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How 500 Toilets Could Change the World

One of permaculture’s 20 or so principles goes something like “Make the smallest change possible for the greatest effect possible.” In a sense it’s taking efficiency to the ultimate degree. It’s like the karate master taking down the boxer by quietly letting the boxer throw a thousand punches and then… wham!

From another direction you could think of it like the overquoted statement “a butterfly flaps its wings in China, and a hurricane occurs in Brazil.” Systems scientists talk about “chaos points,” pivotal convergences or moments whose outcomes can cause the direction of history. I think it was Malcolm Gladwell wrote something interesting about Duke Ferdinand, whose assassination in 1914 led to World War I, and World War II since that grew out of Germany’s response to the Allies’ punishment for World War I. Ferdinand had been traveling in the American west sometime around the turn of the century. He stopped at a rodeo show and stepped up when one of the performers for a volunteer. She asked him to put an apple on top of his head, and then she shot it off clean with her six-gun. Apparently the story goes, she never missed. But what if she’d missed that one time? We might have had a very different 20th century.

So chaos points are apparently random. None of the people at the rodeo show could have predicted the future. But sometimes we do have foresight. Sometimes we can see the rough outlines of staggering opportunities. Which brings us to the 500 toilets. Haiti is considered the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. That’s a story told by economists, who, as far as our government, media, etc., are concerned, might as well be priests. Seeing through their “gross national product growth” model where product and growth and even human livelihood can only be conceived in terms of dollars, Haiti is the poorest country, and it’s pretty much fucked. The debt-load, which to economists is like a physical object, as real and non-negotiable as a tree, a plastic bag, the ocean or a person, is just too great, there is little dollar-generating business or export, 90% of the population doesn’t hold a paying job and without money, you can’t do anything.

The story I experienced on the ground is something more like this: the Haitian people do indeed face incredible hardship. Their institutions are barely functioning, and where they are, they’re propped up by NGO’s that have a lot of problems of their own including the politics that affect any organization, but also well-meaning but one-dimensional goals and a tendency, perhaps to see things in economists’ terms – the biggest complaint is often lack of resources. The streets and waterways of Port-au-Prince are filled with rubble and garbage. There’s the cholera, the depleted soil, and lots of people build their houses and livelihoods out of whatever they can find. The literacy rate is something like 50%… most of us who care to read this far probably know enough of the story that I don’t have to go on. But that’s only half the story – more on that in a minute.

If Haiti is an extreme, Cite Soleil, a district within Port-au-Prince is an extreme within an extreme. It’s an area with about 2,000 residents, cut roughly down the middle by a slow moving river that flows into the floodplain and ocean that borders the area to the west. If history had gone a little differently, Cite might have been a beach resort. Here the garbage shapes the landscape to a whole other level in places, and it’s also mixed with human feces. With only 2 functioning toilets, people just shit in the streets, or in the river, where other people bathe and wash clothes. With no toilet paper, they’ll just use whatever they can find or nothing at all. In Port-au-Prince you often see hungry, feral dogs in the streets, goats, and even the occasional cat. In Cite Soleil, there are also pigs, who wallow in the shit-smeared mud and garbage. To the average American, this just sounds disgusting. Don’t include Cite on the itinerary, and what’s wrong with those people, why don’t they help themselves, maybe they need psychologists to plumb the depths. Enter the chaos point.

For 2,000 people, figure 500 toilets. One toilet for four people, enough that people won’t fight over the bathroom in the morning, or just give up and head for the river. But how would we do this? We’re talking about millions of dollars to retrofit the town, tear up the ground, lay pipe, rehabilitate sewers, import toilets, prepare the water for flushing the toilets with a filtration plant – and that would certainly be millions. This time, we’d bring in safety inspectors so that the buildings don’t collapse the next time there’s an earthquake or a hurricane, and oversight to ensure transparency and nip corruption in the bud, and people to staff the plant and maintain the sewers. Haiti could borrow the money it needs at interest, good news for the global credit system, the Haitian government cajoling and incentivizing farmers to pull more out of depleted soils for export, finding ways to get its urban populace to compete with the Chinese, GNP and tax revenues being shoved upward up to help pay the debt, but it’s never enough. Wait a minute… And where would the Cite sewer go? To the Carribean? Human shit in the ocean, algae blooms killing the coastal ecology, so another treatment plant on the other end. Hold on. We’re talking about a chaos point, a staggering opportunity, not… this.

Another permaculture principle goes something like “pollution is resources out of place.” Matter is a resource, even human shit. There are lots of ways to build a compost toilet, but the simplest is a toilet seat on top of, say a 15-gallon bucket. You sprinkle some organic material, like sugar cane scraps in the bowl when you’re done. At GrassRoots United we used rice hulls, and voila, no smell. When the bucket gets full, you empty it out into a large compost bin, shovel some more organic scraps on top. Dumping can be a bit queasy, but think of the alternative, remember the street and the river? Make sure the bin is covered so that rain doesn’t get into it. The compost gets hot, human pathogens get fried, and wait about six months, at which point you have the kind of black earth gardeners salivate over. You’ve taken water out of the cycle completely. No pipes, no cholera, no algae blooms, no sewage treatment plants, no oversight, no corruption, no jobs for jobs’ sake, no permanent NGO installations, no debt, and readymade soil for the garden, food scraps for the newly clean pigs, who can now become a food source, and food for returning wildlife that will carry biomass, seeds and soil in the form of droppings all over the country. The healthy soil makes healthy gardens, which make more soil, and healthy, self-sufficient people regaining their dignity, hooray for such advanced technology, and hold on we don’t have to stop with Cite Soleil.

Excited Cite residents spread the word about those 500 toilets, the difference they’ve made. Other districts begin building them. A bucket in a box, with a toilet seat, four posts and a tarp… it takes a lot of skill. Haitians with an average 6th grade education could never build them, let alone understand the benefits, wait a minute…. Really? Soil starts coming back in other areas. Within, say a year or two, compost toilets become standard fare in Haiti, embraced by the government, and the benefits are on the ground for all to see. The country begins turning a corner, focusing resources elsewhere, planting in the channels, addressing the mountains of plastic garbage, etc. And the world, even the so-called developed world begins to accept and consider this technology more seriously. “Haiti has virtually eliminated cholera, reforestation is well underway, and the Carribean around Port-au-Prince is becoming clear” the news report goes. Oh yes, the mainstream media is still talking about Haiti’s dollar poverty, but facebook, twitter, and a hundred thousand blogs are getting the word out, and creaky-boned old Uncle Sam just can’t avoid it any longer.

In LA we don’t want to do it with just a bucket and four sticks and a tarp. We want bio-mechanics to do the queasy parts and custom tile floors to boot, but having the best of both worlds just means we’re learning how to really live in style. And by then, the Haitians might have enough resources to lux their toilets just a little, even if they’re broke. The oceans get cleaner, we get more drinkable water, the soil cycle gets completed, we’ve got food on the vine, and we’re all a little freer. The best part about it is those Haitian people, who in the GNP growth paradigm can be nothing but victims, are actually an intelligent and resourceful bunch who are aware of their situation. There are leaders among them who are going to run with the opportunity when they see it and they are already seeing it. While in Haiti I met several Cite locals enrolled in the Love & Haiti / Larry Santoyo permaculture course who, with new knowledge in hand, couldn’t wait to get to work. I’m not sure, but by the time of my writing this, after two weeks back in LA, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that they’ve already made connection with the Sustainable Oganic Integrated Lifestyles folks, who are already working on compost toilets in Cite Soleil. It’s amazing that, with their backs against the wall, the Haitian people might just embrace an approach that we in the USA are unwilling to consider, and that it could eventually make them among the most advanced and richest in the world, in an age when “advanced” and “rich” have come to mean something very different. It wouldn’t be the first time in history something like that has happened.

And I really hate to do it, but I think it’s in order, I feel strongly enough about it. I’m not really in a financial position today to be donating a lot to causes, but maybe some of you are and it will make some difference if you can’t make it to Haiti. So here goes – http://oursoil.org/donate. Thanks again & much love.

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