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How could you not buy a book called The Origin of Feces? Darwin would have plunked for it in a heartbeat. When you flip through it you see chapter titles like Turds of Endearment, The Other Dark Matter, and Know S__t.


What you get is a spider web. The more you read, the more you are drawn into an ecological analysis like you have probably never seen. There are lots of puns, lots of jokes and lots of anecdotes - at first. But it gets serious and comes out hopeful in, as it were, the end.

Although there is lots of interesting information on evolution and the role of waste, the real impact comes from the unfathomable complexity of ecology. We know next to nothing. Everything we do on this planet has an effect, and it's usually negative. We learn that the remaining sperm whales remove 200,000 tons of carbon from the atmosphere every year. So what will it be: sushi or clean air? It also turns out that ambergris, that precious, rare fragrance additive, is composed of whale waste. Musk is civet waste. Guano in Peru is protected by armed guards. Some Amazonian fish feed on fruit, and spread the seeds as waste. If we decide to "harvest" the fish, it will cripple fruit tree numbers there. Everything plays a role; every activity has an outcome. But we are not adding value.

For a very long time, we used to appreciate the role of human waste. In 18th century Japan, they were already practicing sustainable agriculture. Tokyo, (then called Edo) crossed the million mark in 1721, and managing the waste with zero technology was not a problem. Homeowners and building owners sold it to farmers, who sold the resulting vegetables in markets there. If there was a vacant apartment, everyone's rent went up because there would be less waste for the landlord to sell. In those days, 50% of waste went to fertilize the fields. Today, not so much. Toews says we are "mostly amnesic about the ecological and economic benefits of manure." We prefer chemical compounds we know nothing about. We turned feces from a solution into a problem.

The increase in population and the increase in farm animals mean waste is out of control in addition to not being employed. Disease outbreaks occur all over the world, with increasing frequency, scale and effect. Technology has not kept pace.

The main point seems to be that if we think we have THE solution, we are way off base. Everything we do to produce more is killing off life that uses it. Pesticides that make for higher yields also kill off dung beetles that bury manure in the earth. Recycling and importing are a near total disaster. We import water and nutrients (translocation) in foods from all over the world, depriving the originating country of them, and polluting the receiving country with foreign nutrients and bacteria in waste. Even within the nation, we take nutrients from the countryside where they are needed and expel them in cities where they are a problem. We are physically altering global ecosystems. We have no idea what that means.

Our big scale solutions pose possibly the most danger. They can do the most damage and if they go off course, their negative impact could be disastrous: "In the long run, health for all means grief for many." That's a Catch-22 we need to consider. And if we look to same source to solve the problems it created, we're certain to screw up - and that according to Albert Einstein.

Technology is not going to be the solution. So Toews looks to tackle problems one by one. He cites all kinds of innovative projects all over the world. Some are specific to their location and climate. Some succeed admirably. Some don't do much. But this way, we can't push the planet over into Tilt while we deal with the mess we created.

Toews himself is still out there changing the world. He founded Veterinarians Without Borders, and has written widely and deeply. His passion is front and center. His humor is a welcome addition to a serious problem, making The Origin of Feces a worthy read.

Not a s____y book at all.

David Wineberg
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