Ode to Toilet! (or Chamber Pot Dirge)

With the exception of the Family Christmas Flu of 2002, I haven’t stopped to appreciate the toilet much in my life. However, Dr. Richard Alley’s presentation at the Science Museum of Minnesota on October 6th really made me think about toilets – and the waste we flush – like I never had before.
Authentic chamber pot: Nothing pretty about it
Authentic chamber pot: Nothing pretty about itCourtesy Evelyn Simak

Today, we can’t imagine living without toilets or indoor plumbing, especially in populated areas for extended periods of time. Gone are the days of the chamber pot, the daily hurling of human waste from your window into the street below, and the pervasive stench that resulted.

It’s really incredible to think about how society went from chamber pots to toilets. I mean, there is a HUGE amount of technology development, public policy, and civil engineering involved in the invention, installation, and maintenance of plumbing infrastructure. (You never thought about it either, did you?) You have to invent the plumbing fixtures, convince the government and the public that it’s a necessity, perfect the manufacturing process, install miles of underground pipes, build collection and treatment plants, and continually upkeep the entire system.

The daunting obstacles must have made indoor plumbing seem virtually impossible back in the day, but we did it anyway, which raises two really great questions: How and why?

How we made the switch from chamber pots to toilets is less important than why we made the switch because we probably wouldn’t have bothered to figured out how if we didn’t have a dang good reason why to put in all the effort. Like grandma says, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Authentic toilet: Something pretty about it.
Authentic toilet: Something pretty about it.Courtesy 13th Street Studio

We put in the effort to move towards toilets because we realized we couldn’t keep living with chamber pots. Chamber pots were unsightly, smelly, and really bad for public health. After we became convinced of the necessity of toilets, we figured out how to do it and we even put up with the disruption their adoption created. A few generations later and we can’t imagine living any other way.

Dr. Alley says we’re now on the cusp of our own epic Chamber-Pot-to-Toilet story.

Today, we can’t imagine living without fossil fuels as an energy source, but our grandchildren might not be able to imagine what it’s like living without renewable energy. Chamber pots and excrement are like fossil fuels and pollution: unsightly, smelly, and bad for public health. Hopefully, like with toilets, we’ll eventually realize we can’t keep living in our own filth and we’ll find a way to widely adopt renewable energy to replace fossil fuels.

According to Dr. Alley’s presentation, we already have the technology to capture enough renewable energy to cover the world’s current energy usage (15.7 terawatts) with some to spare, and the amount of renewable energy available for capture in the future is simply staggering. That means we should also be able to serve populations that do not currently have energy access and provide energy for our future's growing global population – all sustainably! Sure the technology development, public policy, and civil engineering involved in switching to a new energy system is daunting, but it can't be much longer until we realize it's a necessity worth the effort.

You can watch segments of Earth: The Operator’s Manual online (including Dr. Alley's 30 second introduction of himself, check out 1:23-1:53) and even read the annotated script. Segment 9 of Chapter 3 (beginning at page 98 of the annotated script), Towards a Sustainable Future, covers the details of which renewable energy sources we could use to create a global sustainable energy portfolio.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Chamber pots are bad for public health? Maybe if you're throwing the contents of said chamber pots outside your window onto the public below. A used, full chamber pot with a lid, under the bed is completely Unnoticeable and will not affect your health in anyway as long as it remains sealed. Biased much?

posted on Sun, 10/23/2011 - 10:23pm
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

It's not fair is it? Big Toilet is always dumping all over the chamber pot industry in the media. I'd say that the whole situation stinks, but I don't want to pushit.

posted on Mon, 10/24/2011 - 3:16pm
mdr's picture
mdr says:

Interesting the way you contracted the last two words.

posted on Mon, 10/24/2011 - 3:49pm
Shana's picture
Shana says:

Uh, you do know how chamber pots were used, right?

posted on Tue, 10/25/2011 - 9:20am
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

If anything, I think chamber pots are overkill. I just do my business in a plastic shopping bag and leave it loosely knotted on the floor until morning. If it was good enough for my grandparents, it's good enough for me. America.

posted on Tue, 10/25/2011 - 11:21am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

if its yellow let it mellow, if its brown flush it down

posted on Tue, 10/25/2011 - 1:20pm
KelsiDayle's picture
KelsiDayle says:

I just read that tomorrow (Nov.19) is World Toilet Day.

Besides being generally surprised and satisfied that such a day existed, SciAm made my day by posting a slide show article on A Brief History of the Toilet.

The article begins,

"On a civic scale, health brings wealth. And no society can be healthy without the proper disposal of human waste."

And continues later with this other passage:

"Many people have a basic understanding about how to dispose of their waste, but poverty, politics and prejudice often get in the way."

Hmm... sound familiar to you too?

posted on Fri, 11/18/2011 - 11:12am

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