Friday Morning Conversation Starter: Reinventing the Toilet

I enjoy teaching, but only if I can get behind the message with passion. Issues of sustainability increasingly are messages I can back with sufficient passion.

This is a video a friend posted on Facebook yesterday from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Not exactly what you’d expect from the Microsoft Czar, except perhaps its excellent production value:

At 56 seconds, the puns take a ten second hiatus and layout some facts: worldwide there are 2.6 billion people without access to basic, safe sanitation and how the Western World would want to remedy this situation is with our elaborate, water-hogging sewer infrastructure. The modern low-flush Champion toilets I bought in 2005 that bragged they could flush 24 ping pong balls at once (we were expecting the twins, knew they were boys, and that’s exactly the kind of target marketing that appeals to a near-crisis early 30’s male getting rid of his SUV for a minivan) REQUIRE a system of pipes, elaborate treatment centers, heating, cooling, more energy, more manpower and lots and lots of clean water. It’s a cog in a highly elaborate system. It’s the most obvious, daily or hourly reminder of that system, so of course, a low-flush toilet that cuts water use by 60% is far better than an old-fashioned 5 to 6 gallon water hog. But that low flush still requires all that same infrastructure.

The Six Hour Continuing Education Class I just took on Sustainability was decidedly apolitical. Many conservatives scoff at any comparison to European mannerisms as a useless analogy because “they’re all a bunch of socialists.” Politically, that might be so, but it misses why places like Germany, which enjoy 100 days of sunshine a year, lead the world in solar technology. The United States is extravagantly rich in natural resources, really near-perfect weather and geographic isolation. Europe is over-forested, over-mined, over-crowded and after World War II, a smoldering pile of ruins. When Europe rebuilt, they rebuilt with scarce resources. They rebuilt with lousy, cloudy, rainy weather. They had to stretch and maximize what resources they had. Correspondingly, their abilities for energy-efficient are far superior to the United States because “German Engineering” really is a practical art built around necessity of resource allocation and maximization. In America, we have people who like to differentiate themselves as individuals who “do it right the first time”. The first thing taught in real estate classes in America is about “highest and best use”. Then they say things like “in the beginning was the land”. Real estate uses and impacts therefore begin and end with this two-dimensional picture of flat earth. “In the beginning was the land” extends to the dirt… and not much else. When your natural resources are scarce and you have to build something that lasts for 100 years, when you have to consider site location, site dynamics, indoor air quality, the building envelope, a low-maintenance schedule on improvements, and both the sourcing and the quality of the materials used, highest and best use turns into a far more three-dimensional conversation.

Bill & Melinda Gates

Which leads us back to the toilet problem. Two and a half billion people without access to proper sanitation. Sounds like a resource allocation problem. Sounds like a huge opportunity, morally, ethically but also economically and durability-wise, to do the job right. I’d like to thank the Gates Foundation for this piece of _____ video, because it spurs on a conversation of entrepreneurship as well as citizenry, the intersection of which will be a pivotal characteristic of this new century.

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