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Down the Drain: You, Your Toilet and the Looming Water Crisis

Photo credit: jessicareeder via photopin cc

Photo credit: jessicareeder via photopin cc

My well pump died last Sunday which (a) left me with no water; and (b) left me reflecting — as I found myself sending my son next door to the neighbour’s to fill up an assortment of plastic water jugs every couple of hours or so — on how much fresh water it takes to run a modern, Canadian household. The result? Shock and awe.

I’ve always been a bit of a “tree hugger”. Granted, at this point in my life, it might be argued that I’m more of an environmental “self-identifier” than an “active fundamentalist”, but still, when all is said and done, the fact remains that I much prefer Mother Nature to Father Mammon.

As an architect, especially, I have always tried to pay close attention to how best to seek to limit the expenditure of scare resources, like energy and water, in the construction and operation of the structures I help to design and build. But it’s not always an easy sell, mostly because “greener,” more efficient buildings cost more money to build and nobody’s particularly thrilled about that initial, sometimes quite significant, up-front cost. The other part of the problem is that we aren’t typically in a position to understand or observe how wasteful we are with our resources in any meaningful or viscerally instructive way.

This hit me — personally — like a ton of bricks several years ago when my wife and son and I stayed at my wife’s parents’ house for a few days while they were out of the province. When we arrived and let ourselves in we soon realized there was some issue with their well pump and that we were going to be stuck without water until we got it fixed (like us, they live in the country so their water came from a drilled well rather than a piped municipal water supply). Luckily they also lived just across the street from a small country convenience store so I marched right over and bought a half a dozen of those big, four litre plastic jugs of water and lugged them — unless you do it every day, you don’t really appreciate how heavy it is to schlep bulk water — back to the house where I figured we’d now have enough water for at least a day or so and mentally assigned three or four of the jugs for on-going toilet flushing and a couple for drinking, cooking, making tea, brushing teeth, etc.

Very quickly, however, I realized the disconnect in my “mental math.” Even though the water I carried over from the store was really heavy and took up a lot of room on the kitchen counter, and even though as an architect I knew — intellectually — that the standard, older-style toilets in my in-law’s house were 13-litre per flush models rather than the newer-style, six-litre flush models that were just starting to find their way into the marketplace, it wasn’t until I physically stood over the toilet and poured three full, four-litre bottles of fresh drinking water in to the reservoir tank to flush a few hours of my family’s bodily waste down the drain that I had to stand back and think “WTF?”

For some reason, which I image had to do with the fact that a four-litre jug seemed like a lot of water (and weighed a fair amount), I had just assumed that each container would easily provide at least one complete flush. Four jugs, four flushes. If, as a family, we were judicious with our flushing, four flushes should easily get us through the day.

The problem, I suppose, is that toilet flushing, for those of us who are lucky enough too live in the “developed” world, is nothing short of magic — especially in as much as there’s a bunch of stuff going on in the background that we don’t usually perceive or pay conscious attention to. We push a lever and, WHOOSH, several ounces of urine, of which we have just rid ourselves, is neatly whisked away. But through what twisted, mind-dead scenario did we ever determine that it made good sense to use 13 litres of scarce, fresh drinking water to flush a few ounces of pee?

And, yeah, sure, I’ll grant you that the newly-required, code-mandated six-litre flush models have helped to cut water consumption for toilets by more than half (and the dual-flush models that also allow you to use a limited three-litre flush for liquid-only waste have minimized total consumption even further), but still, even using as little as three litres of water to flush away an average “urine event” of 0.207 litres (i.e. nearly a gallon to flush away 7 ounces) still seems like a poor use of a valuable, diminishing resource. Like trying to kill a mosquito with a sledge hammer.

I know I'm being emotionally manipulative here, but imagine having to look these boys in the eyes and tell them you waste at least 10,000 litres of drinkable water a year by simply urinating / dedicating into it. (Photo credit: US Army Africa via photopin cc)

I know I’m being emotionally manipulative here, but imagine having to look these boys in the eyes and tell them you waste at least 10,000 litres of drinkable water a year by simply urinating / dedicating into it. (Photo credit: US Army Africa via photopin cc)

And what lots of folks may not realize — ‘cuz unless you’re a plumber, who really gives this stuff much thought — is that the water that you flush your toilet with is exactly the same water that comes out of your taps and you use to drink and cook with. Potable (i.e. drinking) water enters your house via a single supply line and is then routed either to taps or toilets. But do we really need to use drinking-quality water to flush our toilets?

So, the next time you polish off a two litre bottle of pop, set it aside. Then finish a second one and set it aside. Then a third. When they’re all empty, fill them with water, carry them around the house for a bit, and then set them on your countertop. That’s how much water it takes to flush less than a cup of urine. Now multiply this by the more than 1,500 or so times a year you use the toilet in the run of a year. And multiply that by the more than 528 million people who live in North America.

Worried yet?


The End of (Work) Days

Photo credit: opacity via photopin cc

Photo credit: opacity via photopin cc

Eureka! It’s good to finally know there’s a scientific reason why I often feel like crap at the end of the work day — see Why, after I make it home for the evening, it’s so difficult to peel myself off the chesterfield and actually do something other than watch TV and ingest carbs until I fall asleep.

And here I was the whole time just naturally assuming that I was somehow being exposed to toxic levels of a mutated free-form hybrid tryptophan virus found only in the ventilation system of my particular office building. Who knew?

*Cue Dolly* Working 9 to 5, what a way to make a living…

Wanna share with the class? What gets you off the couch after a hard day at work? Do tell…

P.S. Sorry, the post I provided the link to above wasn’t a WordPress blog so I couldn’t figure out how to simply re-blog it.

P.P.S. If you’re into design at all — and especially “green” architecture — it’s well worth exploring the Life Edited site beyond simply the above-noted link.

Toward a Civil Society; Or, Just Because You Have Your Four-Way Flashers On Doesn’t Mean You Can Park Wherever You Want, You Dick!


(Spoiler alert: In case you haven’t figured it out from the title, this is going to be something of a curmudgeonly post. What my old copywriting pal and wordsmith Margaret MacQuarrie,, tags on her blog as “General Grumpiness”.)

I’m a fairly well-behaved, open-minded guy — in a charmingly uptight kind of way. (That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!) I’d like to be able to say that I strive to give folks the benefit of the doubt, but, truth be told, I don’t have a lot of faith in people to “do the right thing” when left to their own devices. One need only consider the last several bloodstained millennia of human history. The rise of the body corporate at the expense of the body politic. The obesity epidemic in the west. Reality TV.

And, in a way, it’s hard to blame people. Tens of thousand of years of instinct and conditioning, driven by that ancient reptilian brain of ours at the epicenter of our neural network, are difficult forces to bring under control. Back in the — evolutionary — day, it used to be if you could slice off even a little more for yourself than the next guy, gain the smallest of competitive advantages somehow, your genes would probably survive while theirs might perish. Greed was good.

But in an age of abundance, too much of a good thing — too much of anything, really — often ends up creating more problems than it solves. *Cue Supersize Me.*  We can — and need to — do better.

As an architect, for example, I have always tried to champion more environmental sensitivity and efficiency in the projects I’ve been involved with. We could save huge amounts of resources and energy if we truly embraced green architecture — but we’re not going to get there if we leave it to people to voluntarily do the right thing. Sorry, we won’t. It’s hard. It costs more money and requires a far more thoughtful approach to the issues. It involves sacrifice and a re-alignment of priorities that we hardly feel the need to impose upon ourselves given that our neighbours are still driving their kids to soccer practice in humvees. We’re not as bad as that after all, we like to tell ourselves. And it’s not like consumption  — even the conspicuous kind — is illegal or anything.

Whenever I try to convince people that we may all very well need a little kick in the ass to do the right thing, I always use the example of rationing during the second world war. Combatant nations had only limited pools of resources (food, raw materials, gasoline, manufacturing capacity, etc.) with which to wage war, and it was imperative that these resources were effectively marshaled to defeat the enemy. People weren’t asked to do the right thing in this instance — limit your gas intake for example, because we need the fuel for our bombers — they were compelled to do right thing through the imposed rationing of scarce resources. And it worked. I admit it’s an extreme example, but the point remains the same. If people could have been trusted to do the right thing in the first place, they wouldn’t have had to have been compelled to do so via external forces.

It’s the same with civility, the largely unwritten laws of social conduct that prevent interactions within our communities from coming to a complete standstill as a result of our own intensely personal interests. In the first-world, at least, such interactions usually roll along fairly well. Still, I’m long-enough in the tooth at this point in my life to appreciate just how thin the veneer of civility actually is in our ostensibly civilized society. A season of involvement as a parent in any minor sports league makes this immediately evident (but that’s a whole ‘nother blog!). You put even a minimal stress on a group of otherwise normally functioning people and you don’t have to scratch too deeply to see the rules of common decency and consideration start to falter. *Cue the footage of Black Friday line-ups gone bad.* Then, unfortunately, all bets are off. This is why we need to embrace civility with renewed vigour — not because it greases the rails for other people, but, if we’re all participating as we should, because it helps to grease the rails for ourselves as well.

Manners, general decency, non-egocentric behavior. Who gives a crap about this archaic stuff anymore? I suggest we all should. It needs be at the heart of what we teach our children and teenagers. It’s about how to get along. When my mother was a student in the 1950’s and 60’s, she informs me,  they actually had Civics classes. Imagine! An organized forum from which to share with children and young adults the concept that they had fundamental responsibilities within the culture they were lucky enough to be born into. That they were citizens and neighbours and it was vital for the vein of civic-mindedness to run deep if they were to maintain healthy, inter-dependent communities. (Of course, they also taught Latin back then, and the idea that an Africa-American might ever be elected as president of the Unites States seemed like an impossible dream, so perhaps backwards isn’t where I want to move this argument after all.)

We need to get it together. Here’s some food for thought:

  1. Four-way flashers do not absolve you from vehicular responsibility. “Parking’s pretty congested today so I’ll just park here in the barrier-free space [that’s architect-speak for the blue parking spot with the white wheelchair painted on it] in front of the Pharmacy. I seldom see any handicapped people parking here anyway, and I’ll be in and out before you know it. Just need get a Coke. And a pack of cigarettes. Oh, and a lottery ticket” [OK, so maybe I’m profiling just a little with this example]. “But not to worry, I’ll simply leave my four-ways on so everybody knows I’ll be right back. After all, it’d be rude to leave my car in the handicapped spot without the four-ways on.” Dick!
  2. Break the cycle of LCD TV. No, I’m not talking about your new 52” liquid crystal Samsung. I’m talking about lowest common denominator (LCD) television programming. Get a grip on yourselves, people. The Real Housewives of [insert name of city here], Honey Boo Boo, anything with a Kardashian in it. Really? Really?! This is the best we can do as human beings already a decade into the twenty-first century? They wouldn’t make this rubbish if we didn’t watch it, folks. We’re fiddling and Rome’s burning down around our ears.
  3. Lead by example. There’s a great TED Talk by behavioural economist Dan Ariely ( that outlines some of the key difficulties with what he refers to as our “buggy moral code.” He suggests that most of us  are willing to cheat a little — up to a level he refers to as a “personal fudge factor” — provided we’re fairly sure we can get away with it essentially unscathed. These proclivities, however, can be easily swayed by the behaviour of other individuals within our immediate surroundings. Where an atmosphere of virtue and honesty are made manifest, for example, people are far less inclined to cheat. Of course, the opposite is also true. And we call that the stock market.
  4. Put yourself in others’ shoes. The Golden Rule — “Do unto others, etc.” Always a classic regardless of religious affiliation (or lack thereof). Our brains are sophisticated enough at this point in our evolution that we shouldn’t actually have to experience something for ourselves first-hand in order to be able to develop a reasonable conclusion about it. Consider American Senator Rob Portman’s recent decision to support gay marriage in opposition to beliefs he had previously held throughout his life. Why the change? Because he recently learned his own son was gay. See the problem? If we have to be poor before we understand that poverty sucks, or die at the hands of someone of a different ethnicity to find the will to act against the horror of genocide, we’re really up the creek.
  5. Understand that civility demonstrates power, not weakness. This is a variation of lead by example. It means that we’re always paying it forward a little. We get to take the high ground when we do the right thing. We’re in control and conscious of the decisions we make to facilitate our interaction with others. It’s like anything else. You keep making good decisions about things over and over again — ignoring that sibilant egocentric hiss emanating from the top of your brain stem — and it soon becomes second nature. You’re not left constantly wondering what’s the right thing to do — you’re just doing it.

*THUMP* OK, that’s the sound of me stepping down from my soapbox. Thanks for letting me vent. Bottom line is that it’s better for all of us if we simply leave our — metaphorical — four-way flashers off and just park where there are actually empty spaces available that were designed to accommodate us. Yes, even if it’s at the far end of the parking lot and all we need is a Coke. And a pack of cigarettes. And a lottery ticket…

Oh yeah, and stop going to WalMart in your pajama bottoms. I mean, really, are you 12?