Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Sunday, April 05, 2020

Is This The Apocalypse I’ve Been Waiting For?

I am used to writing from my own bubble attempting to entertain with my slightly absurd minimalist approach to life, but it’s hard to write anything now without a coronavirus context. We are all in this together and I am even more aware of how my writings might fit into the temperature of the times. I want to tell you about the organic farming workshop I went to in Thailand, but I’m compelled to insert my report between stories of the coronavirus like the sandwich of the day. But maybe my off continent, off kilter perspective has something useful to offer. Or at least entertain. I hope you are all well and coping optimally.
Is This The Apocalypse I’ve Been Waiting For?

We’ve never experienced anything quite like this in the U.S. So you too might have asked yourself some of the questions that crossed my mind as we went into this pandemic. Ok maybe not in such depth. You have probably not waited quite so eagerly as I have for the collapse of American civilization. (My obsession due largely to my disgust at our consumer excess and as a psychological gambit that allowed me to maintain my sanity while living in such a complex society.) As a long time collapsnik I’ve been reading and entertaining myself with various scenarios of societal and systems collapse. 

My tiny house design incorporating much of what I learned. Electric grid gone down? Solar on board with battery bank. Earthquake ready? Of course I’m a Californian. Contamination of our water supply—field grade Berkey water filter already long in use. Interruption of water supply? 330 gallon water catchment system installed. Air quality at unhealthy 2.5 PPM due to fires? Got my RZ N99 reusable mask in fetching fashion print. (All sold out now.) Economic collapse? Expenses minimized and rent reduced to $500 and a work/trade agreement. Also debt free. Very important. Go bag? Stocked. Nuclear attack? Saw the movie. Not worth prepping for. Unless to take the cyanide route. Pandemic? Hmmm. Too big to scale. Definitely not my apocalypse.

I sat back and watched feeling I had little to offer other than a sense of expectation born of all my study. But then came the Toilet Paper Apocalypse. No toilet paper to be had in seven counties. All hoarded away by the early rush. I did not care about toilet paper any more than my countrymen in Thailand who were not hoarding anything least of all toilet paper. So why this sudden need to stash away a year’s worth of this mundane commodity? 

Psychologists speculated. Toilet paper is a low risk buy when people want a sense of control. You know you’ll always need it so why not have more on hand? It’s less of an investment than 50 cans of tuna fish that you might end up throwing out. Then others see the empty shelves and jump in too thinking if everyone’s doing it it must be the right thing to do. Add to this a sense of consumer competition to spur on the hunt. Also the packages are big and give a sense of having come away with a big haul. Yes makes sense. But the explanation I liked best was offered by a shamanic counselor who explained that the instinctive center is located at the base of the spine very near the anus. When people are frightened their instinctive center opens up. And having to poop when you’re out and having to look for a bathroom causes anxiety. But once a bathroom is found that anxiety is relieved and prompts a victorious sense of accomplishment. Everything is under control and all potential mess properly wiped away. Toilet paper thus became the iconic purchase of uncertain times—the means by which people could gain control of the situation.

I started to tease people online about their tree consuming ways. Long time readers of my essays may remember that I had learned to dispense with toilet paper for pee by employing a squeezable plastic water bottle with a sport top to squirt water at my nether regions and drip drying afterwards. Any drips absorbed by my thick cotton underwear. I did not mind admitting this personal habit even though I did not seem to persuade anyone else to follow suit.

As the Toilet Paper Apocalypse continued with more and more posts on the topic I became bolder and offered my experience with the ubiquitous bum gun installed all over Thailand and fitted next to the toilet. Basically a hand held trigger nozzle connected to the toilet water supply faucet and used to wash your bum. Called a shower bidet if you were to order one. The Thai ones look like the trigger spray attachment on a sink. 

A colleague posted a picture of a makeshift one made from a garden hose trigger nozzle as a joke. When another colleague commented that such a device would be a disaster spraying pathogens everywhere I pulled up a link to a traveler’s guide on how to finesse  the use of a bum gun while in Thailand. Toilet paper in Thailand was largely used for drying off. The real action lay in actually washing with water. The Thais do not feel clean unless they can use water. Why push poop around with paper like polish on a piece of furniture. I mean really? Such an unhygienic habit.

Paper had only become a commodity under the influence of Westerners and global trade. In a land of hardwood teak and mahogany paper had long been a precious commodity. As a child I would see paper bags made from the pages of Western magazines. And it is still wise when going out, especially outside of Bangkok, to carry toilet paper with you or buy it from a vendor. From my readings on the history of toilets I had learned that toilet paper was not a commodity used by most of the world and felt justified.  

“Two thirds of the world don’t use toilet paper you tree consuming Western colonial imperialists,” I admonished in a comment. My educated friends thought this accusation of imperialism by toilet paper was hilarious. Nobody would take me seriously because American fecophobia was such an assumed premise thought to be shared the world over. 

“Don’t Americans know how to wash their bums?” I asked. Still no answer. Look I’m really not a backward third world person I wanted to say. I’m British and if you were confronted with mid-century British toilet paper as a child you would have a highly perverted view of toilet paper too I countered. As late as the ‘70s the British stocked their public toilets with single sheets of slick glassine paper that worked only to provide a barrier from moisture, was full of sharp edges and scraped away poo like a spatula. 

In a week Americans began to consider toilet paper alternatives. The bidet toilet add-on was selling out fast on Amazon and a former Peace Corps volunteer friend offered his experience being taught to use water in Africa by a fellow American accustomed to America’s cultural disgust to help them get over the hump of washing poop from their bums with bare hands. My friend showed a bottle top device that would convert a plastic water bottle into a squeezable bidet. This too had to be mail ordered. “A bowl of water will do,” I commented remembering the ornately worked silver bowls sitting next to the large earthenware pots of water in the bathrooms of my childhood.

In 2001 when I learned about our sewer system in my construction technology class I was horrified that a first world system would actually allow poop to overflow their massive tanks given a good rainstorm. These liberated turds would then sail away into the bay. Why did anyone think it was a good idea to use good drinking water to give a turd a ride to a centralized plant anyway? Humanure was an organic and useful material in its proper context. With a centralized water treatment system chemicals have to be used to render the water safe for flushing out to the nearest water source. Such a river or lake was the same water source that would be siphoned up again for human use. And the sludge at the bottom of the tank that remained to be disposed of was toxic waste not because of the poop, but because it was now all mixed up wth industrial waste full of heavy metals and chemicals that companies are allowed to send down the same sewer system.

I was sure there would come a time when such a system would be severely compromised while environmentally such a centralized non-organic method was just wrong. So I devoted my life to the pursuit of a home with a composting toilet. My fascination blossoming at a recent workshop on effective microorganisms which included alternative technologies for poop disposal.

Effective Microorganisms

For my trip to Thailand in February my farm partner Clasina suggested we go to an organic farming workshop on effective microorganism technology. I was excited to attend this workshop because converting my composting toilet to an EM set-up had been a game changer for me. I also wanted to share my personal experience of the method and offered to give a powerpoint presentation to this august body.

Upon arrival at the International Kyusei Nature Farming Center in Saraburi just an hour and a half from Bangkok we were duly impressed by this university level facility with its modern buildings and extensive campus. Clasina was particularly impressed by the sparkling clean bathrooms. The program was created in collaboration with the Japanese EM industry (so they would not be teaching us how to make EM ourselves, just how to use it as much as possible so they could sell product). Indeed the Japanese EM technology was being quietly introduced to all of Asia through such outreach while being offered to the public through spas, hotels and wellness centers with EM fertilized organic food, lush gardens and EM disinfectants and cleaners. It was through such a wellness center in Hawaii that a friend had heard about it. The same friend who insisted that I trade out my traditional composting toilet method for this superior (and faster) EM technology. Instead of waiting a year to season a humanure composting pile, the EM process only took 2 to 3 weeks to reach a pathogen free state.

EM was a disinfectant we learned. It was spritzed into the air daily to fell harmful bacteria. It was made into non-toxic household cleaners and hand sanitizers. From the first day we were given our choice to use EM hand sanitizer or the usual alcohol based ones to fend off the virus.

The center was part of the Asia Pacific Natural Agricultural Network and our workshop was attended by a huge group from Malaysia, but also Myanmar and Japan along with one other woman from South Africa and me the lone representative of the U.S. Lectures were given in English with detailed powerpoint presentations in the air conditioned fully technical lecture hall. In the afternoons we boarded a people carrier much like a an amusement park train to tour the working farm. Students showed us how mushrooms were cultivated and served vegetable roll snacks. We saw how biochar was infused with EM to make a more potent fertilizer. We toured the lush fields of vegetables and the chicken and pig houses. I was bowled over by the use of EM technology in animal husbandry. There was no odor at all not even in the pig pens. 

EM was also added to the animal feed as a probiotic supplement. The EM infused feed kept them healthier and they grew bigger than with conventional methods. Every time their pens were sluiced down the pigs came running to slurp up the EM infused waster. Their waste was washed away into large concrete pits where the mixture became fertilizer (just as my own poop did inside my three gallon bucket). What a game changer alternative. Imagine such a solution putting an end to those problematic lagoons of manure that stink for miles and sometimes blow up like a geyser or overflow into waterways choking fish with algae blooms. EM worked in the same way I understood my composting toilet to work. The effective microorganisms ate all the harmful bacteria and were then eaten themselves in a probiotic fermenting process that ate up all the pathogens. This process was given the Japanese word bokashi. “Bokashi!” we shouted in every group photo.

We also saw how food scraps were treated with EM in 50 gallon drums from which the liquid was collected for use as a plant feed. This you can do at home too in smaller buckets. Hands-on demonstrations had us shoveling and mixing together ingredients so the EM infused bran could ferment the compost. The following day we returned to find that the piles were so hot they would turn our hands red and I wondered aloud if I could heat my tiny house with such piles or at least heat water. For fisheries EM could be made into softball size balls and thrown into the ponds to keep them clean. We had great fun seeing how far we could throw when we were all offered a turn. The EM balls reduced sludge at the bottom and had other applications including the clean up of latrines. In shrimp farming the shrimp poop is food for the microorganisms so EM made the water clear and cut down the stench. The meat of cows raised with EM technology was lower in fat and higher in vitamins.

We concluded our workshop with a visit to a recycling plant in Bangkok. Here the use of EM cut down on the biggest neighborhood complaint—the smell. Plus they were able to make toilet cleaner and dishwashing products from fermented rice water and other captured waste products. No harsh chemicals were used at all in this recycling and green waste processing. EM technology had also been introduced to the Thai military and was adopted as a method for large scale clean-ups. In the city it was offered as a drain cleaner in one of my friends apartment building. All of these projects had support from the Thai government which gave grants for outreach into the community to teach people how to make organic fertilizer from their kitchen waste. And because the late King Bhumipol had long been an advocate of a self sufficient economy and had been voicing his concerns about global warming since 1989, the reduction of carbon in the air through the use of EM technology and the concept of zero waste was considered a project of the King. This had enormous appeal for the Thais giving them not only a shared mission, but a way to further implement the King’s legacy for the good of the country.

In the evenings of our 4 day workshop participants representing EM companies made their presentations touting the benefits of their product while farmers showed their agricultural projects. I gave my tiny house presentation on the second night. I had rehearsed all my jokes and had enough pictures to show the whole tiny house trend to an audience unfamiliar with this American phenomena and its California origin. They loved it. Having sufficiently explained why such a house needed to process their own waste, they had no questions about my EM methods so I was clearly doing it right. But the look of incredulity on the face of a Japanese woman who represented a health supplement company told me how out there I was. None of these professional EM distributors had thought of such an application. They did not know about the pet waste disposal system I was able to purchase in the States and asked how much I had paid for the kit. ($100). Like any other first world society it had never occurred to them to dispense with the flush toilet. Nor were they about to. Some teased me about it later, but I was happy that I had earned my place in the EM technological revolution. Pictures of the workshop on my flickr site

It was in this context that I realized my aversion to toilet paper. As a connoisseur of composting toilets I was a compost purist. I did not like seeing toilet paper in my compost plus it would fill up the bucket faster though it was perfectly ok to add toilet paper to the mix. It would compost just as well. But why buy this chemically produced tree product at all given the Thai option of washing my bum while squatting over my poo bucket and gently pouring water from a bowl with my right hand. Getting poo on my hand (the left one as is traditional in bum washing countries) was not inherently dangerous. Or we wouldn’t allow babies to sit in soiled diapers. People do wash baby’s bums don’t they? How much had we just been taught that it was abhorrent to have contact with one’s own poo? And by whom? TP makers? Why would frugal Americans give up the pages of the Sears catalog for such a wasteful product? There was no real reason I concluded. Just an industrialized country’s status marker. I just wash my hands super well afterwards. More than I had ever bothered to before. More than most toilet paper using Americans given the reports of fecal matter on touch screens everywhere. heh. 


Returning to the states the virus was just making its appearance. On the day of the Bay Area lockdown I saw on TV at Catherine’s house the local mayors and health officers each taking their turn to voice their support of the decision. I was heartened by their concern for the people, for us. They were actually going to do this unprecedented move to protect us from the overwhelm the Italians were experiencing with their health care system. It was rare to experience such concern from local government. This was the town where the rich had their way and tech companies called the shots. The housing crisis and mobile homelessness in the RV population bearing witness to the priority to keep expanding jobs, but not housing.

The Friday before the lockdown Catherine and I had gone out to dinner to celebrate her getting a job with a tech company in San Francisco. And now she was crazy busy on boarding on line with everyone else who was able to work from home. Such fortuitous timing to at least have a job during this time. While I kept one shut-in weekly client. My mother and her partner Bill and my immediate circle were all ok too, but for those colleagues who faced economic devastation their stories foreshadow a vaster crisis that may very well not garner the same sympathy. As a nation we would far rather root for life over death than for equity for the poor. My thoughts went to every small businesses I relied on from acupuncture to karate that were now closed

Some with the most to lose financially were posting that the death statistics of COVID-19 were wrong, that the virus was overhyped and there was no reason for a shutdown of the economy. Just look at Sweden. Well we shall see if their argument holds. The virus was bringing forth everyone’s belief system like nothing else had. Low grade conspiracy theories (as opposed to those with a kernel of truth) were popping up all over. Humans live on stories. And would die by them too I could see. Witness misguided vigilante types buying out the supply of guns and ammo to protect themselves from the supposed government plot to control their freedoms. I made it my coronavirus job to challenge such stories as they crossed my feed and comforted myself with the relative calm of Asia handling the virus with a more prepared system of  tracking and isolation that didn’t require a lock down. Plus public education and free masks. The economic price of our lockdown would, however, have serious consequences. One that did not bode well and concerned me more than the virus.

Having seen Thailand process through the currency collapse and economic fallout when the Asian Tiger countries went down in 1998 I am hopeful. I saw the seeds of self-sufficiency blossom during that time and can now participate in the positive movement towards a more sustainable and self-sufficient Thailand. And still more heartening I have seen people of my own wealth class change for the better. It was not the easiest of transitions given the contentious political unrest that happened along the way, but the lessons were learned. The vulnerable in society can no longer be ignored.

I returned to my tiny house for the duration of the lock down and felt blessed by the beauty of my location and the hiking trails that would take me high into the hills so I could clear my head. My studies of the collapse of society had prepared me for societal failure. Useful for witnessing Trump express the full GOP agenda of minimizing aid from the federal government and telling the states they were on their own. I was reminded of the balkanization of the Soviet Union into separate states that took place prior to the collapse of the USSR. What kind of a United States will we become after this crisis? That Asia could take this pandemic in stride made the virus here look like a mosquito felling a giant. I highly recommend the daily newsletter of Heather Cox Richardson an American history professor deconstructing the news from a historical long view saving me much time and reassuring me with historical moments when the U.S. overcame similar crisis. 

 I’m just glad I’m in California especially in the Bay Area where intellect is the dominant influence. Given the political leadership initiating the nation’s first lockdown, I can now envision our wealthy Bay Area community turning an eye towards the self sufficiency of our state for the safety of its people possibly even allowing taxes to be raised. Tech based companies are already moving towards securing their supply lines in the event of global hotspots, with more technological eyes on those sources and more labor at home to manage home grown supplies. What technology that has come out of Silicon Valley of late has been all over the map in terms of having good and bad affects on society worldwide, exploiting addictive behavior and fanning consumer appetite. Perhaps we just needed a life threatening crisis to remind us to lean more towards security for all and be less about individual wealth accumulation. Just as the virus had given us a knife to cut away all the non-essentials we thought were so necessary to our lives so may it give us a mission. One closer to home. May it be so.

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