Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The ethics of sanitation

That sanitized heading is derived from a blog post by Colin McGinn: "Sanitation (philosophy of)." He says:

I've just finished reading Rose George's The Big Necessity, about toilets and human waste (euphemism alert!)--as part of my interest in the emotion of disgust. [See the update at the end of the post for a response from Rose George. -- Jaltcoh] I'd strongly recommend Aurel Kolnai's monograph "On Disgust" as a philosophical treatment of the subject; it contains some excellent phenomenological work with some important conceptual distinctions (far better than most of what passes for work on the emotions in current analytical philosophy). But Ms. George brings out the medical/cultural/political aspects of the problem of our disgusting bodies--what to do with and about all the shit we produce. The effects on health of inadequate toilets in the "turd world" (Naipaul) are catastrophic, but the sheer unpleasantness of living near human excrement is also appalling. Yet most people don't want to have to think about it, because of the distastefulness of the topic: no celebrity wants to hitch herself to the shit bandwagon. Our general repression of matters disgusting prevents us facing up to a serious health problem. If we are the "god that shits" (E. Becker), then we are in full flight from ourselves. I even wonder whether religion itself and the whole idea of a god is produced by our self-disgust.
Then there's this New York Times article, which tells us:
2.6 billion people [are] toiletless. [Actually the New York Times doesn't tell us this; that's just quoting a protester's sign. Does the Times have higher factual standards than the average protester or blogger? -- Jaltcoh]

[T]he lack of [sanitation] kills far more people each year than warfare does. ...

[T]he persistent lack of toilets and sewage treatment leads to the deaths of some 700,000 children a year from diarrhea and other avoidable ailments linked to fecal contamination. ...

About 194 million school days are lost each year, in part because many girls stay home when schools lack toilets.
I admit that when I read about circumstances that are not just unimaginably wretched but also unfathomably widespread, I feel a sense of hopelessness: the problem is too big to solve, so it doesn't even seem worth trying. But actually, the situation seems to be getting much better:
[T]he fraction of humanity without adequate toilets and sanitation ... dropped to 42 percent in 2002 from 51 percent in 1990.
It's hard to have a visceral reaction to statistics like "42 percent" vs. "51 percent," for the same reason Stalin reportedly said that one death is a tragedy while a million deaths is a statistic. A decrease in 9% out of the world population of 6.7 billion is about 600 million people -- a staggering improvement in just 12 years.

And as for the girls who are prevented from going to school mentioned above, that seems to be getting less and less bad too. As of this 2005 article *(also from the NYT) about the situation in Ethiopia,
[m]ore than 6 in 10 girls of primary-school age are enrolled in school ... compared with fewer than 4 in 10 girls in 1999. Still, boys are far ahead, with nearly 8 in 10 of them enrolled in primary school.
There's a reflex among reporters -- and people in general -- where every disturbing problem in the world needs to be described as "the increasing problem of ___," without first checking to see if the statistics remotely bear out that empirical assertion. Why the pessimistic instinct? Anyway, I applaud the New York Times for not indulging in it. Not every horrendous problem is "increasing." Some things are horrendous but getting better.


IN THE COMMENTS: Rose George, the author mentioned at the beginning of this post, stops by to say:
you're quite right that some things are getting better. but sanitation is the most off-track of all millennium development goal targets, still. and we'd have to build a toilet every second until 2015 to meet it. so no, not all doom and gloom but also no reason to lessen the pressure. that 2.6 billion figure by the way is the standard one used by the UN and the World Bank. And I reckon it's probably an underestimation. Anyway thanks for posting on this noble topic.

(Photo by Susan Sermoneta, who's both on Flickr and has this personal website.)

2 comments:

rosegeorge said...

hello. I got to your blog via a google alert about my book. you're quite right that some things are getting better. but sanitation is the most off-track of all millennium development goal targets, still. and we'd have to build a toilet every second until 2015 to meet it. so no, not all doom and gloom but also no reason to lessen the pressure. that 2.6 billion figure by the way is the standard one used by the UN and the World Bank. And I reckon it's probably an underestimation. Anyway thanks for posting on this noble topic.

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