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The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters [NOOK Book]


“One smart book . . . delving deep into the history and implications of a daily act that dare not speak its name.” —Newsweek

Acclaimed as “extraordinary” (The New York Times) and “a classic” (Los Angeles Times), The Big Necessity is on its way to removing the taboo on bodily waste—something common to all and as natural as breathing. We prefer not to talk about it, but we should—even those of us who take care of our business in pristine, sanitary conditions. Disease spread by ...

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The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters

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“One smart book . . . delving deep into the history and implications of a daily act that dare not speak its name.” —Newsweek

Acclaimed as “extraordinary” (The New York Times) and “a classic” (Los Angeles Times), The Big Necessity is on its way to removing the taboo on bodily waste—something common to all and as natural as breathing. We prefer not to talk about it, but we should—even those of us who take care of our business in pristine, sanitary conditions. Disease spread by waste kills more people worldwide every year than any other single cause of death. Even in America, nearly two million people have no access to an indoor toilet. Yet the subject remains unmentionable.

Moving from the underground sewers of Paris, London, and New York (an infrastructure disaster waiting to happen) to an Indian slum where ten toilets are shared by 60,000 people, The Big Necessity breaks the silence, revealing everything that matters about how people do—and don’t—deal with their own waste. With razor-sharp wit and crusading urgency, mixing levity with gravity, Rose George has turned the subject we like to avoid into a cause with the most serious of consequences.

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Editorial Reviews

Dwight Garner
Ms. George is the kind of writer—tenacious and clever—who will put you in mind of both Jessica Mitford (in her expose The American Way of Death) and Erin Brockovich. She is angry about what she discovers, and she offers the kind of memorable details that make her points stick…It's a busy, filthy, complicated world to which Ms. George has turned her estimable attentions. She is convincing when she writes, "to be uninterested in the public toilet"—or the private one, for that matter—"is to be uninterested in life."
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

With irreverence and pungent detail, George (A Life Removed) breaks the embarrassed silence over the economic, political, social and environmental problems of human waste disposal. Full of fascinating facts about the evolution of material culture as influenced by changing mores of disgust and decency (the popularity of high-heeled shoes dates back to the time when chamber pots were emptied into the streets)-the book shows how even advanced technology doesn't always meet basic needs: using toilet paper is shockingly unhygienic and millions of government-built latrines in developing countries have been turned into goat sheds and spare rooms due to poor design, a lack of regular water supply or simply because the subsidized (and expensive) cement and stone structures are often more appealing than the village huts. George explores how discussions on the importance of clean drinking water and the eradication of infectious diseases euphemistically address how to handle human waste. From the depths of the world's oldest surviving urban sewers in to Japan's robo-toilet revolution, George leads an intrepid, erudite and entertaining journey through the public consequences of this most private behavior. (Oct.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Disease spread by human waste is the major cause of death worldwide, and British freelance journalist George (A Life Removed: Hunting for Refuge in the Modern World) was determined to find out what can be done to alleviate this public-health emergency. She traveled to Japan, China, India, Tanzania, London, New York, and other locales observing customs and attitudes regarding the disposal, handling, processing, and use of human waste. She discovered that humans dispose of excreta in toilets, pit latrines, buckets, fields, roads, backyards, and streets. She was also shocked by the appalling lack of adequate public toilets and aging sewage-handling systems in both developed and developing countries. She praises the heroes of Third World sanitation movements who are devising modern methods of human waste disposal to alleviate the crude and unsanitary habits that lead to illness, food contamination, and death. Readers may be surprised to learn that recycled water, fertilizer, energy, and biosolids (sludge) are major industries that depend upon human waste for survival. George leavens her serious, if unpalatable, topic with an elegant and witty prose style. An important book for a world that will have to face the consequences of human waste disposal in an age of rapidly expanding populations; strongly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ6/1/08; see also "Editors' Fall Picks," p. 28-33.-Ed.]
—Irwin Weintraub

School Library Journal

Adult/High School

London and New York sewer tunnels, Japan's robotic toilet industry, farming innovations in China, and the politics of public sanitation in India-past and present-are treated with forthright investigation, sensitivity to intercultural relations and experiences, and high good humor. The effects of urban living on people who don't have sufficient human-waste disposal systems include not only diseases, but also social constructions that follow them beyond their portable brick latrines and backside-cleansing tools. The privacy that Westerners have grown to insist on as part of the toileting experience hampers travelers in parts of the world where toilet stalls don't have doors, let alone where toilets don't have stalls. George interviewed locals, social reformers, engineers, and bureaucrats in search of filling in the details of the picture she creates, making this a thorough, highly informative, and thought-provoking account. Her writing style is a delight, assuring her a faithful audience even while she discusses topics most commonly left unspoken and unwritten about. Teens may pick this up first for the gross-out factor but will find it a wealth of scientific and political intrigue.-Francisca Goldsmith, Halifax Public Libraries, Nova Scotia

Kirkus Reviews
What's the single most significant factor in increasing the human life span? Forget antibiotics and penicillin-think toilets. "Eighty percent of the world's illness is caused by fecal matter," writes British journalist George (A Life Removed: Hunting for Refuge in the Modern World, 2004) in her stupefying exploration of how we address, or fail to address, the rising global tide of human waste. It's not just that 2.6 billion of the world's inhabitants lack access to a toilet of any kind, so that "four people in ten live in situations where they are surrounded by human excrement." Even toilets are no guarantee of proper feces disposal. Until a few years ago, Milan piped its waste directly into the river Lambro. When too much storm water overloads Milwaukee's treatment system, it dumps raw sewage into Lake Michigan, which supplies the city's drinking water. George writes unflinchingly and with great style on this rarely explored topic, agreeing with Freud that humanity's "wiser course would undoubtedly have been to admit [shit's] existence and dignify it as much as nature will allow." She sallies forth into the bowels of London with its wastewater operatives. She examines the robo-toilets of Japan, which do everything from washing and drying the private parts to checking blood pressure. She attends a World Toilet Organization conference and returns with more beneficial information than could ever be gathered from the other WTO. She visits with India's "manual scavengers," whose job is to remove feces wherever they present themselves, including the numerous dry latrines that consist of nothing more than two bricks. She considers the agricultural use of sludge-what's left after the water'sgone-in China and the United States. She familiarizes herself with innovations in latrine design, wastewater treatment, composting toilets and stabilization ponds. She turns a critical spotlight on our Puritanical shame of body products and advises us to wise up. There is a reason that most creatures, unlike humans, don't foul their nests. An utterly disarming and engrossing tour of all things excremental.
From the Publisher
“Rose George writes smart books about subjects we mostly prefer not to think about.… The Big Necessity is among the best nonfiction books of the new millennium.”

—Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“Always articulate and persuasive… You will be hard-pressed to put this extraordinary book down.”

— Abigail Zuger, The New York Times

“Superb… The Big Necessity belongs in a rare handful of studies that take a subject that seems fixed and familiar and taboo and make us understand that it is historically contingent and dazzlingly intriguing. Jessica Mitford did it with her classic study The American Way of Death; Michel Foucault did it with Madness and Civilization. Rose George has produced their equal: a gleaming toilet manifesto for humankind.”


The Big Necessity, Rose George’s perfectly disquieting new book, is very good… With wit, narrative skill, and compassion, it allows us to examine a major international public health nuisance… That’s not to say that the book is all gloom and doom or a ponderous drag. In fact, it’s a breeze. Ms. George is a lucid, supple writer, and approaching the subject as a journalist, she’s able to tell her story on several different registers. And, quite honestly, the topic is fascinating.”

New York Observer

“[Written] with wit and style… Valuable and often entertaining… Should become a classic in the annals of coprology.”

Los Angeles Times

“Fascinating and eloquent.”

The Economist

“A persuasive volume.”

Entertainment Weekly

“Delves into the taboo subject with tact, sensitivity—and the right amount of style… George introduces the reader to a fascinating and enlightening universe.”


“One smart book… delving deep into the history and implications of a daily act that dare not speak its name.”


“The weight of information that Rose George brings to The Big Necessity is astonishing… There are so many interesting stories in the book that I wanted to tell everyone about what I learned.”

Cleveland Plain Dealer

“Full of fascinating facts… An intrepid, erudite and entertaining journey through the public consequences of this most private behavior.”

Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“George leavens her serious, if unpalatable, topic with an elegant and witty prose style. An important book… strongly recommended.”

Library Journal (starred review)

“An utterly disarming and engrossing tour… George writes unflinchingly and with great style.”

Kirkus Reviews

“A unique, alarming, and strangely fascinating book… Witty, anecdotal, and sharply informative, George’s far-reaching exposé ultimately recalibrates nothing less than our understanding of civilization.”


“A very important book.…  Rose George has done us a great service by taking something that we don't talk about nearly often enough and putting it right in our faces. Anyone heading overseas on a mission trip should read this book first. And anyone who wants to understand what it means to be poor.”

—Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy

“Rose George's subject—the global politics of defecation—is both superbly indelicate and morally imperative. With the basic health and dignity of several billion poor people at stake, we need to take shit seriously in the most literal sense. Human solidarity, as she so passionately demonstrates, begins with the squatting multitudes.”

—Mike Davis, author of Planet of Slums

“Which is worse? Living in a toilet or living without one? George bravely—and sometimes literally—submerges herself in the tragedy and occasional comedy of global sanitation. Sludge, biogas, New York City sewage: I ate it up and wanted more! The most unforgettable book to pass through the publishing pipeline in years.”

—Mary Roach, author of Stiff

“This engaging, highly readable book puts sanitation in its proper place—as a central challenge in human development. Rose George has tackled this critical topic with insight, wit, and a storyteller’s flair.”

—Louis Boorstin, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

“Excellent… Definitely recommended.”

—Tyler Cowen, author of Discover Your Inner Economist

“Rose George has trolled the gutters of the world for the predictable low-matter and come up with something weirdly spiritual. Worship the porcelain god, revere its ubiquity and protest its absence: George reveals that the act of private and sanitary defecation is the key to health, the wealth of nations, and even civilization itself.”

—Lisa Margonelli, author of Oil on the Brain

“Highly recommended… One of the best nonfiction books I’ve read in years.”

—Henry Gee, senior editor of Nature

“This fascinating, wise, and scrupulously drawn portrait of the world and its waste will last long as a seriously important book. Like a literary treatment farm, it manages to turn the completely unpalatable into something utterly irresistible. Rose George, a brave, compassionate, and ceaselessly impeccable reporter—and, when needed, a very funny one too—has performed for us all who care a very great service. A big necessity, indeed.”

—Simon Winchester, author of The Man Who Loved China

“Throughout her exploration of the dark and pungent world of human waste and its disposal, George remains curious, sceptical, open-minded and remarkably good-humoured… She has written a tactful, outspoken, amusing, shocking, highly informative and useful book. It may even—if you read it carefully—change your life.”

Sunday Telegraph (UK)

“Will entertain and edify… A revealing global study that’s thoroughly researched and written with both wit and moral seriousness.”

Daily Telegraph (UK)

“As far as I can tell, this is the first popular study to be written on the subject. And popular it deserves to be. Rose George has just the right kind of breezy-serious approach needed to grapple with the universal taboos.”

Daily Mail (UK)

“An invaluable contribution.”

The Guardian (UK)

“Bravely and ably meets the challenge… For daring to fling back the privy door, George deserves a medal.”

The Sunday Times (UK)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781429925488
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 7/7/2009
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 207,289
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Rose George is a freelance writer and journalist who has written for The New York Times, Slate, and The Guardian. She lives in London.

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Table of Contents

Introduction Examining the Unmentionables 1

1 In the Sewers 15

2 The Robo- Toilet Revolution 39

3 2.6 Billion 65

4 Going to the Sulabh 89

5 China's Biogas Boom 109

6 A Public Necessity 129

7 The Battle of Biosolids 149

8 Open Defecation - Free India 173

9 In the Cities 199

10 The End 225

Notes 239

Further Reading 275

Filmography 277

Acknowledgments 279

Index 281

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 11 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 11 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 26, 2012

    So much to learn about poop!

    Both informative and entertaining George provides a thorough history of sanitation and its development throughout history. You will finish the book with a new found appreciation for your toilet, a desire for a Japanese bidet. and some disturbing facts about the current state of sanitation.Highly recommend it!

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted December 13, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    The Big Necessity!!

    This book is very much needed in our society. We are SO fortunate not to have to worry about sanitation let alone clean available sanitation!! We have clean running water and beautiful bathrooms..sometimes more than 2 or 3 in one some countries there are none...This book is a good eye opener and gratitude monitor for what we have and most definitely take for granted..Do you know where the waste goes in your area after you flush the toilet??

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted November 14, 2014

    Did not disappoint.  Very informative. The engineering of sanita

    Did not disappoint.  Very informative. The engineering of sanitation is as important to a successful civilization as any engineering feat. It should get much more praise than it does. It takes genius.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted October 2, 2013

    Who Knew?

    Fascinating and well-written.

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  • Posted August 26, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Not a waste of time

    Thoroughly enjoyed this hard-to-put-down account of a delicate subject. Ms. George brings relevancy to a global problem using wit, stories, and incite from her own experience. I think she'd make a tremendous engineering conference speaker on the subject of waste treatment. Her journalistic accounts from around the world make this a must read for anyone concerned about the problems of human waste treatment.

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  • Posted March 16, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Interesting read about a big looming problem.

    This book delicately tackles an interesting, yet unpleasant topic, human waste and how to handle it. The book does seem to have too much of an emphasis on Indian culture though, and doesn't really seem to present a good problem and solution argument. While I was engrossed in reading how different cultures handle the problem, I would have liked to have seen more information on what experts and engineers feel may be the best way to handle the problem. What new technologies are around the corner. What is the true impact if the problem isn't adequately addressed. As well, the most likely readers of this book are people in the developed world. It would have been a good idea to really press the issue in the developed world as well. Stress how countries like the US don't handle the problem as well as they should and how it should be addressed. Overall, it was a fun read, since it is an often undiscussed topic, just wish it had a bit more depth to the material.

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  • Posted March 9, 2009

    Everything Comes Down to Poo...

    I liked this book, but I think would have been even more interested in some of the specific aspects of waste disposal and more on the specific effects of the waste problem. There were some interesting angles taken by the author, but I wanted to know more of typhoid, cholera, and the problems of waste disposal in more well-to-do nations. What else does our waste tell us about us? Are there things in our waste that are also upsetting the balance of nature--such as phamrmaceuticals, food by-products, hormonal things, etc.?

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 27, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted February 7, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 13, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted September 11, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

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