Thursday, April 16, 2009

Indoor Plumbing

Now, I'm not going to claim that indoor plumbing can't be USEFUL. In dense cities, modern sewer systems and sanitary drinking water systems have saved countless lives. Prior to indoor plumbing and the advent of the Crapper™, human waste was dumped in the street, where it spread infectious diseases and often contaminated nearby water supplies. I'm not saying that new homes shouldn't be equipped with plumbing systems or that plumbing should be ripped out of existing homes. Indoor plumbing, however, has created a whole new set of social and environmental dilemmas, and its value in your own life may be overrated. If you have to, you can probably get by without it.

Indoor plumbing does two things: It brings fresh, safe water into the home and it carries liquified waste out. The unfortunate effect, however, is that it encourages the abuse of both systems. People with plumbing tend to use way more water than they need, and they produce far too much liquid waste. Given the availability of nearly free, effortlessly-obtained water, consumers will use hundreds of gallons a day rather than the couple of gallons that could get by with. At the other end, they are producing huge amounts of waste water, which has to be run through a resource-intensive treatment process. They are also flushing just about anything into the sewer, not just toilet paper but garbage, gum, cigarette butts and anything else that will fit, accompanied by countless wasted gallons of flush water.

While human waste dumped in the public gutter is a bad thing for both the environment and society, the same waste dumped on biologically active land—in reasonable amounts—is generally good. Urine is moderately poisonous to most life forms, but when animals pee, even big ones like cattle, the land manages to deal with it. On the other hand, the land loves shit! It's great fertilizer, and there's a whole host of flora and fauna prepared to deal with it.

Modesty aside, is it better to relieve yourself in bushes or in the Crapper? From an environmental standpoint, probably the bushes! You're not wasting any water, and your shit is being put to good use! Of course, if a hundred people used the same bush, there might be disease and overload issue, but if it's just you, no problem!

Where should you dispose of your toilet paper? You could bury it and let nature do its work, or you could put it in the trash. Most domestic trash now goes to landfills where it is essentially entombed for eternity. As distasteful as this may sound, landfills are the most environmentally benign disposal system we currently have (apart from the recycling of high-value materials). If you flush your t.p. down the john, there has to be a process at the other end to filter it out—at which point it is probably going into a landfill anyway.

On the input side, does an individual human really need to run through 100s of gallons of clean water a day? It's amazing how much you can do with just a gallon or two with a little thought and ingenuity. The most important thing we need water for is drinking, but that usage rarely reaches even a gallon a day unless you're sweating like a pig. (Do pigs actually sweat?) Of course, a gallon won't run a modern dishwasher or washing machine or give you a decent shower, but your need for those things may not be as pressing as you think.

Even if you have indoor plumbing right now, you may someday encounter circumstances when you won't have it. In that case, you get along better than you think! Below are various tips and observations that might be helpful. (Some of them are drawn from my other blog, Homeless by Choice.)
  1. You don't need water to brush your teeth, only toothpaste and a toothbrush. Your own saliva provides all the wetting you need. You don't need to rinse your mouth afterwards; just spit. (Toothpaste is non-toxic and harmless, should a little residue remain in your mouth.) Water is USEFUL only to rinse off your brush when you are done, but you don't need much. If you are unable to rinse your toothbrush for several days, it may get a little crusty, but you can still use it.

  2. The need for a dishwasher is generally the result of having TOO MANY dishes. (See dishwashers - automatic.) If you have only one set of dishes per person, you might end up not washing as much and eliminating the need for the mass washing.

  3. In the developed world, the pendulum has swung from "unsanitary" conditions to "hypersanitary" conditions. That is, when we have the resources we now insist that things be much cleaner than they have to be for any genuine health need. For example, you use a glass once, then put it in the dishwasher. Why can't you use the same glass all day? There's no real sanitary reason why not, just a cultural "ewwww" factor. Our epidemic of hypersanitation is encouraged in part by commercial marketing, which always has a product to sell you to address it. (To sell you the product, marketers first have to create the need.)

  4. "Germs" are a marketing invention and don't really exist. Instead you have two potential disease causing agents: viruses and bacteria. You can never eliminate them entirely, and your body has defenses against both. In fact, your body needs regular exposure to viruses and bacteria to keep its defense systems in tune. If something you touch is covered with "germs," it doesn't necessarily increase your risk of disease, and your health is not necessarily improved by continuously washing everything you come in contact with.

  5. In general, you're not going to catch any diseases from viruses and bacteria emitted by your own body, only those from other people's bodies that happen to be infected with diseases you haven't been exposed to. If there are millions of bacteria on every square inch of your bathroom, that's not necessarily a health risk if they're all your bacteria. Likewise with the viruses and bacteria of your immediate family. Within a household, there are so many vectors for disease, like kissing, that you're going to be sharing "germs" anyway, so keeping your home surfaces sanitized is irrelevant.

  6. It is absolutely insane to produce a half cup of urine and flush it down with four gallons of clean water! There has to be a better way! If public norms were not an issue, you could keep a pee bottle and dump it only once a day. I'm not saying this is right for you, but if you have an opportunity to not waste so much water, maybe you should try it. (Pee in the bushes!)

  7. You don't produce so much urine—and thus don't have to flush so often—if you simply don't drink so much. People in the modern world tend to drink far more than they actually need: quarts of drink per day rather than the few ounces of water they can usually get buy with (except when sweating). This is due largely to their caffeine addiction, which is epidemic throughout the world. People also insist on drinks with every meal, which is also unnecessary. If your pee is more clear than yellow, you're probably drinking more than you need. When you limit your fluid intake, it is amazing how long you can go without a bathroom break.

  8. Everyone needs to bathe, but probably not as often as most people do. If you feel you must shower twice a day, then indoor plumbing is necessary, but if 2-3 times a week is enough for you, you might be able to "rent" a shower—say, by using a health club. How often should you bathe? Since the main issue is usually odor and its social effect, not health per se, you need to smell yourself to find out. Admittedly, this isn't easy, but there has to be a certain time frame where offensive body odors kick in (two days? two weeks?). If you bathe more often than that, you aren't getting much benefit from it.

  9. Health clubs are great places for personal hygiene without the need for plumbing of your own. You can use all the hot and cold water you care to, while someone else pays for it and maintains the infrastructure.

  10. In situations where you have little water for dishwashing, disposable plates, cups and utensils might do the trick. You might also be able to use non-disposable plates and cups and simply wipe them off with a paper towel instead of washing. Again, there's no reason to fear "germs" on your plate if you will be the next one using it.

  11. Food residue that has dried onto your plate may be unsightly, but it isn't a health risk. Bacteria doesn't grow in a dry medium!

  12. When bacteria does grow on spoiled food, it may produce toxins. For example, you may get sick from drinking a cup of spoiled milk. You won't get sick, however, if there's just a thin layer of milk residue on your glass, even if it looks unsightly. This type of bacterial growth is different (and a lot more benign) than the bacteria passed between people as disease agents.

  13. If you have no plumbing of your own, you can wash your clothes just as well at a facility called a "Laundromat". This is a commercial establishment available in most cities and towns where you "rent" washing machines and dryers by placing coins in them. The price may seem high, but it probably beats the monthly cost of owning a washing machine. Commercial washers usually use water much more efficiently than home washers do, and they may work better.

  14. You can stretch out your visits to the Laundromat by not changing your clothes and bedding so often. Do you need a new set of clothes every day, or can you stretch them out for several days? Maybe you should test for actual dirtiness (by appearance or smell) rather than just assuming.

  15. Shit stinks! That's one reason you can't just through it away in the trash. Surprisingly, shit in a plastic bag stinks even worse! That's because plastic prevents the dung from drying out, while it continues to pass odors. What doesn't stink? Shit wrapped in both plastic and aluminum foil! That's because foil passes no odors. Believe It... Or Not!™

  16. If you think throwing shit away in the trash is offensive, consider this: Baby diapers are routinely thrown in the trash. There's no other way!

  17. Urine stinks, but only under certain circumstances. It smells bad in humid corners where there is no opportunity for it to wash away (like in New York City subways). Urine doesn't smell in the desert or in the bushes, at least not enough to be detectable.

  18. Bottled water may be relatively expensive, but if you are very frugal with it, it could be less costly than plumbing over all. You can do even better if you bottle your own water from someone else's tap. That's usually free!
Some of these ideas can be applied even if you possess indoor plumbing, or you might use nearly all of them if you are camping or traveling.

Whatever happened to the good old outhouse? Modern building codes and environmental regulations have run it out of business. Same with the septic tank. Biologically, these seemed like pretty good ideas: The waste had a chance to decay naturally, then was returned to the environment in relatively small doses.

Industrialized civilization can't tolerate these ad-hoc solutions. The trouble with modern law and environmental regulation is they demand the same solutions for everyone, regardless of the circumstances. We can't let you pee in the bushes, the reasoning goes, because if EVERYONE peed in the bushes, there would be chaos. We can't tolerate people living without plumbing, because if everyone did it there would be disease epidemics.

Building codes and environmental regulation have certainly improved public health compared to medieval times, but they have also resulted in absurdities, like the U.S. Park Service spending huge sums on high-tech, supposedly environmentally-friendly toilets in their parks, replacing the traditional outhouse. Heaven forbid some human should shit in the woods! While masses of people living together have to have plumbing codes and a thousand other regulations, it doesn't mean these rules are best for you or that you are damaging anything by evading them.

You are not "everyone". You are one person, and as long as you are not inviting a hundred people to pee in the same bush you are, you should feel free to find solutions that work for you. If no one sees you and the actual impact on the environment is nil, then go ahead and drench that bush! If it's civil disobedience, then so be it.

Someone has to stand up to The Man!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


People seem willing to pay enormous amounts of money for a "room with a view"—like a hotel on the beach or a house on a hillside overlooking the city. You don't need it, though. You can enjoy beauty wherever you find it, but it can't be bought, sold or nailed down in any way. As soon as you try, the beauty is lost and you're stuck with a product that doesn't work as well as it should.

Beauty, of course, is subjective. Is the Grand Canyon beautiful, or just an unsightly gouge in the earth? It depends in part on what you are used to: If you have never seen it before, you might be duly impressed on first viewing, but you won't be if you come from a whole planet of Grand Canyons where it is just another hole in the ground.

One thing is certain: The longer you remain at the Grand Canyon, the less you are going to be awed by it. It's going to fade further and further from your consciousness until only your life on the edge of it matters. After all, you can't DO much with the Grand Canyon; it just sits there.

People may rave about how beautiful something is, but when they do, it is usually because (a) they are new to the experience, or (b) they are trying to sell you something, or (c) they are trying to sell themselves on the wisdom of investments they have already made.

Real estate agents always play up the supposed beauty of whatever area their selling: "Look at those mountains. Look at that seashore. If you buy this property, all of that can be yours!" In fact, it can't be yours. You can buy the property, but what happens shortly thereafter? You stop seeing the view!

Beauty, if it exists, is a temporary emotional reaction inside you, not an inherent quality of the outside world. It is not something you can hang your decisions on, because emotions change. The same view that got you excited the first time you saw it will probably be ho-hum by the fifth time. In the long run, you are concerned with the pragmatic struggles of life, not its setting.

There are things that people universally find beautiful. For example, we seem to be programmed by our genes to see certain facial configurations as attractive—a certain spacing of the eyes, for example—but even this universal beauty fades with exposure. If you marry a fashion model, her objective beauty vanishes to you almost immediately, and what matters from then on is the actual functioning of the relationship.

When it comes to making practical decisions about your life, beauty—in any form—is a big con job. If you choose real estate, relationships or even vacation destinations based on perceived beauty, you are bound to be disappointed. Although the brochure may look pretty, the destination isn't going to look the same to you once you get there and get acclimated. The real operational question is, "What do I do?" and beauty can't help you with that.

The people who try to buy beauty or sell themselves based on it are a sorry lot. If you choose a mate based on appearance or a house based on its scenic view, then you have cheated on the operational criteria that really matter in the long run. You can show off your landmark home or trophy wife to others, who may be impressed at first, but that's not much comfort later if the house doesn't work for you or the relationship hits the skids.

Beauty is something you are free to notice, even turn your head for, but if you start making real decisions based on it, you're doomed.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Recreational Vehicles (RVs)

A motor home or travel trailer may sound like a good idea for those with a wanderlust, but it ends up making travel much more complicated, not easier. These ungainly houses-on-wheels are promoted as giving you the "freedom of the open road," but in fact they imprison you. If you really care about traveling, you don't need one.

RVs are for bloated Americans who can't bear to leave home without all their useless Stuff. The RV allows them to carry it all with them! Unfortunately, this also forces them to carry a huge, expensive infrastructure with them, too. Like a fixed home, the RV has to be maintained. Instead of spending your time and resources seeing the world, you're spending them on the RV itself.

I've actually owned an RV (a small one), so I know how useless they are. I would have been far more comfortable in a van or car. Most people who buy a RV make only one or two trips before the magic is gone. Thereafter, the vehicle sits in storage and is merely a burden.

The gas mileage is horrible, and there are a lot of places RVs can't go. This leads to the absurdity of people hauling a regular car behind their RV to use for sightseeing and errands. Your range is also limited when you're in an RV: You can't take it on a plane or boat with you, so you're trapped on the well-worn highways of your current continent.

If you want to experience the road, it is much easier to fly somewhere and rent a car. You keep the car only for as long as you need it, and someone else is responsible for maintaining it. Where do you sleep at night? Try a motel! Anywhere you can plug in a RV you can usually find a cheap motel. You can stay at a lot of Motel 6™s for the cost of an average RV and campground hook-ups. And, again, you use the room only for as long as you need it while someone else is responsible for maintenance.

Better yet, try CAMPING! That's real camping close to nature, not pseudo-camping in an artificial bubble. You will experience the environment directly and learn how to adapt to it! Or how about sleeping in your rental car? Once you get used to it, the back seat of a car be as comfortable as any RV bed.

An RV provides bathroom facilities, but in the rural areas where people typically take their RVs, there are plenty of facilities—everywhere! Try the bushes! If you go in the woods or in public restrooms, there is no holding tank to empty or water system to maintain.

Kitchen facilities? Again, you can buy a lot of nice restaurant meals for the price of an RV with a kitchen. If you are traveling in a rental car, you might not be able to "cook" or "refrigerate", but there are plenty of innovative options you can come up with for cheap eating based on local food sources.

There's hardly any Stuff you need to take with you that you can't buy or rent when you arrive. Instead of hauling a bicycle or kayak with you, you can usually rent one at any scenic attraction where such devices are used. Or try walking on your own two feet, which involves no rental charge.

Unlike a fixed home, an RV depreciates quickly. As soon as you buy it, it starts losing value, so as a financial investment, it is a very poor one. It's also a poor travel investment, because it ties you down to the road you're on.

If you like to travel, then just do it! Just get on a plane and go! You don't need all the excess baggage.

Released from San Antonio, Texas.