Last Thursday, we hosted with friends at The POOP Project and Rich Earth Institute a book club conversation about Chelsea Wald’s new book Pipe Dreams. We had great breakout conversations with about 16 people from different backgrounds about the book.
As someone in the club described, Wald’s book is a CliffsNotes to the last 15 years of sanitation and related innovations and programs that is readable for anyone curious about toilets. Wald walks readers through a brief history of sanitation to explain how our systems have gotten to where they are now. The book details why poor toilet access is problematic and identifies ideas from all over that could move public and environmental health forward with better sanitation. It really is an incredible overview of everything about toilets – from sewers to composted feces and urine – while encapsulating the general gist of how complex toilets and sanitation really can be. Wald also gently explores why sanitation as an industry may be a little bit stuck right now.
Toilets Are a Party
Many people in the book club enjoyed how much research about innovations and solutions Wald provides to the reader. There were loads of well-founded inventions she shares in her writing. One reader said that reading the book was like being at a big toilet party with a friend introducing each person doing neat stuff with sanitation. This made the book feel like there was never a dull moment and surprised even the seasoned sanitation specialist with several initiatives may not have heard about before. This “toilet party” in the book really showcased many solutions already out there for everyone to tap. The feeling was similar to the meme of “there’s an app for that” – for any sanitation challenge, there is likely already a toilet solution for that purpose.
The cornucopia of sanitation solutions in the book made some readers wonder that if we have so many solutions, where is our real change? But, of course, we’ve been here before – there have been many solutions for years, but how do we break the stagnate feeling in sanitation and get everyone to join the party?
Everyone Should Give A Shit
Another theme that clubbers appreciated was how the book did a solid job showing everyone why they should care. Problematizing the current global sanitation situation is key to make people actually give a shit, which will spearhead advocacy for change and put sanitation in the public discourse. There’s a tendency for people in high-income areas to feel like sanitation issues don’t really matter to us because it’s an “over there” issue (e.g., something that only low-income countries experience). This book emphasizes why it is a global issue everywhere – even in the richest of countries.
And everyone has a poo and pee story. For example, one reader mentioned that wicked problems like climate change and poverty are hard for some to relate to, but everyone poos. This universal truth means that there are opportunities for historians, scientists, or anyone to enter the toilet world and help find more relevant solutions for their local context.
The book used a large overarching question to explore the many sanitation solutions out there, “What does ‘Lootopia’ look like? By Lootopia, Wald means a future where everyone has a toilet system that works for their local nuances and is environmentally sustainable. We’re clearly not currently living in a Lootopia, perhaps partly because everyone has different visions for what that Lootopia would look like. Some may want easy solutions that make sanitation needs easy to track our health. In contrast, others want to rethink our systems and be more intentional with interacting with our bodily functions.
The truth is (and the book explains well), no one solution will create Lootopia. Sanitation must address unique challenges in each community. It will take many – perhaps even all – available solutions and different sectors to address its many complexities from technological and cultural issues. The question then is, how do all of the solutions come together to help us solve the Lootopia question?
Building an appropriate infrastructure is something that will be foundational to making Lootopia a reality. Though many celebrate sewers as the ultimate sanitation infrastructure, it doesn’t always mean our typical sewers. Making infrastructure environmentally friendly also doesn’t mean everyone needs to build a compost toilet – that won’t always be a feasible option everywhere or for everyone. Wald’s book doesn’t seem to favor any particular infrastructure or technology over any other – simply, the need to assess and determine the right infrastructure is clear. Sometimes, creating infrastructure means hiring people to maintain toilets or having the street space to make public toilets available to the public that are safe and comfortable. Some clubbers wished the book had been more radical or progressive with its sanitation recommendations. Others felt that there needs to be faster change than what the book highlighted. Perhaps a solution is to pause and rethink current sanitation systems – can we stop flushing clean drinking water in our sewers and use greywater instead?
Others asked, do we even have the right intentions to create a Lootopia? Sometimes, good intentions for Lootopia have thwarted progress, and it all starts with how we start at step one. Do we have the right people at the table to ask the right questions and ensure that everyone in a community is considered while envisioning Lootopia? Lots of solutions have been tried out, only to have it miss the mark in some places.
One example a group discussed related to this was around transgender communities. Cases like the controversial North Carolina Bathroom Bill from a few years ago would have clearly hurt the transgender community. Tennessee recently attempted to make public bathrooms more inclusive by mandating businesses to post signs singling out transgender people to choose their bathroom gender; there was pushed back on this, as the signage is problematic and potentially hurtful. The point is, public bathrooms need to have inclusive design so that the transgender community is included. The solution for inclusion is not excluding or calling out any particular group - this is probably only really possible when all groups (including transgender people) into planning discussions from Day One.
Spreading the Good News
Some readers felt that there had been a shift post-COVID that has encouraged them to think more about building a sustainable Lootopia. There was a sense of optimism with some readers, feeling that future generations are preparing to address Lootopia and think about environmentally sustainable sanitation. Current youth feel compelled to change the world for the better and think wastefulness of anything as gross – perhaps even poo and pee.