Saturday, October 27, 2012


Flushed: How the Plumber Saved Civilization
© 2006 W. Hodding Carter
241 pages

So, plumbing.  You use it.  Chances are you wouldn't be alive without it, because civilizations without plumbing tend to be miserable places rife with disease. Despite its importance, not much fuss is made about plumbing; in fact, the topic is studiously avoided by various modern cultures, who have placed a taboo on the discussion of human waste. W. Hodding Carter rejects that taboo and his breezy account of plumbing’s contribution to civilization – both historically and presently – suggests that sparing a few thoughts for toilets would do us good, helping us not only appreciate the importance of good sanitation, but make use of it to create a more sustainable future.

          Carter is an author who is very much excited about plumbing, and he’d like dearly to pass on that passion to the reader. Although he reports on the storied past of plumbing with gusto (and, entertainingly, attempts to bring the past to life by forging a Roman pipe himself), this isn’t a comprehensive history of plumbing. Nor is it a detailed guide to the plumbing systems of modern homes, though Carter does explain how most systems set to work, information he obtains by giddily smashing through his own wall to follow the pipes.  And it’s not a guide to considering plumbing as a career, though Carter does follow plumbers around and describes the path to the toilet that each man took. And it’s not a consideration of human waste as a possible means of creating sustainability. Instead, Flushed! is a quick romp through all these subjects, Carter leading the reader to and fro like a crazed tour guide – but as frantic as it is,  his approach conveys the fact that plumbing can be genuinely interesting. It undergirds not only society, but our homes – and possibly our future.  Carter’s race through the pipes of modernity takes him across the world, where he sees the future of toiletry in India, with the invention of a “biogas digester” that uses excrement to create fuel; such an invention literally creates energy by eliminating waste. (David Owen would ask, of course, how much energy it takes to manufacture the digesters.)

          This is in short  a commendably fun book about a element part of civilization, which manages to be entertaining and amusing without resorting to a series of toilet jokes.    

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