Gene Logsdon and Friends

Bill Gates Wants To Solve The Poop Problem

In Gene's Weekly Posts on August 24, 2011 at 7:41 am

From GENE LOGSDON

I can’t write about this without sounding like I’m blowing my own horn. Bill Gates, bless him, has discovered manure. I don’t know if he has read my book, Holy Shit, or Joseph Jenkins’ book, Humanure, but he’s acting like he might have. He is offering $42 million in grants to spur new designs and ideas for handling our bodily wastes in a less bankrupting way than we are using today. There are already good compost toilets out there, and other ways to handle or replace flush toilet water are in the process of development, but I am sure, and Mr. Gates must think so too, that the more brains we can get involved in this, the better. Clint and Bobbi Elston, founders of the Equaris Corporation in Afton, Minn., tell me that they have already applied. They have invented an impressive array of home appliances to recycle toilet water and gray water and to separate feces from urine, and to cleanse toilet flushes of the bad effects of throwing pills and hormonal products down the pot, which, in an advanced culture, would be forbidden. Scientists have announced a way to extract the phosphorus out of sewage water to use for fertilizer. Just last week the news was captivated by reports of new projects in the works to turn waste water into drinking water.

The problem with all these admirable inventions and discoveries is that they are expensive or are aimed at the whole society including densely populated areas where it is exceedingly difficult for people to use them at present even when they desire to do so. I think, as we begin the heavy task of changing our culture away from its fear of shit, that we focus first on areas where handling the stuff is comparatively easy, that is where populations aren’t so dense yet. If in the United States we could get just 50 million of our 300 plus million people to turn their wastes into valuable fertilizer, the savings in money and environmental damage would be enormous.

So I have a suggestion which would be a whole lot of fun as well as possibly the best first answer to Mr. Gates’ challenge. Why don’t all of us country people (and I’m thinking especially of the imaginative and innovative readers of this blog) amuse ourselves by designing, and perhaps even building, the MOST COMFORTABLE OUTHOUSE IN THE WORLD. I am talking about an outhouse that even the Queen of England would die to have in her backyard. Can you imagine how we could change our cultural attitude toward shit with a photo of the Queen seated on her plush satin-covered outhouse throne, with a shining little cut glass chandelier overhead, surrounded by richly brocaded interior walls and exterior walls of beautiful soapstone? Modestly veiled under several layers of the latest Paris styles (the latest Paris styles aren’t all that modest so you need a couple layers of them), she would be staring pensively and rapturously out her privy door at lovely gardens all around fertilized by her very own composted defecation. Overnight our wastewater problem would be solved. House and garden magazines would vie to see which of them could feature the most beautiful garden house privy. Gated communities would compete over who could adorn their outdoor living centers with the most sumptuous shithouse ever built.

I have some ideas about what that outhouse would look like. Jeff Cox, a California garden writer whom many of you know and who is an old acquaintance of mine, built, in his earlier Pennsylvania years, an outhouse with stained glass windows in it, or so he told me. I would like stained glass windows in my outhouse too and think, since we are talking here of very small-scale architecture, that they could be quite affordable. Stained glass windows would get around the problem of people peeping in on me, God forbid.

I’d want a brick exterior in honor of all those hoary old jokes about brick shithouses. I’d like a slate or tile roof. Inside, I want carpeting all around, mother of pearl toilet seats and seat covers that would keep all insects and odors out of sight and smell. Surely a heater and outside air exchanger would be standard. Also I’d want a coffeemaker, a shelf for books, a lamp to read by, and Internet access. I suppose I should specify Microsoft software if I want to catch Mr. Gates’ attention. Most of all, I’d have a built-in music entertainment center. Binoculars would be standard equipment so I could watch birds and other wildlife while I relieved myself. I doubt I’d want a phone however since this little retreat would be my sanctuary, as calm as a Trappist monk’s cell, but not at all austere. The line of world-weary people wanting to use my little house in the woods, or on the prairie, would stretch around the world.
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  1. Sad, but true. What is it about being American that we seem more interested in the ‘packaging’ than the functionality?

  2. How about a reclining seat? That would help prevent the legs from falling asleep when sitting too long.
    Maybe a high back rest with a pillow so you could better relax.

  3. Been around outhouses all my life. The town hall, where I grew up in NH, had them attached to the back. So did the Grange hall – where I went to school for a year while the two room schoolhouse was getting an addition.

    The main problem with outhouses was they stunk and didn’t compost right because too much piss was mixing in with the shit. And people would use them to piss in when they should have gone outside.

    In 1974 I designed an outhouse, that was approved by the state of NH, to rectify the problem – but never built it because I moved to Maine with a new wife – and a house with a flush toilet…

    Later on, I got divorced and ended up with a place with an outhouse. Never stank as the only piss that would go in was when I was taking a shit.

    Then, even further on, I needed to get homeowners’ insurance and figured the “inspector” wouldn’t go along with the outhouse so I installed a toilet in the house, succumbed to the lure of not heading to the outhouse during the winter, and began using the toilet.

    A couple of years ago I hitched up with a woman who convinced me to piss in a jug (as she does) and dump the jug on a pile of hardwood leaves raked up in the fall and, after composting for a while, they end up in the garden.

    But, now that I’m thinking about all this, I should probably go back to shitting in the outhouse and figure out where to go from there.

    I hope people don’t mind me not using “urinate” and “defecate”. Call it what it is…

  4. It should be a requirement that every one of these new outhouses have a hardback copy of Holy Shit on the bookshelf….not as a replacement for the defunct catalogs, of course.

  5. Well, not “too” comfortable either, you don’t want people to line up outside waiting for the previous occupants to finish reading and answering their email… ^-^

    It’s a complex issue really, with 2 types of high human density environments, cities and shanty towns, one of which has plenty of water, electricity and sewers, the other none, so you probably need different solutions to address the different problems.

    Outhouses don’t make sense only in the countryside where space is plentiful, they would probably make sense in high density areas too, as it is the best way to concentrate and collect human wastes of several families or a whole block.
    Maybe the best way to encourage this shared toilet facilities system would be an economical incentive, such as paying the customer every month for his “production”, either in money from the sale of the resulting compost, or in meat, grain or produce grown indirectly from this compost (since it would not be sanitary to grow them directly from human wastes.)

    I don’t think we need any new patent or grant though. Just a change of mindset and the will to turn what we used to consider waste into something valuable. But I like the idea of the outhouse, as long as it’s made communal for 100 persons or so, with specific urinals or toilets just for liquid wastes, maybe areas for kids with appropriately sized toilet seats, easy access for carts to transport a day’s worth of waste to the location where the compost will mature, etc.

    It could be a place of great fun as well as great usefulness, maybe part of a bigger communal place, with clothes washing facilities, a bar or meeting place, a library, underground a school.

  6. I’ve been doing a lot of backpacking this summer in the Colorado wilderness.

    My son informed me that shit on the surface dries out in a day and disappears in a week. If you pee on the paper, it disappears within a couple of days.

    Personally, I try to brown blaze until we come across an outhouse, but when one isn’t available, it’s really easier to shit in the woods.

    The downhill skier position works well and it is best for grunting. However the thinker position is good with a phantom seat. A modified version is with the arms crossed and resting on the knees. These are better for easy shit.

    There is also the bear shit position which is holding onto a tree and leaning back. Just don’t pee uphill or your shoes will get wet.

    The problem with outhouses is you leave a pile of shit. I’ve read of archeological digs in ruins thousands of years old where they dug that shit.

    Another problem with outhouses is they aren’t portable.

    Having been in the military, I know horseshit seldom disappears and it’s on a lot of trails. Chickenshit is harder to see, but I know it’s around. You’d have to ask a farmer about that.

    As for a plush outhouse for the queen, I think that’s bullshit. I don’t give a shit if she is doesn’t want to take a shit like the rest of us. She is probably too good to wipe off the seat after she is done.

    Have a nice shitty day :)

    Gershon

  7. I actually come from a community in which people spend a fair amount of energy and creativity on their “outhouses”. The local school does an annual calendar, and one year the theme was outhouses. Some are pretty nice…and the best one was more or less a throne made with a tall, hollow, western red cedar log, polished and varnished on the outside….nice majestic stairs going up…and a covered throne atop.

  8. I love this post! Not many of us who grew up in the 80′s experienced using an outhouse, but I did. My grandmother (who we lived with for a time and I visited very often) had no running water in her old farmhouse. While I’m glad to have water that doesn’t need to be carried to the kitchen, the outhouse wasn’t so bad. When you consider the cost, well… maybe. :) Our family has already chosen to live without central air, so I suppose this is the next logical step. ;)
    My silly little blog is called “Fur Lined Toilet Seats” in honor of Grandma and the jokes she made about my mom when we moved to our “fancy” house in town. We still don’t know if Grandma was jealous of our toilet or a bit sad that we moved, but that term still makes me stop to evaluate whether things are necessary.
    As always, thanks for sharing here. This is one of my favorite blogs.

  9. I’m with Jeff on perfecting the seat before I spend too much money on the other accoutrements. A ring around the moon sometimes indicates impending rain and sometimes varying degrees of posterior paralysis.

    I liked the way you resolved the seeming paradox of using Paris styles and modesty in the same sentence.

  10. Yup. ‘S gettin there. The Queen of England may not be a hard recruit, since her son Charles has been an organic farmer for decades.

    The problem will be the same as it always is – centralization vs decentralization. I’m guessing that Mr. Gates is on the centralization side. Centralized shit is someone else’s problem. Since it won’t go into my back yard, I don’t have to act responsibly with it. If it were going into my back yard, whatever the system, I would be much more careful of what went into it and how well the system operated. Most ideas would work with a distributed system. I don’t expect anything to work with a centralized one except a centralized windfall of iffy fertilizer for someone paid for by us honest shitters.

    But, congrads! I’m sure I couldn’t get Bill Gates attention for anything!

  11. Frankly, I don’t think its a design issue at all, but rather a matter of political motivation. Which I think could be very readily, and even profitably, accommodated. To wit, I have no doubt that a proposition to build shit houses could be wildly popular among, say, a good many of the queens’ subjects without the expense of lavish accoutrements. It could be as simple as hanging a couple of sheets around the hole with the only decor consisting of a photograph of her majesty at the bottom of the hole. Of course there would be those relishers of royal subjugation who would want to retaliate by having their own privies smartly outfitted with photos of whomever they deemed to be the icons of those insubordinate bastards.

    In these days of the internet and instant global communication there would be another, almost instantaneous, Brit invasion. Think of it. The repubs would be clamoring for outhouses with stacks of Obama pix and the dems would meet them at the pass with full color mugshots of Carl Rove or Bush or Boehner or whomever. A measure of one’s electability would no doubt become how many images of you were stashed in the other side’s shit lockers. Internationally there’s another whole level of outhouse approbation to be considered. In the west there would be great demand for Ahmadinejad likenesses and around the corner would be a matching demand for copies of the great white satan of the day. 1.5 billion Chinese could contribute to fertility by relieving themselves on the Dalai Lama (whether they wanted to or not).

    PETA members would be having fundraisers to purchase pix of the golden arches or Don Tyson or whatever, and vegans would all want to dump on bow hunters. How hard is it to imagine KKK members doing their business on the face of the president of the ACLU. We could perhaps even go from real wars to shit wars, and our Mother would be loving it.

    It would be no time at all before our suffering planet would be far more full of shit than it already is, but shit of a useful kind. And yes, tree huggers, we’d have to cut down some trees to print all those images, bit with all that shit we could grow trees so thick the sunlight would never reach the ground.

  12. If there really was an outhouse for the queen, it would be 2 stories. The queen would use the top and the subjects would use the bottom.

  13. Ah, a regular discussion of ours around the farm is should it be a two-seater? And if so, what’s the best arrangement? Pilot – copilot? Or pilot – bombardier?

  14. I wish my parents were alive so they could appreciate that one of their favorite similes may actually become a reality. To this day I still describe overdesigned objects as “fancy as a fur lined shitpot”. I wouldn’t go with carpeting in any crapper just because some people are poor shots even when sober, and you have to design things for the lowest common denominator. Another factor to consider when peeing outdoors is windage; always pee downwind.

    Nick: where did you find a woman like that, and does she have a sister or mother that would relocate to Ohio?

    Gershon: you’re going to have to help me out, and explain what brown blazing is. I have led a sheltered life.

  15. Along the Appalacian Trail, white blazing is going along the trail as marked. It refers to the color of the blazes on the trees.

    Blue blazing is going out of your way for water or a shelter.

    Grey blazing is skipping a section by taking Greyhound.

    Yellow blazing is hitch-hiking to skip a section.

    Brown blazing is a term I came up with to go out of my way for an outhouse or to wait for one when I need to go.

    (These colors are often used for all trails.)

  16. I have been trying to solve this problem from the “give them bread and a circus” angle. I would like to get a fleet of hot air balloons,attach outhouses instead of baskets and take them to New York City to hover over Wall Street.I am sure people would line up for miles to take a dump on this Icon of Avarice! I’m thinking about making this a public company-from what I have seen of the characters who are practioners of The Great Federally Condoned Stock Market and Banking Scams;there would be plenty of consultants from the Finance Culture knocking on my door to try to get a piece of the action-even if it ends up fouling their own nest. On second thought-I think I’ll keep the company private-don’t want my ideas getting “subprimed”! Gene you really got me laughing with this post-as a wiseman once said-Give me the luxuries and I can do without the necessities.”! There is wisdom in your trickledown fashion ploy.

  17. Gene, you missed one design item–you need a snacks bar so you can be sure that you will have plenty of incoming to keep the outgo level up!

  18. One thing I know from Microsoft. Windows won’t work well.

  19. While I enjoy the idea of designing new outhouses, I must admit society will never revert to them. We are too pampered by the luxuries of indoor plumbing. However, I have faith that we can and eventually will solve this problem with a sustainable version of indoor plumbing. Nobody cares how the waste leaves the house, the key is that you get to stay in the house.

    On a side note, I still have my great-grandparents outhouse. We had to sell the house, but made sure to crate up the outhouse and ship it to our place. It’s a tad dilapidated, but still features the original slate roof and a window to boot. We decided to keep it because “that’s where all the family decisions were made.”

    • Kenny; that must have been one ginormous outhouse (we call them long drops in NZ). Since families were quite large in those days the mind boggles thinking of everyone crammed in there having a family conference! Just kidding – I know what you meant.

  20. Not my idea, but rural communities could run their effluent through a cattail channel, then harvest the cattail roots’ starch for ethanol. Ethanol yield is higher per acre than corn, and it keeps fuel expenditures within the community.

  21. They are all great ideas just as long as no one uses that gawd awful blue stuff that makes shit smell a thousand times worse than in real life!

  22. I still think our water treatment facilities could be a net producer of energy instead of a drain. As far as home wastes. Biogas anyone?

  23. Down the tar road a piece from me the local historical society has a tennat farmers house from the 1930′s. It has a indoor 2 hole pit toilet.

    And in NY state where I live, its still legal (if you have 50+) acres to have an outhouse of any style…with or without stain glass…

  24. Honestly, Gene, that’s a lot of entertainment in your ideal outhouse, are you getting enough fiber in your diet?

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