Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A Beatitude for Bucket-poopers

A contrary view . . . prevails when a community chooses a subsistence-oriented way of life. There, the inversion of development, the replacement of consumer goods by personal action, of industrial tools by convivial tools is the goal. . . . There, the guitar is valued over the record, the library over the schoolroom, the back yard garden over the supermarket selection. . . . They try to “unplug themselves from consumption,” . . . women seek alternatives to gynecology; parents alternatives to schools; home-builders alternatives to the flush toilet. –Ivan Illichi

I poop in a bucket. Does this mean that I am poor?

I also co-own 144 acres of farmland. Does this mean I’m rich? I spend my summers bending my back, working outside, with dirt under my fingernails. Does that mean I’m poor? I find restaurant food sub-par compared to my regular diet of made-from-scratch meals, loaded with meat and organic produce. Does that mean I am rich? Our family’s after tax income last year was about $25,000. The poverty line for a Canadian family our size is calculated at $34,829. Does that mean we are poor? We own two vehicles, one of which is a 2003 Mercedes Benz SUV, sold to us for a silly low price because the seller likes us, and I think because she thinks we are poor. Does that mean we are rich?

. . .back to the bucket-pooping, exhibit A in this goofy, but serious, argument about the meaning of poverty. It’s not that gross. We cover our business with sawdust, so it’s really no more smelly or unsightly than a kitty litter box. When the bucket is full, I add the contents to a pile covered with straw, where all that carbon and nitrogen are digested by a community of microorganisms that turn filth into fertility. This eventually goes on our hay-land, making it bloom a verdant green wherever the humanure has fallen. These are things that make me happy.

But here’s where things get complicated. For while I am happily closing the loop of my poop, Aboriginal communities in Manitoba are trying to get my larger and privileged Mennonite faith community to lend their voice to those of local chiefs, who are challenging the government to address the scandal that in the twenty-first century, Aboriginal reserves still lack basic plumbing. That is to say, they have to poop in buckets.

Here I have to reckon with the strange but indisputable fact that my white male privilege allows me to enjoy and celebrate the practice of twenty-first-century bucket-pooping, which remains to my Aboriginal neighbour a disgusting misery. When I carry out the poop bucket, I am thinking back to the Gandhi movie, which I watched with adolescent fervour with a pile of other liberal Mennonite teens, as we stuffed our faces with taco chips and packaged macaroons while Gandhi defeated the British Empire with fasting and nonviolent truth-force. . .

Ivan Illich names the odd way in which I am rich and privileged by growing my own food, living in a cabin built of reclaimed hog barn lumber, cutting my own firewood and composting my own crap. I am freer to refuse the “progress and development” package than my Aboriginal neighbours, who are penned in and bureaucratically administered on the reserve. I can pick and choose my renunciations. By way of these renunciations, I can find “a way back to a self which stands above the constraints of the world,” as Illich puts it. I can choose my story. I am not “underdeveloped.” I am breaking free. . .

Illich draws angry rebukes for his criticism of development. He is decried as unsympathetic to the poor and as an enemy of their advancement. . . I believe that time will tell that Illich has a more compassionate, honest and hopeful vision than the champions of progress and development. As a closer reader of history, he can see further ahead. He . . . can imagine a good life for the poor beyond the collapse of unsustainable, globalizing missions. He can make out “rivers north of the future”. . .

This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Life at the End of Us Versus Them: Cross, Culture, Stories. To reserve a copy, email me at rempel.marcus@gmail.com

iIvan Illich, Vernacular Values, 1980. http://www.preservenet.com/theory/Illich/Vernacular.html


  1. THAT IS AWESOME! Thanks for putting your words out there, very, very needed and timely.

  2. Thank you Bed Bug Bev! You are one of those beautiful missionaries and problem-solvers engaging poverty creatively and "convivially," as Illich would say. Your thumbs up means a lot to me.

  3. Bang on, Marcus. The logic applies to so many aspects of our/their lifestyle: housing, transportation, power generation, to name the most obvious. Reserve one of your pooks for me.

    1. Thanks, Eric. Can you shoot me an email at rempel.marcus@gmail.com so I know how to reach you when the book comes out?