Necessity is the Mother of Scientific Inventions

Catherine Coleman Flowers a MacArthur Foundation “genius”, is partnering with environmental engineers at Columbia University on the design of a toilet that will turn solid waste into fertilizer and liquid waste into water clean enough for washing clothes. This sounds amazing for a future with more people on the planet requiring more fresh water from a diminishing supply, along with more food and energy.

However, her inspiration was not futuristic, but based on what is happening in the county of Lowndes in Alabama where she grew up. Low income families with no public sewer available relied on a septic system, but due to climate change—not necessarily due to carbon dioxide—the average yearly rainfall has increased over time, resulting in the water table level rising. A septic system not only requires a tank, but a drain or leach field. The sludge remains in the tank, which has to be pumped out periodically. The effluent flows into the drain field. With the high water table, the effluent didn’t sink into the soil but bubbled up onto people’s properties, providing an environment for hookworms and other nasty small critters harmful to human health, something rarely seen in developed countries. The cost of specially engineered septic systems is out of reach for the ordinary resident, but the $500 cost of more frequent removal of the sludge is a Catch 22. On top of this, people were once fined for lack of maintenance.

As I thought about the problem, I found myself angry that people had to live this way, but in my research was heartened to learn that the problem had reached the attention of the federal government, partly because the county was the hardest hit by Covid-19. One of the residents testified before Congress. Bernie Sanders and Jane Fonda visited the area. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is working on the issue of turning sewage into drinking water worldwide. Some funds have been provided to finance the special septic systems In Lowndes Coutny. At least ten have been installed.

However, according to Flowers, not only this Alabama county but also the flooded coasts of Florida to thawing Alaska towns contain an estimated half-million U.S. households that lack adequate sanitation. According to the CDC more than 35% of the world population is in the same situation. This larger need has inspired her to design a better septic system, one that is inexpensive and easy to run and maintain. It will separate waste into various recyclable elements. She also plans sensors that can monitor for signs of pathogens, including the coronavirus. Her article doesn’t explain how it will work nor how it can be done cheaply, but I salute her.

Are Malthus’s Dire Predictions About Human Civilization Coming True?


Will this become the human condition?

I don’t know if the 18th century Malthus is still mentioned in schools as someone who theorized that an increased food supply encouraged population growth and predicted the forces behind population increase were larger than those behind increases in food production. Of course, the conclusion is that humans are unsustainable on Earth.

Humans, indeed, are the ultimate consumers of Earth’s resources. We not only consume food—overfishing our oceans—we consume clean water, clean air, and energy.

Consider the Ogallala aquifer in the Midwest. If spread across the U.S. the aquifer would cover all 50 states with 1.5 feet of water

  • If drained, it would take more than 6,000 years to refill naturally
  • More than 90 percent of the water pumped is used to irrigate crops
  • $20 billion a year in food and fiber depend on the aquifer

Yet, one Kansas study estimates the aquifer will run dry in 50 years.

Fossil fuel supplies are limited, and their production consumes clean air and  water.

In short we are consuming Earth’s resources, and population growth contributes to the depletion.

It is not only about survival, it is about life as we know it. Imagine life without furnaces, air conditioning, convenient transportation,  and all of our de-vices for communication and entertainment.

My point is not to spread doom and gloom, but to increase our supply of awareness. I believe that proper long-term planning and science can not only help us survive, but maintain and even improve our health and lifestyle. It is science that has created fruits and vegetables with longer shelf lives and more essential nutrients, is experimenting with creating meat in laboratories, and more.

Further, it is science, which can save our future as it has in the past, but today the challenge is greater because we consume more and more different kinds of resources.  I am delighted to see compostable plastic-like bags, advances in medical science, discovery of caterpillars who will eat plastic bags that make their way into our oceans , efforts to get carbon out of the air, electric cars, renewable energy such as solar, wind, tidal, geothermal, hydro-electricity, and two-year olds if suitably harnessed.Often the first of new inventions is not the best, but gets better.

One of my concerns is an anti-scientific attitude in this country, and I don’t know its basis. Is it because scientists are warning us and we don’t like the message so we want to strangle the messenger? Is it because we only care about the here and now? Or because we only care about our own welfare?

Believe it or not:  a NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) administrator testified before Congress re the need for continued adequate funding. When she mentioned the importance of weather forecasting, like a child thinking eggs don’t come from chickens but from grocery stores, one unnamed congress creature said, “Oh, if I want to know what the weather will be, I turn on TV.”

We can’t afford as a society to be ignorant of what faces us. Individual human beings need more than ever to be educated  not only to be employed  but  contribute to the preservation of our common wealth and how to make it work for us for the common good.

End of sermon.