My apologies to Rod Stewart on the headline, but I don’t think it hurts environmental causes to point out that some ecological and pollution issues are simply more attractive to advocates for change than others. One classic case might have been the movement to stop the clubbing of baby seals for their pelts back in the 1970’s. Once those photos of adorable baby seals began circulating, their large round eyes imploring the camera to give peace a chance… the pressure to stop a bunch of fur-hunting lunkheads from killing them became enormous. I would offer that there is some type of similar but opposite reaction with regard to our own beaches and the water there, and that we need to own-up to it before we can really get a hold of the continuing problem of effluent in our beach water. Specifically, human poop is kind of poop-y and nobody really enjoys talking about it at length. That previous sentence changes and becomes oddly more aggressive and psychologically threatening if you substitute the word “excrement.” Of course the language can get harsher, especially if there’s a problem in the bathroom over at David Mamet’s house. I’ve been following the activity of Heal the Bay since moving to Santa Monica in 1992 and I have to say I found it disheartening to learn that with all the environmental awareness and hybrid cars and re-useable shopping bags that can be audited in our city, the beach waters around Santa Monica Pier are still getting “F” grades in Heal the Bay’s testing periods. As the Mirror’s Lynne Bronstein reported last week, there’s good news in two projects funded by Measure V (Clean Beaches and Ocean, 2006), one a storm drain improvement and pump to divert runoff from getting to the beach. But I’m still wondering if we aren’t as aggressive as we could be about this overt pollution that seems to trump other environmental degradation in its pure and simple directness simply because the nature of it doesn’t foster dialogue amongst citizens. Last week NASA helped a few of us along with our phobias over our own discharge by holding a kind of leak-y celebration on board the space shuttle. A new technology allowed the astronauts to drink water processed from their own urine. And drink it they did. (In taste tests, it actually beat Tang.) One might see elements of that event relevant to our beach water issues. In space, no one can hear you scream “Yikes, the toilet’s backed up!” You must deal with it… there, by yourself. On earth if we find that our human waste isn’t going away and out of our homes, we immediately yell for a plumber. “Save us!” we cry, for lo, that stuff is vile and we don’t want it around.Yes, it is unpleasant. Yet one place that waste continues to go, especially during peak waste water processing periods such as rain storms, is into the ocean near our beaches. That quite simply should never be the case, and yet it’s still an issue here in environmentally conscious Santa Monica and a problem all round the world. In the 21st century, we can download information about waste management on our telephones; we just can’t seem to solve waste management issues with environmentally sound finality. A lot of people were startled by the scene in the popular film Slumdog Millionaire showing a child first discharging into an open sewer and then falling through the simple hole in a wood plank that was the “toilet” and into the open pit of effluent. Oh, my goodness… how horrible. There was no question that part of that reaction was engendered by the crude engineering that was waste management in the slums of India. The only parallel many in the U.S. could cite from personal experience would likely involve an aged Texaco station with cheap scratchy tissue and no paper hand towels. Oh, the horror, the horror… The popular view is that children are the ones who don’t understand where “it” goes when one flushes a toilet. Yet as we focus intently on issues not of “ecology” but rather of survival on this planet, we’ll need to make sure adults know as well and try to widen their parameter of caring about where “it” goes. And not just in our own backyards, but everywhere. If I may add to “Hamlet”: “What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! How likely to flush a toilet and hope that the stuff going down is magically handled in some proper way…far away…”One might argue that during the period where the “bathroom” of most homes was a separate building in the backyard, people had at least a rudimentary understanding that human waste wasn’t carted-off by elves or (the obviously less glamorous) fairies. More than once it’s occurred to me that that those blue plastic porta-potties at public events serve as a kind of spot mini-education on the dynamics of human waste management. Still, someone else will come and take care of what’s in those tanks come Monday morning. It won’t be you. You won’t be troubled by that material ever again. Unless you decide to go the beach
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