity, we created a simple composting toilet system which amounted to nothing more than a five gallon plastic bucket, a bunch of sawdust, and a compost pile. The visitors that came to share with us in the initial stages of beginning our agrarian dream most likely thought that our bucket toilet was nothing more than a transitory step towards something more customary; namely a toilet that flushes.

Today, our homestead is beginning to take shape. We´ve moved from the small, wood cabin surrounded by thickets to a two-story adobe home surrounded by flowers. The weeds and brush have gradually given way to asparagus fields and quinoa plantations. But the bucket toilet remains. While many of our friends are confounded by this seemingly out of place eccentricity, we have come to see our bucket toilet not only as practical and as a needed source of fertility for the farm, but also as an assertion of the fundamental principle to return the excesses of our consumption back into the health and resiliency of the land itself.

In the early 1900´s, the agricultural scientist Franklin Hiram King travelled to China to learn about the agricultural methods of people on the other side of the world. While agriculture in North America was founded on the myth of the never ending frontier which was always there to provide more land, more fertility, and promises of infinite abundance (once it was stolen from the Native Americans), the Chinese had been sustainably farming the same plots of land for generations.

In his book “Farmers of Forty Centuries” that detailed his learning from Chinese peasants, King was most marveled at the carts of “night soil” being toted from the towns towards the rice fields. Night soil was nothing more than the accumulated feces of an entire town that was moved to the rice fields (at night, due to the stench) and spread out over the fields as a way to maintain fertility of the fields.

While we might turn our noses up at the idea of using fresh human excrement on the fields where we grow our food (our bucket system composts for over a year before making its way to the peach orchard), the fact that the Chinese were able to maintain the fertility of the same fields for over 2,000 years contrasts sharply with modern day, industrial farming which, according to one study, could very well deplete the entire world of its topsoil within sixty years.

In many ways, our industrial, consumer focused civilization continues to be characterized by the myth of the frontier. While the land itself is no longer the focus of this frontier mentality, the power that has come with the ability to utilize fossil fuel power to advance our limitless desires to reshape the earth for our own comforts and aspirations follows from the same logic.

In the agricultural realm, depending on oil-based fertilizers for the fertility our crops need is obviously not a long-term solution given the inescapable fact that oil is a finite resource. We need to fundamentally reconsider our relationship to the land that sustains us and learn to respect the basic principle of returning to the land what we take from it.

How to Give Back to the Land

I don´t think that the only way to give back to the land is through the universal adoption of our “humanure” waste management system. One of the propitious, though reproachful, aspects of our modern-day civilization is that excess and surplus abounds. While this reality speaks to our overconsumption, greed, and lack of resourcefulness, it also presents numerous opportunities.

In Santiago Atitlan, a small, indigenous town in Guatemala, the local population were having a hard time finding what to do with the truckloads of organic waste that littered the streets of town after market day. After several years of trucking banana peels, rotten lettuce, and bean husks to a makeshift landfill, the town recently inaugurated a massive composting plant. The excess organic waste of an increasingly urbanized area is now converted to compost and sold back to small scale coffee farmers to fertilize their crops.

In North America we love to eat meat, too much probably. While animals used to be raised on small, family farms where their manure would fertilize the pasture that fed them, today we depend on CAFO´s, or concentrated animal feeding operations, to produce the majority of the meat that we eat.

In Duplin County, North Carolina, the over 2.35 million pigs produced 15.5 million tons of manure in one year. In a society typified by moderation and correct scale, we would only raise enough animals where we could feasibly return the manure from those animals back into the land. Our industrial civilization, however, has forfeited any sense of correct scale for extravagance, excess, and intemperance.

While the long term view should encourage us to embark upon the arduous task of reshaping our civilization to respect the natural limits of the land that sustains us, in the short term, we need to find ways to utilize the excesses that abound.

One local paving company is exploring the possibility of using pig manure to make asphalt for paving roads. The manure from one pig´s lifetime can generate several dozens of crude oil which can be processed into durable asphalt for paving roads. This is one example, of how the excesses of our society (in this case the surplus of pig manure from an unsustainable animal raising strategy used to feed a gluttonous meat-based diet of too many North Americans) can be salvaged for the greater goal of long-term sustainability.

The excessive and mostly superfluous consumption that characterizes our society and the abundant waste that flows from the industrial machine needs to come to an end. Re-imagining a culture that learns to respect the natural limitations of the world, however, requires profound cultural change. One of the steps towards creating a civilization that gives back to the world what we take from it is finding ways to reincorporate the excesses of our contemporary world into the health and well-being of the land which ultimately sustains us.

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