Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Oh, Poop
distributed 9/7/07 - ©2007

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Pete Palmer, of Boulder, Colorado. His generous support helps make this publication possible.

Every day, rain or shine, the newspapers in Denver are delivered in a long, flimsy plastic bag. Vast numbers of those bags are reused -- by people walking their dogs.

It is a common sight to see a bright orange bag tied around the top of a leash, or tucked in a pocket. In parks and along busy sidewalks, empty newspaper bags are stuffed into dispenser tubes for use by the dog walker who ventured out without the right equipment.

It is a matter of etiquette that is becoming widespread around this city. Picking up after your pooch is standard protocol. If Fido squats, Mom or Dad needs to use the bag as a glove, grab the droppings, and deposit the tied-off bundle in a trash can.

It wasn't always that way. Maybe ten years ago, if nature called while a multi-species family was going walkies, the person looked discretely away while the bow-wow did its business. Then they just walked away, leaving that special gift on somebody's lawn.

Parks and yards were covered with little land mines. Beyond the matter of inconvenience -- that "Eweew" of a suddenly slippery step -- the very real problems of smell, insects and disease became recognized as legitimate concerns about public health and sanitation.

As I recall, here in Denver, the change started in the city parks. Signs were posted urging people to take responsibility for cleaning up. In Washington Park -- the large, lovely, upscale commons only three blocks from my office -- somebody started hanging bundles of newspaper bags on sign posts. The city, appropriately, said that ordinary citizens couldn't take it upon themselves to place such things in the park, and took them all down. Negotiations ensued. Finally, city-sanctioned bag dispensers went up in all the parks.

Not every dog owner performs due diligence, but the vast majority have learned a lesson. They have accepted that Labrador leavings and Poodle piles are a public nuisance, and they're doing their part to pick up.

Using those newspaper bags is now commonly accepted as a necessary part of living decently in the midst of urban density.

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This problem isn't only about urban living, and it isn't just about pets.

Just a few days ago, the New York Times ran an article: No More Privies, So Hikers Add a Carry-Along. In heavily-used backcountry sections of National Parks and other public lands, people poop is now being considered a matter of personal responsibility.

Rather than use helicopters or pack llamas to cart out the contents of latrines, the Feds are closing down outhouses. Hikers are told that they need to handle their own poop in the same way that they do their dog's. Fortunately, the plastic bags that are recommended for backpacking use are considerably more durable than the newspaper bags, but they serve the same purpose.

Just like dogs mess up city parks, swarms of people cause sanitation problems when they relieve themselves. In an area with lots of river rafters, rock climbers or vista viewers, it is no longer appropriate to leave your feces behind. These days, "Leave No Trace" means more than garbage and ashes.

The long-standing wisdom about camping sanitation is still OK when you're on the road much less traveled. Natural processes of decomposition do their stuff quite well when the system isn't overloaded.

Then, as the Good Book says: "You shall have a designated area outside the camp to which you shall go. With your utensils you shall have a trowel; when you relieve yourself outside, you shall dig a hole with it and then cover up your excrement." (Deuteronomy 23:12-13) That biblical text, by the way, is not included in the Lectionary. I imagine that there have been very few sermons based on that passage in modern American churches.

If you're likely to see people on the trail, though, or if your wilderness destination is popular enough to be mentioned in a trail guide, then an old-fashioned "cat hole" isn't appropriate. Bring along a suitable bag, and use it.

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Let me share two thoughts of a less frivolous nature.

This matter of sewage treatment is just one expression of a much greater truth. The natural world is limited in the amount of our waste that it can process. Whether it is poop, banana peels or carbon dioxide, we have to change our behavior when the amount we produce overwhelms the capacity of nature. In a world without many people, we didn't have to control our waste. Now we do. You can use Deuteronomy 23 in a sermon about global warming. I dare you!

I'm also saddened by a related realization -- one that Richard Louv mentions in Last Child in the Woods. In our crowded world, it is often not possible for people to have raw experiences of being a part of the natural world. My Boy Scout training in trailside sanitation helped me learn about decomposition. Putting turds in a baggie doesn't provide the same lesson. Taking a hike off of a marked trail gives a sense of connectedness and discovery. But if everybody goes where they want, the forest will be destroyed. (Thus the new Federal rules about limiting off-road vehicles to defined routes.)

Spiritually and philosophically, it is important that people have those up-close-and-personal experiences of nature. But we've reached a level of population density that means we can't all go wherever we want, and do whatever we please. The opportunities for communing with nature will have to be rare and treasured experiences, or we'll end up destroying the natural world that we want to love.

With our ever-increasing numbers, we are called to new responsibilities. "New occasions teach new duties. Time make ancient good uncouth."

May we find the grace and wisdom to learn new ways of living gently with this good Earth -- personally, and as a global society.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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