Thinking Outside the Box
The History Channel's "Modern Marvels" series includes a terrific program on plumbing history titled, "Plumbing: The Arteries of Civilization." (A videotape can be obtained for $19.95 by calling 800-408-4842 or online via www.historychannel.com.) My enthusiasm for the show is in no way diminished by the fact that I appear in it as one of the talking heads. But I would sing its praises even were that not the case, because the producers did a fabulous job of glorifying this industry of ours.
The program first aired in September 1998 and has been rerun, I believe, three times as of this writing. I'm uncertain because I have no way of knowing when it pops up on the broadcast schedule. (To my annoyance, the cable TV company covering my area does not carry The History Channel.) I always find out after the fact when calls or messages come in from acquaintances saying they saw me on TV.
One such contact came from a viewer who took the time to write the following visionary critique. "I saw you interviewed on the program, 'Plumbing: The Arteries of Civilization.' It was an interesting show, but I was disappointed with the end where the topic of high-tech sewage disposal was discussed," he said.
"I ran across an article ('The Sewerless Society') published in the November 1975 issue of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists describing methods which minimize water use. Atomic Scientists is somewhat of a fringe magazine, and the merits of most of the ideas discussed are questionable. Some, to say the least!
"There was, however, an idea worthy of serious consideration: a toilet which doesn't use water at all as a flushing medium. It uses a low-viscosity mineral oil. It is a closed system in which the flushing medium, because it is low in viscosity, can be easily filtered and recycled. Such a technology would be especially useful in a place like Mexico City, in which the environment is difficult for standard plumbing. I am enclosing a copy of the article.
"The electric power industry is moving from large generating plants with large distribution grids to fuel cell technology where electricity is generated locally. Perhaps localization can be the future of the sewage disposal industry.
"I was hoping that, if you think this is a promising technology, you would be in a position to publicize it." - Albert K. Heitzmann, Phoenix, AZ, email@example.com.
Food for ThoughtThe 24-year-old article sent by Mr. Heitzmann reviewed a variety of waste removal technologies. Most are feasible and already employed in limited applications. They include incineration, composting, biological toilets and the mineral oil concept he mentioned. Economics is the obvious reason why none has come into widespread use.
Or is it?
Every new technology is encumbered by development costs. The economic argument therefore serves as a protective shield around the status quo. That shield forms "the box" containing the sum of accumulated wisdom in a given field. It's what innovators refer to when they use the familiar phrase "thinking outside the box."
Nobody whose thoughts remained inside the box would have dared to spark the transition from gas street lights and oil lamps to electrical lighting. Too uneconomical. The fuel-based infrastructures were already in place. Tremendous amounts would have to be invested in electrical generating stations. So, too, with the progression from natural to mechanical horsepower, and from ground-based transportation to newfangled flying machines.
Except, from time to time, someone did think outside the box, and it led to the most breathtaking century of human existence. Hard to believe, isn't it, that 100 years ago the Wright Brothers were still trying to figure out how to get off the ground, and now we send flying machines to far corners of the solar system and beyond.
Yet, here we are still flushing toilets pretty much the same way we did 100 years ago. Oh, we use less water per flush, but far more water volume overall due to population growth. Billions and billions of gallons of this essential resource get depleted washing away human waste at the same time many of our population centers find supplies of fresh water growing short. As water and sewer rates go up, the economic case for old-fashioned flushing becomes ever more tenuous. This leads some of the industry's keenest minds to figure out better conservation measures. But, how many are truly thinking outside the box by seriously examining ways not to use water at all? As the years and decades advance into the new millennium, could it be that water-based toilets eventually will become as quaint as the flickering street lights of the previous century? Economics says no. Logic says yes, of course.