Thursday, September 6, 2007

459 460 The paradox of dog littering

Message no. 459[Branch from no. 398] Posted by Thomas Culhane (1311520071) on Wednesday, February 21, 2007 5:42pm Subject: Re: Add on .....Adrienne

Well done! And you are all welcome and encouraged to do this to any realtional summaries you have done -- enrich them, deepen them, improve them! What you are doing is giving us new cognitive maps of the book and you are giving us more DATA to test the theories !

Message no. 460[Branch from no. 397] Posted by Thomas Culhane (1311520071) on Wednesday, February 21, 2007 5:43pm Subject: The paradox of dog littering

This is a very thorough and wonderfully personal realtional summary Adrienne! I enjoyed and learned from every paragraph! The analogies you make with the Godfather and later with your own father are really great to read!

I have a thought about littering and about dog littering that I would like to share with you all; hopefully one day my hypothesis can be tested!

My thought comes from an observation that den dwelling animals, like dogs, cats and rabbits, can be easily toilet trained (yes, we used to have three house rabbits and they were potty trained) but birds and monkeys are almost impossible to toilet train. Why?

Assumedly any den dwelling animals that didn't have genes that enabled it to quickly learn how to defecate away from its sleeping area died from disease. Their offspring with the genes predisposing them to learn where to toilet survived. But birds and primates spent their history in the trees. Up there there was no penalty for defecating wherever or whenever you felt like it. Thus there was no selection for any genes for quick toilet training, nor for any culture of toilet training. In fact, it was better for these animals to defecate wherever they happened to be, because their urine and feces were vital nutrients for the trees and bushes they depended on to survive. The more they sat and, if you excuse the rhyme, the more they shat, the better off they were.

Human beings are a curious mix between tree dwellers and cave dwellers. We still have the anatomy (rotating shoulder blades, rotator cuff, collar bones, deltoids and trapezius muscles etc.) of apes ( I have dissected Chimps and Gorillas and Orangutans in my comparative anatomy class as a PreMed at Harvard, and compared with dissections of ground dwelling baboons etc. -- at times we couldn't tell which bones and muscles belonged to human specimens and which to apes). We have the arboreal (tree dwelling) binocular color vision (most land mammals are color blind) for finding fruit in trees. And we have the primate tendency to LITTER.

Yes, we love to litter. But because we are also cave (den, apartment, house) dwellers, we can somewhat easily be trained to make our toilet in specific areas. We aren't quite as good at taking out the trash though (just ask your teenagers!).

Why would an organism learn easily not to defecate on the floor, but not to clean up its room?

Anthropologists believe that we spent many millions of years as SCAVENGERS. We hunted and gathered, yes, but principally we scavenged. Think about your own neighbors and acquaintances. How many do you think would have the skills to actually hunt a big animal, and how many do you think would settle for looking around for leftovers? We are the same species, no major changes in 40,000 years. We scavenged principally through the garbage piles of more successful hunters (lions, hyenas, other people who were more skillfull). Our homeless people in the U.S. show that this is still the most expedient way to get food and the other affordances they need from the environment, and the garbage recycling Zabaleen people whom I work with here make their living pouring through the garbage of everyone else. In fact the men haul the city’s trash home on their donkey carts and then the women jump in the garbage mountains and sort through the stuff looking for useful and saleable items. We have lots of archaeological evidence that we humans similarly schlepped most of the garbage we found (the left overs of other animals’ meals) home to our caves to sort through it all (because sorting in the field exposed us to competitors and predators).

This may partially explain why so many cities in developing countries are filled with garbage and why it is of lesser concern to people than other things. It is not that they are unaware, or that they don’t care about cleanliness, it is that they seek opportunities first, and worry about aesthetics second.

One time in the late 1990’s I was doing research in a jungle village in East Kalimantan, Borneo. The site was so beautiful and rustic, with its thatched huts and winding paths, that I felt offended when I saw that there were so many chips bags and candy wrappers and coke cans littering the village. I complained to the chief, asking if the villagers simply were “lazy” or “neglectful” and how they could stand to “pollute” their environment. The old man sighed and gave me a wan smile. He said, “some people actually think the colorful wrappers are pretty – like flower petals, or colored leaves. What makes them any different? Because they were made by factories instead of plants? “ (By the way, don’t we call factories “plants” – as in “I work at the manufacturing plant”?) He said, “you foreigners always act as if anything that is made by people is somehow evil or bad or ugly. We look at the food containers that are shipped up from the city and we see a connection between our remote village and the lives of people connected around the world. So they don’t look ugly to us when they are on the ground – they remind us that we are connected. They don’t do any harm do they? Do candy wrappers bite you like snakes? And do you think we just let them pile up and up? No, when there get to be too many we rake them up and burn them.”

“Burn them?” I repeated. “But they are plastic – burning plastic releases the deadly gas dioxin into the air you breathe. Dioxin is a poison used to make Agent Orange – the poison used by the U.S. Military in Vietnam that killed so many, and is related to Mustard Gas – the chemical weapons used in World War I and later by Saddam Hussein against the Kurds and the Iranians. Dioxin is deadly. Nobody should burn plastic!”

“You see”, he said sadly, “ first you want us to get rid of the plastic because you think it is ugly lying on the ground. Then you want us to stop burning it because it makes poison smoke. If we bury it, it will take a lot of energy for digging, displace trees and farmland and the graves for litter will get full, and soon we will be up to our ankles in trash. Your people invented this stuff, and it is very useful. Have you invented a way to deal with it when you are done?”

It was hard for me to look at litter again in the same way after that experience in the jungle. I have asked myself whether a paper cup or a plastic bag in a rain forest or a desert or on the street is a “bad” thing, and compared the trash with leaves and tree bark and pondered the difference.

The difference I see is this: Plant waste or “leaf litter” is not only biodegradable, but acts as nutrients for other plants. It’s decay is rapid and contributes to our environmental fertility and health. Plastic and other industrial waste does not degrade easily, and when it does, contributes to disease and sickness. If we look through these eyes, we know what is “bad” litter and what is “benign” litter.

Now what about dog feces, or “doggy litter”? Bad or benign?

Well, here is the thing – all feces contain vital nutrients that MUST be returned to the soil if our soils are to maintain their fertility. When we do not return the nutrients that come from the soil, pass into food, pass into our mouths and stomachs and then pass through our bodies and come out as feces and urine BACK to the soil from which they came, we interrupt a VITAL CYCLE.

Our civilization has been systematically robbing the soil of nutrients and then flushing those nutrients down the toilet and into the ocean. The excess nutrients in our streams, rivers and oceans feed algae blooms that then decay and consume all the oxygen in the water, killing all the fish, which then decay and take any residual oxygen away, leaving the area a dead wasteland. Meanwhile, the farms run out of nutrients, so we burn fossil fuels in trucks to carry the Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Potassium and other nutrients that we extract from ancient plant waste (in the form of Oil – a fossil fertilizer) and spread it on the soil again. But because the fertilizers we make from oil always lack micronutrients, the soil eventually dies. And all because we flush our feces down the toilet.

If you are ever able to get past your cultural biases and actually read Karl Mark and Fredrich Engels you will see that one of their earliest concerns was not “Capitalism” per se, but the terrible habit of Western Civilization of robbing the farmland and forests of nutrients to ship food and products into the city where they are consumed and then dumped as waste into the river to the ocean. They predicted that one day we would have an environmental crisis on our hands.

So now, back to dog doo. Dogs learn when they are young not to foul their den. But they also learn that the best way to urinate and defecate outside the den is to “spread the gifts around.” They use urine to mark territory, conveniently putting nitrogen into the roots of every tree and bush they lift their legs around. They sniff about and then defecate in special areas that they have decided need their special fertilizer. I am not suggesting that they know they are behaving as dog farmers – to them it is all about territory and little else. But the effect of dogs doing this for tens of thousands of years (and wolves for millions of years before that, before we created dogs through selective breeding of mutant wolf pups) is that the forests and shrubland they hunted in became more and more fertile and grew to support the prey they depended on for survival (rabbits, mice, rats, deer, elk, moose etc.). They returned every meal they ate back to the soil to grow the plants that their prey depended on for their meals. So the ecological cycle flourished.

Now what happens when we break the cycle? What happens when we take dog feces in our “pooper scooper” and put it in a “neat little plastic bag” and deposit it “nicely” in the “trash can”?

What happens is that now the nutrients in the dog poop are locked away forever by plastic. They get dumped in a toxic landfill and buried where they can’t get any oxygen for proper decomposition, and so they turn into a fetid toxic mess, along with the toxic chlorine in the decomposing plastic. Or they get flushed down the toilet into the rivers into the ocean and starve the water of oxygen. Either way it is a very bad scene.

The best invention I ever saw at a trade show for dealing with dog litter was this device that looked like a mop that you hook up to your garden hose – at the mop end it has a cup with a spray nozzle in it. The guy who invented it said he encouraged people to let their dogs poop on his lawn, because then he went over, placed the cup-like thing over the dog doo, pressed the handle and “fzzzzzzash!” the dog doo was pulverized into the soil beneath the grass as fertilizer. When he removed the cup, you couldn’t see the dog poo anymore – it had been turned into tiny particles. I thought it was brilliant. He said “the more people poop on my lawn, the greener my lawn gets. I don’t have to put grass fertilizer on my lawn.” He went on to tell me that only crazy people rake leaves or blow leaves off their lawns. He said “if you blow or rake the leaves away from the grass, what’s the grass and the critters that make the grass healthy gonna eat? What’s the sense in people spending all that money and time hauling fertilizer to their lawns when the trees give it to you for free? These ignorant morons even bag their leaves and send them to the landfill, or worse, they burn them! Can you imagine? I mean, if you don’t like the look of pretty leaves on your lawn, the least you could do for your own pocket book is rake ‘em into a pile in the corner and let them decay naturally and then use the compost soil they make as fertilizer, if you want to take the time to spread fertilizer on your lawn. But my god, to throw that goldmine away and then go to a store and pay for fertilizer, now THAT is crazy!”

That guy taught me a lot as well.

My final triumph came when I was getting my Master’s in Urban Planning and started thinking about the topics that are in Chapter 7 of our text: “Disasters, Toxic Hazards and Pollution”.

I had survived the Los Angeles Earthquake of 1994 and had put myself at risk trying to help people turn off gas and water and electricity during the aftershocks. It affected me very deeply. I decided I needed to study disaster planning.

One of the things I learned after the earthquake was that with the electricity and water out our toilets didn’t work. And that created quite a hazard. I began to ask myself “what would we do if the electricity and water stayed out for a week or more (as happened in the Midwest this winter!).

I started reading a book called “The Humanure Handbook” and learned that human feces and urine can be used to create fertilizer – “humanure”. As I began experimenting, I created my own compost toilet system for my apartment in Los Angeles, and for three years I disconnected myself from the city’s electric, gas and sewage system, simulating a long term disaster (I did keep water coming into the house because I couldn’t perfect my water recycling system!). All of my organic waste – kitchen waste and toilet wastes-- stayed IN THE APARTMENT in a chamber I built, for three years. Each six months I took some of the compost that it became and used it to plant and fertilize shrubs and trees. It worked brilliantly. I never needed to buy fertilizer. And no, it neither had an odor or was pathogenic. After all – if nature wasn’t adept at turning animal wastes – including ours – into safe fertilizer, we would have all drowned in a bacterial festering poop pile thousands of years ago!

In China I observed the use of “night soil” where farmers put out-houses (latrines) by their fields so travelers will contribute “fertilizer” to their land. In Indonesia I went to restaurants where the toilets were over fish ponds that used the feces to raise catfish that were used to feed other animals that were then fed to people in the restaurant. In Dayak villages I stayed in huts where the toilet was built over the pig sty – the pigs ate the feces, the people ate the pigs! I’ve used composting toilets all over the world and purchased professional models from Sun-Mar. The facts now speak for themselves – all organic wastes are nutrients for another process and should never be “flushed away” or put in land fills. Nowadays our practice of using expensive pure clean drinking water to flush away feces seems barbaric! What were we thinking? We have a water crisis and we use our best water to carry waste away into the river? At least we should use the “grey water” – the soapy dish and shower water -- to flush with after we have used it to clean our dishes and clothes and bodies!!

Now a final point about how we can stop littering. My radical opinion is not only that we CAN’T stop littering, but that we SHOULDN’T. Instead, I say we should take “The Designer’s Perspective” (see chapter 11) and DESIGN A BETTER SYSTEM THAT ALLOWS US TO FOLLOW OUR NATURAL INCLINATION FOR LITTERING.

If all of our products were biodegradable (and such products exist today on the market!!!) then we wouldn’t have to worry about collecting garbage. We could design our cities with areas where we would encourage littering. Our products would lie on the ground in these areas and quickly turn into vital nutrients, and everybody would be helping to fertilize the land in our cities, which would make them greener and more beautiful. Gardeners wouldn’t need to waste time spreading fertilizer about because the citizens would all be unknowingly acting as gardeners.

Sound far fetched? Most real solutions to big problems do, but I submit to you that it is more far fetched to think that we will ever stop people from littering. You may be able to train people in many neighborhoods to put litter in a waste receptacle – that is doable – but who will stop the city then from dumping that “litter” in a landfill or in the river or ocean (an ever worse form of littering)? Legislation can only do so much – if you travel around the world you will see that the only places where the laws against littering and dumping are being ENFORCED are in the rich areas. The poor areas are filthy, either because the people have no time to manage the waste, or because the rich are paying somebody to dump waste in the poor neighborhoods where they know people won’t be able to summon the political power to fight back (See the movie “Sahara” for more on this!).

My idea is to make litter impossible by making all litter like leaf litter. Make it unobjectionable, and then let people do what comes naturally.

I would love to hear your thoughts on all THIS class! Now here is a meaty topic for discussion!

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