‘The Big Necessity’: Plumbing the Global Politics of Human Waste

Travel Blog  •  Julia Ross  •  10.21.08 | 8:41 AM ET

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Photo by jemsweb via Flickr (Creative Commons).

Ah, cross-cultural toilet culture: It’s a fascinating topic we’ve broached with frankness here before. Still, I’m in awe of British journalist Rose George, whose new book, “The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters,” tells you everything you ever wanted to know about human defecation and more. In a riveting interview with Salon, George provides a round-the-world tour of bathroom behaviors, expounding on paper versus water cultures, high-tech Japanese washlets, Kenyan “helicopter toilets,” and Mumbai’s grim sanitation situation.

“We should worship the toilet,” she says. “It’s been an enormous medical advance. It’s been fantastic, so I think that we should give it its due.”

Potty humor aside, George’s willingness to lift the lid on a serious, and largely ignored, global health issue is drawing praise from reviewers. Says Slate, “The Big Necessity belongs in a rare handful of studies that take a subject that seems fixed and familiar and taboo and makes us understand it is historically contingent and dazzlingly intriguing.”

For more, check out excerpts from the book here.


Julia Ross is a Washington, DC-based writer and frequent contributor to World Hum. She has lived in China and Taiwan, where she was a Fulbright scholar and Mandarin student. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Time, Christian Science Monitor, Plenty and other publications. Her essay, Six Degrees of Vietnam, was shortlisted for "The Best American Travel Writing 2009."


1 Comment for ‘The Big Necessity’: Plumbing the Global Politics of Human Waste

Jennifer 10.23.08 | 4:25 PM ET

About the bidet.  I don’t get it!  I never did, and now, after a bit of research, I still don’t get it!  There is no way that a bidet, unless it comes equipt with a pressure washer (akin to those seen in car washes) get’s your butt clean after defecating!  Not to mention, if you really want to feel dry you’re probably going to want to use toilet paper to dry off anyway unless you feel like sitting there for 10 more minutes while the fancy driers blow you off.  Come on!!!  I agree, toilet paper probably isn’t the most sanitary of inventions, however, I would rather use something that my hands and my hands alone have touched than a spray of water coming from the same bowl that people are dumping right into.  Gross!!!  Also, it looks awkward and how in the world do you use it without unclothing your self from the waist down?  How do use use it without “sewage water” running down your legs?  It seems like an equal hassle to just hop in the closest bathtub and wash up there!

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