The Humanure Handbook

The Humanure Handbook is one of those alternate lifestyle classics that people have heard of, come across, intuit what it might be about – but rarely read in full or in depth. Much like War and Peace. Woody Allen once said, “I read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It’s about Russia”. Well the Humanure Book is not just about shit.

I recently sat down to read it and soon realised it’s a seditious book that can change you forever. I have read a few books that do that, but this one still remains sort of a black book. Naturally, you might say, because the subject is human excrement that Joseph Jenkins calls Humanure. But such an outlook is far from natural. Humanure like excrement of other life forms, is meant to be returned to enrich the soil. It is a valuable resource now being treated like a problem waste. Our ‘fecophobia’ -another Jenkins coinage- is a measure of separation from the web of life that we have suffered.

Jenkins’s mission is nothing less than to knock us out of our folly and make us realise we are throwing away a valuable resource- and in the process harm the planet. Take this data: by simply defecating “…Americans each year produced 1,448,575,000 pounds [0.7million Tonnes] of nitrogen, 456,250,000 pounds [0.2mill.T] of potassium and 193,900,00 pounds [0.1mill.T] of phosphorous”. And they are throwing it all away. Getting rid of this precious resource, needs billions of litres of good fresh water, piped to homes at great cost. In sewage ponds where the resource is flushed to, energy is expended to extract the valuable stuff – and readied for burial in landfills. Oh what a First World living that is! And our leaders in India are ever striving to give us that.

Scale that up for India’s population and you will be stricken by the tragedy of it all. If instead one simply composted the excrement where it is dropped, India would increase food production, reduce water use, improve public sanitation, conserve energy and strengthen its economy.

To bring that about would require visionary leadership that Gandhi alone possessed. So many fastidious sanctions exist around defecation in Indian culture that one is amazed Gandhi dared pioneer several departures. To me personally, Gandhi is a revolutionary not so much of the political kind as an environmental one.

Historically, China has been more sensible about excrement than India [-and today it is losing its senses faster than India]. According to Jenkins, in 1908 the successful bid was a sum of 31,000 gold dollars for the exclusive right to collect human excrement from all residences and public places in Shanghai. The contractor probably sold most of that to farmers to nourish their fields.

How wonderful it would be if a politician displayed daring and initiated a programme to massively convert excrement into compost everywhere in India. I don’t think what comes in the way is our traditional aversion for all things scatalogical; what is lacking is conviction.

7 thoughts on “The Humanure Handbook

  1. Well China was not the only place that had a traditional use for human excrement. In Goa many traditional country houses had a toilet with a large horizontal opening. The excrement would pass out to a pig sty, where domestic pigs would clean up the muck almost as soon as discharged. No septic tanks to maintain, no labor of composting, and free food for the pigs which could later be slaughtered for meat, thus completing the cycle. If one’s not apalled, and hygiene is not critical, this system of excrement disposal was hard to beat!
    If you find this hard to believe, just do a google search on ‘pig toilet’ and see for yourself.

  2. ok with humanure. But how will we be able to solve the problem of producing and storing it, and keeping the environment clean at the same time in a city.

    1. the difficulties with humanure begin in the head. one must first accept it as a valuable resource and not a waste to be ‘managed’. engineering issues of user friendly, clean toilet design are really very trivial

    1. indeed, yes; nature will strike a balance. in this instance, with emerging shortages of flush water and fuel for sewage works and landfill trucks, the balance will be striven for by spread of pathogens and disease. composting humanure locally and intelligently will free the load on resources and create a new, valuable one

  3. Hello again,

    It is a coincidence that we just returned from a retreat at Environment Sanitation Institute in Sugad, Ahmedabad. ESI was created by Padmashri Ishwarbhai Patel an ex-president of Harijan Sevak Sangh that Gandhi started. They have a variety of humanure technologies and teaching aids (which they gifted to us on our return). Let us know if we could help you with eco-sanitation in any way. You should also visit ESI if you can make time to know the technologies they have and also meet with one of our mentors, Jayeshbhai who runs Manav Sadhna at the Gandhi Ashram in Ahemedabad (and is the son of Ishwarbhai Patel).

    Ragu, Nisha

    1. hi nisha and raghu…
      you may have narrowly missed karpagam and sriram visiting the same places within days of your visit. they have returned very inspired

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