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.

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A tractor spreads biosolids (i.e. treated sanitation sludge) over a field in central Washington state.

What Happens When We Flush?

I just completed revisions on an article titled “What Happens When We Flush?” that will appear in the September edition of Anthropology Now. You can read a pre-print version of it on my Academia.edu site. The article  discusses how the modern flush toilet has perpetuated the illusion that human waste can be made to “disappear.” Examining the industrial origins of the flush toilet, I point out some of its problematic consequences as a model of sanitation in the contemporary world. Using examples from Pre-Columbian Amazonia and 19th century East Asia, I highlight alternative models of managing human excreta that have proven benefits for agricultural production, which might serve to reorient human relations to excrement in industrialized societies today.