New Year’s goal: changing our feelings about poop

Excrement. Feces. Poop. No matter humanity’s level of technological advancement, dealing with fecal waste is a reality that we have never been able to escape; poop is just one of the byproducts of being alive.

But as we face one of the greatest existential threats to our survival through climate change, could poop be part of the solution leading us to a more sustainable life on the planet? This is one of the questions three UBC’s Green College scholars will invite the public to explore through the presentation Waste Not: Rethinking Poop Through Bugs, Books and Power, taking place on Jan. 14, via Zoom.

Learning from other species

Katie Marshall, PhD, is an assistant professor of comparative physiology at the UBC Department of Zoology. Her research focuses on invertebrates, which has led her to study the dung beetle in collaboration with dung beetle world expert Kimberly Sheldon, PhD, of the University of Tennessee. As Marshall explains, the study of this unassuming insect can teach us a lot about our relationship with waste.

Tamara Mitchell, assistant professor in the Department of French, Hispanic, and Italian Studies at UBC. | Photo courtesy of Tamara Mitchell

“Dung beetles roll balls of poop around and lay their eggs in poop, and then the larvae use it as an energy source,” she says. The research has shown that “dung beetles help break down animal dung [and through this process] help reduce the risk of disease that can be passed on through feces.” Burying their waste deep underground, the beetles also contribute to soil fertilization. “Dung beetles contribute somewhere on the order of multiple billions of dollars to the economy by helping reduce the risk of disease and by soil fertilization,” adds Marshall.

Beyond their contribution to soil health, dung beetles can also help us reconsider our relationship to waste even more practically.

“I think that dung beetles show us that even the things that we think of as waste are things that maybe we can use,” Marshall affirms. “For instance, humans for a long time have used dung, especially from cattle or camels, for fuel or fertilizer. Now, with changing technology, we’re finding that we can maybe use municipal waste, for instance, from treatment plants to produce biogas for energy.”

A literary perspective

While looking at other species can seem an obvious way to learn about feces, can literature also be useful in changing our relationship with poop? For Tamara Mitchell, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of French, Hispanic, and Italian Studies at UBC, the answer is yes.

Katie Marshall, assistant professor
of comparative physiology, UBC.| Photo courtesy of UBC

“In general, authors have this powerful ability to kind of refocus our lens and help us to understand [a different perspective on a subject],” she explains. “If we think of excrement, our natural reaction is that it’s gross. We don’t want to touch it. We don’t want to be near it. But excrement has been such an important and vital material for societies for millennia as a source for fire, or a key component of compost.”

According to Mitchell, Indigenous communities have practiced a symbiotic relationship with nature for ages – one that the rest of us are starting to understand we need.

Drawing from her research about author Jose Maria Arguedas, whose work centers around the Indigenous peoples of Peru, Mitchell’s talk will focus on “notions of epistemology” which she explains are “ways of believing” or “ways of thinking.” By comparing a mainstream epistemology that “looks at poop as an abject or gross material” to a more Indigenous epistemology, she hopes we can better understand a way of thinking that allows us to see the value of these materials.

In addition to Marshall and Mitchell’s presentations, the third talk, by Yankai Cao, PhD, assistant professor at UBC’s Faculty of Applied Sciences, will explore the subject of fecal waste through a chemical and biological engineering lens.

While Marshall believes the topic is important for environmental reasons, she also hopes the event helps people to reflect on what we value, what we don’t, and go on to ask themselves “What makes something waste?”

To register for this event, visit www.greencollege.ubc.ca

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