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Rethinking Shit

Excrement and equity

By Noah Zeichner

Home > Archives > Volume 28 No.1 - Fall 2013

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Rethinking Shit: Excrement and equity

Erik Ruin

My students say “shit” multiple times a day. Rarely are they talking about feces. The word shit has been around for centuries. The Online Etymology Dictionary traces the word's reference to excrement back to the 1580s, but its use for an “obnoxious person” goes back to at least 1508.

A couple of years ago, I started to change my approach to shit. While researching a unit on global water scarcity that I was teaching in my global leadership class, I came across a collection of essays, Written in Water: Messages of Hope for Earth's Most Precious Resource, that features an article about sanitation by Rose George. George's essay, “The Unmentionables,” is reprinted from her book The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters. George does a masterful job of illustrating why no one wants to talk about shit. It's a gross and uncomfortable topic.

I have an excerpt from the introduction to The Big Necessity waiting for students on their desks when they walk into the classroom (pages 1–3). I ask them to read silently and to underline key facts and statistics. They discover that 2.6 billion people in the world do not have access to sanitation. That means no toilet, latrine, outhouse, or even a cardboard box. In other words, 40 percent of all humans on earth have nowhere to defecate. Women risk humiliation and rape when relieving themselves. And children grow up accustomed to the stench of human waste.

When my students have finished reading, before we discuss the content, I show a short video clip from the film Slumdog Millionaire. The scene begins just before minute 11, and shows the film's protagonist, then a young boy, going to the bathroom in a hanging latrine in Mumbai, India. The boy's friend locks the door from the outside just as a helicopter, carrying a famous movie star, is landing nearby. Not wanting to miss the chance for an autograph, the boy decides to take the plunge into a deep pool of shit. He emerges, covered in brown sludge, and successfully pushes himself through a crowd of shocked fans to meet his hero.