Night Soil and the Metabolic Rift

Our latest article is out, which examines the history and cross-cultural management of human waste (or “night soil”) as an agricultural resource. The paper grew out of a collaborative class project that I proposed to Master’s degree students enrolled in my Environmental Anthropology course in the spring of 2017. Together, we delved into the archaeology and history of night soil use and management, as well as some recent ethnographic research on the subject. This paper synthesizes that work and puts it in conversation with contemporary theorizing of the “metabolic rift” — or the notion that the rise of industrial capitalism led to a fundamental rupture in human relations to the earth’s ecological systems. The article, titled “Night Soil: Origins, Discontinuities, and Opportunities for Bridging the Metabolic Rift,” can be found in the latest issue of the open access journal Ethnobiology Letters.

Photo Aug 15, 2 55 03 PM (1).jpg
A tractor spreads biosolids (i.e. treated sanitation sludge) over a field in central Washington state.


  1. I’m trying to create a home in the San Diego area. The permits are very expensive and amount to twice the selling price of the small manufactured home I want to set up on my property. I don’t intend to use a septic system or sewer. I don’t like to pollute water, waste water, or waste manure. I just want a grey water system and a compost system. I wonder if there is a way to get that approved with a savings on the permit for the unnecessary septic system. I’m a little skeptical though. Even though most of the world lives without septic systems, in this country it seems they want to continue polluting water until there is no clean water left, and people who want to live sensibly aren’t permitted. Thanks for your article. Even though change is coming slowly, it’s got to come!

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