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The Ukraine, Sharks and Compost Loos

We see things not as they are but as we are…and who we are is partly determined by the stories we absorb.

Many of us grew up under the shadow of the cold war. A time when Reagan and Thatcher told us stories about the Evil Empire in the East threatening the champions of liberty and democracy in the West. Such was the power of these stories that even people who opposed the neo-liberal policies that lay beneath the façade of ‘freedom’, and saw through the profit centred war mongering of Reagan and Thatcher and then Bush and Blair, were not immune to the central message that East is bad and West is good.

George Monbiot recently wrote on the power of stories about deadly sharks to provide cover for the wholesale needless destruction of shark populations. If films like Jaws and faked Discovery Channel ‘documentaries’ about surviving Megalodons can effect us in an illogical and visceral way, leading us to accept obscene shark culls, how much more powerful are the decades of propaganda stories that shaped our view of east-west relations?

The abiding influence of these cold war stories can be seen in how the overwhelming majority of western politicians and media coverage have reported on events in the Ukraine. The default position for how our politicians and media look at recent events in Ukraine is, almost without exception, that pro-Western protesters who brought down the government are good while their opponents who favour closer ties with Russia are bad. Sound familiar?

Any detailed analysis of events in Ukraine and the history of the region shows the reality to be much more complex but hey – why bother when we already have a simple story to explain what’s happening. Forget about fascists in the ‘pro-democracy’ movement or popular support for an independent Eastern Ukraine with close ties to Russia. Just revert back to the familiar stories we grew up with.

So what about the dominant stories we come up against when we try to bring about change in our Transition communities? Here in Totnes the Transition Homes project to build 25 low cost sustainable homes is having to overcome a few of these stories, in particular a powerful story about what we should do with our shit!

Compost LooThe best stories have a good basis in fact and it’s certainly true that the installation of sewage systems in the 19th century did more to improve human health than the combined efforts of the medical profession at that time. But do we still need to be adding clean drinking water to our faeces and urine and flushing them ‘away’ to be treated at great expense as a problem? According to building regulations we do.

Transition Homes is a housing development designed along permaculture principles. We don’t want to create waste, we want to turn ‘problems’ into solutions and we plan to recycle resources as much as possible. Compost toilets and water ecological treatment systems will help us meet many of these aspirations without creating any hazards to human health. Sounds great to us – but not to the planning officers at the council.

According to building regulations “only when it can be demonstrated that connection to a public sewer is not feasible should non-mains foul sewage disposal solutions be considered” and even then compost toilets are not the preferred option.

It gets worse. There are excellent water treatment systems designed to purify household ‘waste’ water and urine. Take a look at Jay Abrahams’ Biologic Design for more details. Here in Devon, like most places in the UK, water runs downhill. Naturally we have designed our site with housing on higher levels so gravity can help us out by taking water down through a system of swales, planted beds, ponds and coppices before clean water runs into the stream. Unfortunately topography, gravity and the tendency of water to flow downhill are not features of the planning departments dominant story.

Transition Homes Site LayoutIn the view of planning officers, housing and the community hub building should be close to the road, which happens to be at the bottom of our sloping site. In some way that we find difficult to grasp, this will ‘enhance the street scene’.

So we have a clash of stories, a clash of ideologies. The dominant ideology based on the familiar and previously well-founded story that shit is dangerous and needs to be kept away from humans. And an emerging or re-emerging story that shit and clean water are valuable resources and we shouldn’t be creating a problem by mixing them together. And its not just an environmental problem. Water charges in the South West are among the highest in the UK so it's expensive too! Rooh Starr turned this story into a song that she performed at lat years Eco-Homes Fair in Totnes. CLICK HERE to listen

Over the next few months we will be trying to convince the planning and environmental health officers that our story can have a happy ending. How can we do that? Well, we are going to tell them a story, and, like all stories, you have to start at the beginning and it has to be a good enough beginning to keep them listening. Council officers are busy people so it will be hard to get their attention, to make them really listen and think about a different way of doing things. We’ll have to write the story in a difficult language called Planningese so they can understand it and make sure the plots are believable and the characters have credibility. We’ll probably have to tell the same story in different ways and ask a number of people to repeat it to them. Luckily we have strong community support and local councillors who can retell the story when they are tired of hearing it from us. We think this is a story that needs to be heard and repeated and, eventually, become a favourite. So, please repeat after me, “Shit is good and we don’t need to turn it into a problem and send it away”.

For a selection of images from the Transition Town Totnes Arts Network Compost Loo competition CLICK HERE.


Graham Truscott's picture

Compost loos

Creating a new story, persuading people who can massively influence the success or otherwise of your project is a huge and frequently frustrating task. The experience of being passed around various layers and sometimes just the same layer of officialdom trying to explain something they haven't come across before is something only to be enjoyed by ardent fans of Kafka. A recent happy experience for our main project, however, was the reaction of council flood prevention people when we explained that we actually wanted to retain water within our ten acre site rather than speed its flow into the River Trent flood plain ! Be interesting to see what they make of our composting tree-bog  ! 

Warwick Rowell's picture

Dry Composting Loos

A familiar refrain! 

In the mid 1990s we set up an ecovillage, with a whole range of "new" technologies for planners and others to deal with, including dry composting toilets.  By 2000 our villagers had eight different (mainly) commercially available DCTs in operation, and so were able to make some reasonable comparisons of performance. 

We have found that the easiest and best is the Rotaloo range of products. They deal with three issues or conflicting requirements best of any other offering. Others were the Clivus Multrum, the mini-nature loo, the ordinary Natureloo, and the EnviroLoo, and one home made system using two wheely bins.

Issue one is that you need a large mass to hold the heat for good composting to occur.  Issue two is that you need a small enough mass to be able to easily handle changeover and removal. Issue three is that in the handling, you want the smallest chance of getting dirty; getting involved with fresh stuff. 

The Rotaloo products provide the best resolution of these three issues by having six or eight segments, like large trivail pursuit wedges, on a lazy susan, inside a compartment.  By the time you get to handle any one segment it is usually over a year, and sometimes two, since it had any fresh stuff into it.  It has dried out, and so it is light - about 10 Kg for the Rotaloo 600, and about 16 Kg for the Rotaloo 900.    

The Rotaloo is the only system in Western Australia that has its own separately approved black water disposal system.  This is called a niimi trench, and is an inverted french drain, inside a volume of about 10 cu m of edarth, with a plastic liner.  It is an evaporative transpirative system, so contaminating ground water is not a concern.   Mulch crops can be grown in the trench; we have used sugar cane, cannas, and NZ spinach.  We have installed a tap on a low point in the system to collect the black water for massive dilution before using as a liquid manure. 

We believe DCTS are the most healthy option for dealing with human wastes.  All other systems use water for transport and disposal.  All the bad bugs in our guts are anaerobic; so exposing them ASAP seems sensible.

You are welcome to contact me, or even have the officials concerned contact me.  Once they have a bit of paper or someone else saying it works, they are generally happy.