October 3, 2010

Spirituality, My Girlfriend, and a Composting Toilet.

Every time I bring up the subject of acquiring a composting toilet, my girlfriend tells me, “Feel free to set it up… somewhere else.”

In case you don’t know what a composting toilet is, it’s like a regular toilet, except it turns your, uh, (what’s a good literary word?) effluvium, into compost – the same compost gardeners and farmers everywhere want for their flowers and plants.

And if you happen to know me, then you also know that I’ve pretty much lived all my life in apartments, and in cities, and my greatest success as a gardener so far has been keeping alive the $3.49 basil plant that I got at Trader Joe’s last Spring.

So why’s a city-dwelling, apartment-dwelling, no-good-gardener all of a sudden so interested in generating compost?

You see, up until recently I lived in a spiritually black-and-white land of right and wrong as far as eating animals was concerned. As in, I didn’t eat them, and I was right, and everyone else who did was wrong. Alas, I’ve awoken to a world of moral relativism by reading Lierre Kieth’s The Vegetarian Myth. My 33-year-old adventure in vegetarianism contained a number of illusions dismantled by her book. Among them is the illusion that by eating vegetarian (or even vegan) I wasn’t causing wholesale death to animals. But in fact, for the sake of agricultural monocrops, large swaths of the earth are cleared and the self-maintaining ecosystems that existed there (along with the species that lived there) are eradicated. My vegetarianism comes at the cost of those ecosystems. And yes, I’m familiar with the argument that raising crops to feed cattle is wasteful since you can feed many more people with the same crops. I also know that raising animals in large operations (“factory farming”) under painfully overcrowded conditions is inhuman, cruel, environmentally damaging and wasteful. What Lierre points out in her book is that those two arguments assume a factory-farming model (which she condemns) whereas if the animals ate the grasses they’re meant to eat – the grasses that grow in their natural habitat – not only would there be a natural self-sustaining balance (think of the millions of bison that the prairies once supported) but there would also be none of the biosystem eradication through agriculture nor the eventual degradation, erosion and disappearance of topsoil, which she points out is the ultimate endpoint of agriculture as we’ve been practicing it for the last ten thousand years. And we don’t see this erosion and disappearance of topsoil currently because for sixty years we’ve been using fossil-based fertilizer, and someday that will be depleted.

This is where the whole composting thing comes in.

And yes, despite being a city slicker, I have been composting all my food scraps for years, first by placing them in friends’ compost or worm bins, and then by benefiting from the city of Seattle’s curb-side “Clean Green” food and kitchen scraps weekly pick-up – which is then turned into compost. (Actually, I was never able to convince any of my landlords to sign up for the Clean Green program, which is pretty cheap, so I’ve just been participating by stuffing my paper bag of compostable materials in any of the adjoining neighbors’ Clean Green bins. Call me the Stealth Composter.)

But even if all our cities adopt this Clean Green model, we as a society are not returning enough to the earth – we’re still missing our, ahem, effluvium, plus our flesh and bones (we pump them full of embalming fluid and we seal them inside a coffin that keeps the mineral nutrients from being reabsorbed into the earth). We pour on fertilizer drawn from fossil sources (sources that, perhaps naively, we hope won’t expire in our lifetime), but we forget that before all this, there was a cycle that nourished earth, plants, animals, and humans – and it was complete and self-sustaining.

That’s why I want the composting toilet for which there is no domestic support.

So, where does that leave me? My commitment to ecology and vegetarianism have informed my choices through the years, from not owning a car to turning people onto vegetarianism with some pretty damn tasty dishes (if I may say so myself) that I learned to cook. But now I’m an uneasy vegetarian, since I can’t bring myself to eat grass-fed, naturally raised organic meat despite knowing that it may in fact be more environmentally, ecologically and, it turns out, healthily sound than vegetarianism. And it leaves me with the quandary of do I repress my ecological impulses or do I risk alienating my girlfriend by getting the composting toilet anyway?

Hm… I wonder if could get away with putting my turds in with the food scraps that I stealth-drop in my neighbors’ Clean Green bins?

I’d consider it, but I have visions of dropping off the paper bag in the neighbor’s bin one night, only for some floodlights to come on and a bunch of incensed people with clubs and baseball bats yelling, “There’s the son-of-a-bitch who’s been stuffing shit in our bins! Let’s go get ‘im!”

Picture credit: GreatGreenGadgets.com

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