While the Asians were practicing sustainable agriculture and recycling their organic resources and doing so over millennia, what were the people of the West doing? What were the Europeans and those of European descent doing? Why weren't our European ancestors returning their manures to the soil, too? After all, it does make sense. The Asians who recycled their manures not only recovered a resource and reduced pollution, but by returning their excrement to the soil, they succeeded in reducing threats to their health. There was no putrid sewage collecting and breeding disease germs. Instead, the humanure was, for the most part, undergoing a natural, non-chemical purification process in the soil which required no technology.
Granted, a lot of "night soil" in the Far East today is not composted and is the source of health problems. However, even the returning of humanure raw to the land succeeds in destroying many human pathogens in the manure and returns nutrients to the soil.
Let's take a look at what was happening in Europe regarding public hygiene from the 1300s on. Great pestilences swept Europe throughout recorded history. The Black Death killed more than half the population of England in the fourteenth century. In 1552, 67,000 patients died of the Plague in Paris alone. Fleas from infected rats were the carriers of this disease. Did the rats dine on human waste? Other pestilences included the sweating sickness (attributed to uncleanliness), cholera (spread by food and water contaminated by the excrement of infected persons), "jail fever" (caused by a lack of sanitation in prisons), typhoid fever (spread by water contaminated with infected feces), and numerous others.
Andrew D. White, cofounder of Cornell University, writes, "Nearly twenty centuries since the rise of Christianity, and down to a period within living memory, at the appearance of any pestilence the Church authorities, instead of devising sanitary measures, have very generally preached the necessity of immediate atonement for offenses against the Almighty. In the principal towns of Europe, as well as in the country at large, down to a recent period, the most ordinary sanitary precautions were neglected, and pestilences continued to be attributed to the wrath of God or the malice of Satan." 9
It's now known that the main cause of such immense sacrifice of life was a lack of proper hygienic practices. It's argued that certain theological reasoning at that time resisted the evolution of proper hygiene. According to White, "For century after century the idea prevailed that filthiness was akin to holiness." Living in filth was regarded by holy men as evidence of sanctity, according to White, who lists numerous saints who never bathed parts or all of their bodies, such as St. Abraham, who washed neither his hands nor his feet for fifty years, or St. Sylvia, who never washed any part of her body except her fingers.10
Interestingly, after the Black Death left its grim wake across Europe, "an immensely increased proportion of the landed and personal property of every European country was in the hands of the church." 11 Apparently, the church was reaping some benefit from the deaths of huge numbers of people. Perhaps the church had a vested interest in maintaining public ignorance about the sources of disease. This insinuation is almost too diabolical for serious consideration. Or is it?
Somehow, the idea developed around the 1400s that Jews and witches were causing the pestilences. Jews were suspected because they didn't succumb to the pestilences as readily as the Christian population did, presumably because they employed a unique sanitation system more conducive to cleanliness, including the eating of kosher foods. Not understanding this, the Christian population arrived at the conclusion that the Jews' immunity resulted from protection by Satan. As a result, attempts were made in all parts of Europe to stop the plagues by torturing and murdering the Jews. Twelve thousand Jews were reportedly burned to death in Bavaria alone during the time of the plague, and additionally thousands more were likewise killed throughout Europe.12
In 1484, the "infallible" Pope Innocent VIII issued a proclamation supporting the church's opinion that witches were causes of disease, storms, and a variety of ills affecting humanity. The feeling of the church was summed up in one sentence: "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." From the middle of the sixteenth to the middle of the seventeenth centuries, women and men were sent to torture and death by the thousands by both Protestant and Catholic authorities. It's estimated that the number of victims sacrificed during that century in Germany alone was over a hundred thousand.
The following case in Milan, Italy, summarizes the ideas of sanitation in Europe during the seventeenth century:
The city was under the control of Spain, and it had received notice from the Spanish government that witches were suspected to be en route to Milan to "anoint the walls" (smear the walls with disease-causing ointments). The church rang the alarm from the pulpit, putting the population on the alert. One morning in 1630, an old woman looking out her window saw a man who was walking along the street wipe his fingers on a wall. He was promptly reported to the authorities. He claimed he was simply wiping ink from his fingers which had rubbed off the ink-horn he carried with him. Not satisfied with this explanation, the authorities threw the man into prison and tortured him until he "confessed." The torture continued until the man gave the names of his "accomplices," who were subsequently rounded up and tortured. They in turn named their "accomplices" and the process continued until members of the foremost families were included in the charges. Finally, a large number of innocent people were sentenced to their deaths, all of this reportedly being a matter of record.13
One loathsome disease of the 1500s through the 1700s was the
"jail fever." The prisons of that period were filthy. People were confined in dungeons connected to sewers with little ventilation or drainage. Prisoners incubated the disease and spread it to the public, especially to the police, lawyers and judges. In 1750, for example, the disease killed two judges, the lord mayor, various aldermen and many others in London, including of course, prisoners.14
The pestilences at that time in the Protestant colonies in America were also attributed to divine wrath or satanic malice, but when the diseases afflicted the Native Americans, they were considered beneficial. "The pestilence among the Indians, before the arrival of the Plymouth Colony, was attributed in a notable work of that period to the Divine purpose of clearing New England for the heralds of the gospel." 15
Perhaps the reason the Asian countries have such large populations in comparison to Western countries is because they escaped some of the pestilences common to Europe, especially pestilences spread by the failure to responsibly recycle human excrement. They presumably plowed their manure back into the land because their spiritual perspectives supported such behavior. Westerners were too busy burning witches and Jews with the church's wholehearted assistance to bother thinking about recycling humanure.
Our ancestors did, eventually, come to understand that poor hygiene was a causal factor in epidemic diseases. Nevertheless, it was not until the late 1800s in England that improper sanitation and sewage were suspected as causes of epidemics. At that time, large numbers of people were still dying from pestilences, especially cholera, which killed at least 130,000 people in England in 1848-9 alone. In 1849, an English medical practitioner published the theory that cholera was spread by water contaminated with sewage. Ironically, even where sewage was being piped away from the population, the sewers were still leaking into drinking water supplies.
The English government couldn't be bothered with the fact that hundreds of thousands of mostly poor citizens were perishing like flies year after year. So it rejected a Public Health Bill in 1847. A Public Health Bill finally became an Act in 1848 in the face of the latest outbreak, but wasn't terribly effective. However, it did bring poor sanitation to the attention of the public, as the following statement from the General Board of Health (1849) implies: "Householders of all classes should be warned that their first means of safety lies in the removal of dung heaps and solid and liquid filth of every description from beneath or about their houses and premises." This may make one wonder if a compost pile would have been considered a "dung heap" in those days, and therefore banned.
Sanitation in England was so bad in the mid-to-late eighteen hundreds that, "In 1858, when the Queen and Prince Albert had attempted a short pleasure cruise on the Thames, its malodorous waters drove them back to land within a few minutes. That summer a prolonged wave of heat and drought exposed its banks, rotten with the sewage of an overgrown, undrained city. Because of the stench, Parliament had to rise early." Another story describes Queen Victoria gazing out over the river and asking aloud what the pieces of paper were that so abundantly floated by. Her companion, not wanting to admit that the Queen was looking at pieces of used toilet paper, replied, "Those, Ma'am, are notices that bathing is forbidden." 16
The Tories or "conservatives" of the English government still thought that spending on social services was a waste of money and an unacceptable infringement by the government on the private sector (sound familiar?). A leading newspaper, "The Times," maintained that the risk of cholera was preferable to being bullied by the government into providing sewage services. However, a major Act was finally passed in 1866, the Public Health Act, with only grudging support from the Tories. Once again, cholera was raging through the population, and it's probably for that reason that any act was passed at all. Finally, by the end of the 1860s, a framework of public health policy was established in England. Thankfully, the cholera epidemic of 1866 was the last and the least disastrous.17
The powers of the church eventually diminished enough for physicians to have their much-delayed say about the origins of disease. Our modern sanitation systems have finally yielded a life safe for most of us, although not without shortcomings. The eventual solution developed by the west was to collect humanure in water and discard it, perhaps chemically treated, incinerated or dehydrated — into the seas, into the atmosphere, onto the surface of the land, and into landfills.
It would be naive to suggest that the Asian societies are perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Asian history is rife with the problems that have plagued humanity since the first person slid out of the first womb. Those problems include such things as oppressive rule by the rich, war, famine, natural catastrophes, oppressive rule by heathens, more war, and now overpopulation.
Today, Asians are abandoning the harmonious agricultural techniques that Dr. King observed nearly a century ago. In Kyoto, Japan, for example, "night soil is collected hygienically to the satisfaction of users of the system, only to be diluted at a central collection point for discharge to the sewer system and treatment at a conventional sewage treatment plant." 18
A Humanure Handbook reader wrote an interesting account of Japanese toilets in a letter to the author, which is paraphrased here:
"My only real [humanure] experience comes from living in Japan from 19731983. As my experience is dated, things may have changed (probably for the worse as toilets and life were becoming 'westernized' even toward the end of my stay in Japan).
My experience comes from living in small, rural towns as well as in metropolitan areas (provincial capitals). Homes/businesses had an 'indoor outhouse.' The Vault: Nothing but urine/feces were deposited into the large metal vault under the toilet (squat style, slightly recessed in the floor and made of porcelain). No cover material or carbonaceous stuff was used. It stunk!! Not just the bathroom, but the whole house! There were many flies, even though the windows were screened. Maggots were the main problem. They crawled up the sides of the vault onto the toilet and floor and sometimes even made it outside the bathroom into the hall. People constantly poured some kind of toxic chemical into the vaults to control the smell and maggots. (It didn't help — in fact, the maggots really poured out of the vault to escape the chemicals.) Occasionally a slipper (one put on special 'bathroom slippers' as opposed to 'house slippers' when entering the bathroom) fell into the disgusting liquid/maggot-filled vault. You couldn't even begin to think about getting it out! You couldn't let little children use the toilet without an adult suspending them over it. They might fall in! Disposal: When the vault was full (about every three months), you called a private vacuum truck which used a large hose placed in an outside opening to suck out the liquid mass. You paid them for their services. I'm not sure exactly what happened to the humanure next but, in the agricultural areas near the fields were large (10 feet in diameter) round, concrete, raised containers, similar in looks to an above ground swimming pool. In the containers, I was told, was the humanure from the 'vacuum trucks.' It was a greenish-brown liquid with algae growing on the surface. I was told this was spread onto agricultural fields."
In 1952, about 70% of Chinese humanure was recycled. This had increased to 90% by 1956, and constituted a third of all fertilizer used in the country.19 Lately, however, humanure recycling in China seems to be going downhill. The use of synthetic fertilizers has risen over 600% between the mid 1960s to the mid 1980s, and now China's average annual fertilizer usage per hectare is estimated to be double that of the world's average. Between 1949 and 1983, agricultural nitrogen and phosphorous inputs increased by a factor of ten, while agricultural yields only tripled.20
Water pollution in China began to increase in the 1950s due to the discarding of sewage into water. Now, about 70% of China's wastewater is said to be dumped into China's main rivers. By 1992, 45 billion tonnes of wastewater were flowing into China's rivers and lakes annually, 70% untreated. In urban areas, 80% of the surface water is polluted with nitrogen and ammonia, and most lakes around cities have become dumping grounds for large quantities of sewage. It is estimated that 450,000 tonnes of humanure are dumped into the Huangpu River alone in a year. Half a million cases of hepatitis A, spread by polluted water, occurred in Shanghai in 1988. Soil-borne diseases, practically non-existent in China twenty years ago, are now also causing problems. "Increasingly, Chinese urban authorities are turning to incineration or landfill as the ways of disposing of their solid wastes rather than recycling and composting, which means that China, like the west, is putting the problem onto the shoulders of future generations." 21
For a sense of historical perspective, I'll leave you with a quote from Dr. Arthur Stanley, health officer of the city of Shanghai, China, in his annual report for 1899, when the population of China amounted to about 500 million people. At that time, no artificial fertilizers were employed for agricultural purposes — only organic, natural materials such as agricultural residues and humanure were being used:
"Regarding the bearing on the sanitation of Shanghai of the relationship between Eastern and Western hygiene, it may be said, that if prolonged national life is indicative of sound sanitation, the Chinese are a race worthy of study by all who concern themselves with public health. It is evident that in China the birth rate must very considerably exceed the death rate, and have done so in an average way during the three or four thousand years that the Chinese nation has existed. Chinese hygiene, when compared to medieval English, appears to advantage." 22
Sounds like an understatement to me.
Was this article helpful?