Thursday, August 30, 2007

Faecal Attraction

So I’m reading a book about poo, and its contribution to civilization. Somehow this got left out of my undergrad class on Western Civilization at Georgetown.

The book I reference is Poop Culture: How America Is Shaped By Its Grossest National Product. I haven’t reached the end yet, but I don’t expect any real surprises – I think I know how this one ends. It’s an awfully interesting read, with insights about poo that I hadn’t considered (or wanted to). We all would benefit by paying closer attention to this issue, and Poop Culture adds some interesting blue-sky approaches to human waste treatment that we should consider – e.g. converting it to energy.

Executives from the Water Environment Federation consistently and justifiably argue that what separates developed from developing countries is not human rights, respect for the environment, or Internet access but PIPES – unglamorous infrastructure. E.g. what happens to poo once it leaves the body?

My challenge is seeing that what happens to that poo around the world doesn’t result in unnecessary mortality and morbidity such as from diarrheal diseases. Over 2.6 billion around the world lack adequate sanitation facilities, or quite literally a place to go to the bathroom. This doesn’t mean that they are NOT going to the bathroom, but rather that 2.6 billion people do so in a way that often negatively impacts their health and the health of their neighbors, kids, passersby. Many organizations are struggling with a way to make this massive public health challenge more compelling. What would make it as cool to talk about poo/defecation/shit at cocktail parties as it is to talk about HIV/AIDS?

Dave Praeger’s book gives us a hint, or at least a lesson to be learned from history:
“By the end of the nineteenth century, state and social reformers in both England and America were working hard to spread the flush toilet across society and alleviate critical sanitary threats. Much of the strategy involved the state extending and maintaining modern sewer and water infrastructures, but reformers still needed to convince skeptics that the new bathroom technology was a boon and not a power-grab by the government. To overcome resistance in people who had been pooping in privies or chamber pots all their lives and were quite content with them, they associated health, happiness, refinement, and civilization with the flush toilet. The corollary of that, of course, was that people who didn’t use flush toilets were the opposite.”
This approach hits close to that of today’s social marketing experts, primus inter pares PSI. Social marketing is defined as “the systematic application of marketing alongside other concepts and techniques to achieve specific behavioral goals for a social good.” The bottom line is that 2.6 billion people need the health benefits associated with improved toilet facilities – the best way to make that happen may well NOT be preaching about those health benefits, but rather finding clever ways to make toilets/pit latrines more cosmopolitan, hip, cool, fun, refined, or alternatively to make it embarrassing to NOT have one.

So what can we learn from PSI’s approach and late nineteenth century America and England. Hopefully a lot – precisely zero people died from cholera in these two countries in 2007.

No comments: