Loosening Up Our Minds; Musings on a Stealth Toilet

“I’ve got 250, do I hear 275? Do I hear 275? Hey, bida, bida, bida . . .” The auctioneer’s voice rat-a-tatted through the ballroom. What the crap was I doing? My arm rose involuntarily, tugged by an unseen puppeteer. “Yes sir, I’ve got 275, I’ve got 275 from number 118, do I hear 300?” Unbelievable! I had just bid $275 on a toilet. A toilet! People at my table were cheering me on! (Or was that laughter? ) By now, I was flush – yes, flush – with excitement at the prospects of owning this “stealth toilet,” this crème de la crème of commodes, and, after a couple more bids, the prize was mine! I was so proud, I could have just . . . well, you get the idea.

Purchasing a super-efficient toilet at live auction had not been on my agenda when I arrived at the ReWards Dinner – an event sponsored by the Center for Resource Conservation. The whole thing just kind of snuck up on me, frankly. But, in retrospect, my sudden fascination with the cutting edge of toilet technology was a natural outflow of my long-term interest in sustainability. When my family evacuated Arlington, VA, and plopped ourselves down in Louisville, CO, we adopted a higher level of concern for water conservation. Even my 4-year-old son chastised me one day for not pouring dishwater in our temporary graywater bucket. So, when the auctioneer noted that “this-here toilet uses 0.8 gallons per flush?” Whoa, Nelly! And, here, in Boulder County, where quirkiness seems to be a prerequisite for citizenship (cafeterias are named after cannibals and festivals honor frozen dead guys, after all), I now understand why my subconscious took over and kept bidding on that super-duper toilet!

OK, it goes deeper than that. To be honest, quirkiness has always appealed to me. A month before I bought the toilet, I had thrown out the idea of an informal contest between Arlingtonians and Boulderites to see who could find the best way to recapture nitrogen from the urine flowing from these two communities. The challenge was a thought exercise within a talk I gave in Arlington entitled “Gaia and the City; New Understandings of Urban Energy and Agriculture.” My friends at the Arlington Department of Environmental Services sponsored the talk and asked me to draw the audience “out of the box.” I somehow heard this as “off of the can.” I was privy to information that, back in Boulder, the Gates Foundation had just awarded a student-led team of engineers $780,000 for a solar-powered toilet that transforms human waste into biochar fertilizer. So, I thought that Arlingtonians would be anxious to join in the potty mania sweeping in from the arid west. Why not?

My own interest in “off the can” topics such as urine processing stems, in part, from 25 years exploring Gaia Theory, the scientific idea of Earth as a single living system. In addition to all things gastroenterological, this paradigm of science has beckoned me down paths of co-evolution of organisms and their environment, limestone as ancient atmosphere, and symbiotic energy and conservation systems (just to name a few). But, perhaps the most exciting perspective to be spawned by Gaia is that the human mind is a seamless continuum of the biology of our planet! This noggin of ours, which flowered out of Earth as surely as our bones and opposable thumbs, is one of the most potent forces on the planet. And, what emerges from our minds is often dependent on how we think of our minds.

Yes, ruminate on this . . . if we could understand and overcome our aversion to publicly exploring and discussing digestive and excretory functions, we might free our formidable intellects to the task of fixing our monstrously ungainly and energy intensive waste handling systems. (Did you know that the energy costs of water treatment make running a faucet for 5 minutes equivalent to lighting a 60 watt bulb for 14 hours?!) Our opinions and sensibilities about things are often the limiting factors to solutions, especially in the realm of human waste. For example, a menu of technologies for procuring useable nitrogen from old-number-one already exists! The challenge, really, is in making palatable the use of such technologies in our public parks, schools and luxury hotels. I suspect that engineers and biologists could easily develop elegant and sustainable alternatives to all of our waste-handling needs. Perhaps we – the public – have not granted them the freedom and resources to do this because we have been loath to consider what might emerge from the other end! Good for Bill Gates for helping to break through this gastrointestinal blockage (not that I’m name dropping or anything)! In order to eliminate the concept of waste altogether (finding fertilizer and energy in its place) we need more potty talk, not less!

I shall step back from this zaniness a moment lest my salient points be swept away in an effluent of silliness. Let me sum up. Most of us realize that the challenge of sustainability is a big one; Herculean, if we are to be honest. Many have noted and written about the need for qualitative changes in how we do things. I humbly submit that if we begin to think much more pointedly of our bodies as part of the planet we can see our challenges more clearly. And, if we think of our minds as extensions of Earth as well, we can free ourselves to find the answers to those challenges more effectively. Ridiculous, pun-filled essays, like this one, are actually part of the biology of Planet Earth. And, viewed this way, such frivolity can help break up logjams in our minds, leading to a happier and healthier place for us to live. Just saying . . .

So, I bought and installed this darned toilet to support CRC and to help move our family in the right direction water-wise. No going back. Perched upon it, I strike a thinker’s pose and contemplate how much water we’re saving (almost 3000 gallons per year, on 3 flushes per day) as well as other conservation measures. I invite you to join me (on your own throne, of course) for a symbolic melding of minds with each other and the metabolism of the planet! See it with me brothers and sisters! Like constipated economists who can’t budget without a little help, let’s find ways to loosen up our minds and engage them with the planet. The possibilities and outcomes are endless.