permanent agriculture and the anthropology of waste

This term I have the privilege of co-teaching a new seminar course at Queen’s (with Emily Hill) on the topic of Green China: Environment, Culture, Politics. The course examines the intersections between religion, culture, politics, and the natural environment in China over the past century.

One of the first books we read was Farmers of Forty Centuries or Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan, a travelogue by the American agricultural scientist Franklin Hiram King (1848-1911). The book extols the virtues of what we might today call “organic farming” or “sustainable agriculture,” practices that King observed in his eight month travels to the Far East in 1909. (Note how the publisher of this new version on the left has changed the subtitle to make it more relevant to a contemporary market.) His designation of this form of agriculture as “permanent” was meant to differentiate it from the “orthodox agriculture” advocated by the USDA, and signals what the Oxford scholar John Paull terms a “clash of ideologies … which remains to this day.” In recent years, interest in King’s book has multiplied amongst advocates of alternatives to industrial agriculture and, having emerged from copyright protection, has attained the status of a classic work. A free edition is available from the Gutenberg e-text website.

One of King’s key observations regarding the ‘permanent’ nature of China’s agricultural practices at the turn of the 20th century regarded the use of human manure as fertilizer, thereby returning key nutrients to the soil. He describes in detail the practice of recycling human manure to the soil, which he observed throughout the Far East. Then he  launches into a withering attack on the supposed civilization of the West (Chapter IX):

On the basis of the data of Wolff, Kellner and Carpenter, or of Hall, the people of the United States and of Europe are pouring into the sea, lakes or rivers and into the underground waters from 5,794,300 to 12,000,000 pounds of nitrogen; 1,881,900 to 4,151,000 pounds of potassium, and 777,200 to 3,057,600 pounds of phosphorus per million of adult population annually, and this waste we esteem one of the great achievements of our civilization. In the Far East, for more than thirty centuries, these enormous wastes have been religiously saved and today the four hundred million of adult population send back to their field annually 150,000 tons of phosphorus, 376,000 tons of potassium, and 1,158,000 tons of nitrogen comprised in a gross weight exceeding 182 million tons, gathered from every home, from the country villages and from the great cities like Hankow-Wuchang-Hanyang, with its 1,770,000 people swarming on a land area delimited by a radius of four miles.

Man is the most extravagant accelerator of waste the world has ever endured. His withering blight has fallen upon every living thing within his reach, himself not excepted; and his besom of destruction in the uncontrolled hands of a generation has swept into the sea soil fertility which only centuries of life could accumulate, and yet this fertility is the substratum of all that is living. … The rivers of North American are estimated to carry to the sea more than 500 tons of phosphorus with each cubic mile of water. To such loss modern civilization is adding that of hydraulic sewage disposal through which the date of five hundred millions of people might be more than 194,300 tons of phosphorus annually, which could not be replaced by 1,295,000 tons of rock phosphate, 75 per cent pure.

King’s language reveals the exasperation of a scientist who can readily see the folly of his own culture’s practices but finds himself powerless to change them.

For me the issue here is that “waste” and “pollution” are key categories in anthropology. What falls into these categories and how we behave in relation to them are governed by social habits that are deely ingrained and culturally specific. Terms for human waste are obscenities in the English language, and readily convey the particular distaste that we have developed for these substances. The pervasive Gnostic / Christian emphasis on the soul, rather than the body, as the location of the divine also contributes to the notion that little good is to be found in the material we excrete from our bodies. Cultural barriers such as these make it particularly hard to advocate the recycling of human waste.

Curiously, this reminded me of the famous discussion in Zhuangzi chapter 22.

Hmong woman carrying nightsoil (Image: Brad Houk)

Dongguozi asked Zhuangzi, “Where is this Dao you speak of?”
Zhuangzi said, “There is nowhere it is not.”
“You must be more specific.”
“It is in the ants and crickets.”
“So low?”
“It is in the grasses and weeds.”
“Even lower?”
“It is in the tiles and shard.”
“So extreme?”
“It is in the piss and shit.”

The notion that the Dao subsists in all things, even what we regard with the greatest disdain, was clearly meant to shock, but it is certainly the logical outcome of a resolutely monistic philosophy, the notion that the Dao underlies and pervades all things in the cosmos. Zhuangzi would probably not have been surprised to learn that, from a scientific perspective, the Dao really does lie in human excrement.

I would argue, however, that it is precisely Zhuangzi’s way of thinking, shocking though it may be, that makes it more possible to contemplate recycling human waste, rather than flushing it into the sea. When human waste is viewed as the location of the Dao, rather than as a polluting substance that makes us ‘feel dirty,’ then it becomes more possible to implement systems that incorporate our waste into the agricultural cycle.

Paull is right, then, to see the battle between ‘permanent’ agriculture and the USDA ‘orthodoxy’ as an ideological battle. But in my view, what we consider to be “waste” and “pollution” and how we behave towards it is also a matter for cultural/religious anthropology.

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