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In the Humanure Handbook, author Joseph Jenkins suggests that learning to recycle human excreta may in fact be the key to our spiritual salvation. It’s perfectly natural to laugh at this prospect, but after you’ve had a good chuckle, please read on. We are more than halfway through the year 2007, and most people whom I know would find it hard to say that they are especially hopeful about the future of humanity in the years to come. War rages on, our waters are polluted, our soils are depleted, and the post-colonial globalized free-market system has wreaked havoc on indigenous communities and the earth’s flora and fauna in a seemingly endless tirade of development and exploitation. Depression and obesity in the United States are at an all-time high, small farmers everywhere are being displaced, and First Nations are struggling to treat widespread alcoholism and prevent teenage suicide. Considering this sorry state of affairs, who in their right mind would suggest that human feces might be a solution to some of these problems?
The answer is, in fact, a large number of people, and that figure grows each and every day. As Margaret Mead has noted, we are for the first time at a point in human history where we are able to explain what is happening while it is happening, a phenomenon known as meta-reflection (Laszlo 2000). We are able to learn from the failures and successes of the countercultural movements of the 1960s and 70s as their composted forms experience resurgence today. More and more people each day are waking up to a new ecological imperative which emphasizes the importance of recycling, conserving resources, eating well, breathing clean air, drinking clean water, and exercising. Community food movements and organic gardening are thriving in many rural and urban areas alike. The intentional community and ecovillage movements are regaining popularity as well. While dogmatic religious practices still exist, many people are choosing instead to embark on profound spiritual journeys, often simultaneously introspective and expansive. Although confronted with seemingly perpetual racial segregation and class division, people have still found ways to initiate dialogue across socioeconomic boundaries and open up to cultural pluralism. Entire communities are identifying with bioregions and finding ways to relocalize their material resources. While the locus of the localization issue has mostly been around food, in time it will no doubt turn to the other end of the nutrient cycle: human ‘waste.’
The human being’s disconnect from the earth and from one another has no doubt been a root cause of the ecological and spiritual crises mentioned above. I recently had a friend tell me that just a few years ago, he was so disgusted with people and what we had done to each other and to the earth, that he simply didn’t want to be a part of it any longer. He didn’t see it getting any better. To this day, he still has the physical scars as evidence of the drastic action he took to make that feeling disappear. Fortunately, this wonderful person survived his ordeal, and has since learned to sublimate his angst into creative expression and healthy relation with other people. My point is that our conversation made me think, though, about the shame it is to be human, especially without purpose or connection, a condition imposed upon us by the powers that be. This report offers much evidence of ways in which to mend these disconnects.
When we flush our excreta “away,” we are also flushing away personal responsibility and true understanding of what our bodies have created. In the United States as well as in all industrialized nations, excreta are disposed of into our drinking water, extending from our bodies into a linear stream of treatment and pollution. In contrast, throughout much of China and Japan, excreta is collected and immediately used for agricultural purposes, maintaining a closed loop system which renders transparent the nutrient cycle. By flushing our nutrients away, by not even realizing that our excreta are resources, we generate unconscious feelings of shame and self-loathing. Our collective unconscious is also scarred by the shame of involuntary participation in an exploitative, destructive society. This shame manifests in many ways. When we face it head on, and with the appropriate support and resources, it can bring about deep transformation. When we bottle it up and shove it aside, however, we are in for an eventual implosion.
Fortunately for us unsuspecting humans, there are pioneers of reintegration who have devoted their lives and careers to addressing this process. Naturalist Jon Young has worked on creating a model of cultural mentoring in which we can confront, and eventually heal, our historical psychic wounds. It is known as the 8 Shields Mentoring Program, and was developed to bring humans back to their place in nature, valuing the Peacemaker’s path and recognizing commonalities which exist across all heritages (Young 2007).
Spiritual ecologist Morgan Brent (2007) also sheds profound light on the human condition. He suggests that, in relation to other life on the planet, the human species is relatively young. Bacteria and plants are our elders, as they have been around far longer. The earth is our mother, who has given us life through the sacred elements. Brent proposes that we are in the adolescent stage of our collective human lifespan, the stage in which separation from and acting out against one’s mother is a typical phenomenon. We all know teenagers who have selfishly turned away from their parents and elders in order to cultivate a sense of self and independence. Later in life these adults might realize that in order to attain happiness and spiritual harmony, a large part of their adulthood might need to be spent healing those disconnects. This is especially true of Western, Anglo cultures who value individuality and competition.
If we compare the experience of the typical Anglo adult to the collective experience of humanity, then we are witness to the maturing and flowering stage. We must work to heal our wounds, and apologize to our mother for past grievances. It may sound silly, but if we look around we can see that most of humanity is still engaged in rebellion of some form against the earth. Yet slowly, we are trickling back, asking for forgiveness as only a good hearted child can do. Only after we have cultivated this kind of humility and awareness, are we truly able to move forward (Brent 2007).
One of the basic principles in Permaculture Design, a system for creating sustainable human environments, is ‘mistakes are tools for learning’ (Mollison 1988). Let us consider a few mistakes we have made that are relevant to this story: continuing to use the flush toilet system; perceiving human excreta as a waste product we should fear; encouraging other cultures to adopt our ways; and preventing access to alternatives such as site built composting toilets by making them illegal. These mistakes are perhaps yet additional sources of collective shame, but with a major attitude adjustment, we can overcome and learn from them. In this project, I have chosen to focus on the incredible opportunity we have before us as children of the earth. Rather than misuse valuable energy laying blame and deepening existing wounds, I will instead focus on the proactive leaders who are challenging the status quo. I will explore alternatives and initiatives that inspire others and instill hope in even the darkest of hours. In a recent article in Lost Valley’s Talking Leaves publication, Pramod Parajuli shared a favorite remark by Manfred Steger and Perle Besserman (2001), from Grassroots Zen: "We don't have to create waves when the ocean is flat.... Finding ourselves in the middle of a big wave itself presents us with an opportunity. All we have to do is dive right in."
Every day I watch this fair city of Portland move and shake without ever stopping, evidence that our human systems of commerce, law, education, politics, and civic engagement are in a state of constant flux. We eat and drink and plan and meet and watch and schedule and text and dial and type and speak and sing and sleep and drive and walk and ride and write and read and talk and talk and talk. Yet how often do we listen? How often do we pay reverence to our bodies and to the sacred earth which sustains us? What if we paid as much attention to the clouds moving swiftly overhead, or the world telling us to be quiet, as we did to our grocery lists or to neighborhood gossip?
If we submitted to silence, we could hear the thunder rumble in the distant mountains. We could taste the rain instead of rushing away from it. We could smell the salt of the sea as though it coursed through our very veins. We could be truer to ourselves perhaps. I know that I would not make a very effective educator or leader if I did not take the time to silence, and get to know myself. For this I am thankful. That for every moment in the process of creating this document in which I wanted to drown out the noise of my own thoughts, to erase my nagging voice from the pages, I had the songbirds and the night crickets to help me do so. That for every moment I have forgotten that I am alive, I have had the sun to warm my face and the moon to lift my spirit. That for every moment I have not remembered how much I am loved, I have had my heart, to beat gently, tenderly, through its cradled cage of skin and bones and remind me of its purpose. For this I am thankful.
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