A beekeeper’s epiphany

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Joseph Jenkins thinks humans are out of whack, but it’s only temporary

You’re a jack of many trades: a slate roofer, “humanure” ambassador, and now novelist. The Balance Point: The Missing Link in Human Consciousness, suggests that humans are capable of living in a symbiotic relationship with the earth, we’re just out of whack right now. It felt hopeful.

Yes, that’s the whole idea. Everything looks so hopeless at times. But the basic message in the book is that we can succeed, and we will, we have to. What are our choices, go extinct? I think young people feel like there really isn’t much of the future. All the wealth is being taken by half of one percent. In the book I say eight people own as much wealth as half the human race. But I just read yesterday it’s now down to three people. You know it just keeps getting worse. For young people today it may look hopeless – but it isn’t. It’s really your generation and the younger generations who have to make the change, and it’s absolutely possible.

They really need to know that not only can we make constructive, important changes, but they need to have an idea of what those changes are going to look like, you know? The symbiotic relationship, no one’s talking about that on CNN or Fox News. It’s all Trump all the time.

I was sure the book was fictional until I saw some of the pictures, like the one of you with the anaconda around your neck. How much of the story is true?

Well that’s all part of the mystery. Yeah, I was in Flathead Lake, and Halifax and Newfoundland and Peru and Puerto Maldonado and down the Rio Madre de Dios and back. I mean these are all real places where I actually was, but the delivery is creative. The issues – exponential growth, natural capital, human body burden, climate change, even the wiccan stuff and the sweat lodge in the beginning, that’s all nonfiction, but woven into a creative presentation.

So you really went on that ayahuasca trip or whatever it was?

The experiences I describe are actual experiences, but not from ayahuasca, from other entheogenic plants. Back in the 60s and 70s, the term hallucinogenic was coined, but when plants are used for spiritual purposed, hallucinogenic wasn’t appropriate because it implies experiencing things that aren’t real, so the term entheogenic was developed. [Entheogen means “generating the divine within.”]

The book describes the phenomenon of a robbing frenzy in a beehive. What is that?

I kept bees for 13 years. It’s an actual phenomenon. After I’d seen two or three robbing frenzies occurring in my hives, that’s what got me thinking. Beehives are made out of wood, and when they get old, when they get rained on a lot and stuff, a little tiny corner can start to rot. All you need is a hole the size of a pencil, maybe, in the back of the hive. All the bees go in and out the front, like a cloud, there’s thousands of ‘em. But if there’s a hole in the back there’s nobody back there, so you can sneak in the hive if you’re another bee. And then once that hole is discovered, you sneak in there and get the honey, you sneak back out like robbing a bank, and before you know it other bees find it, and the next thing you know there’s a whole cloud of bees behind the hive, getting in and out robbing the honey.

They’ll strip the hive. It’s a nasty thing. If you’re not paying attention to your hives and you get out there and two weeks have gone by and there’s been a robbing frenzy, the honey’s gone. Your hive will die because it won’t have food for the winter. It’s real easy to fix, you just take a piece of duct tape and put it over the hole. It takes five minutes and it’s done. But you know I got to thinking about this whole phenomenon and I realized this is exactly the same thing that the humans are doing with the fossil fuels on this planet, you know?

We’ve found oil. We discovered oil actually near where I live here in northwestern Pennsylvania, and it was like finding honey in the back door of the hive. Nobody was guarding it. There was no regulation, there was nothing. You could just take it. So suddenly people became millionaires overnight, instant millionaires back in the late 1800s. This is still ongoing today. There’s no real concern about getting it under control.

So I saw the bees and the robbing frenzy and I thought, Jesus Christ, it’s the same thing humans are doing, not with the hive but with the planet.

There’s other examples, like when there’s a natural disaster – earthquake, hurricane – and somebody breaks into a Walmart and next thing you know you got all kinds of people running in there and running out with stuff, because there’s nobody there to stop ‘em. That’s essentially what’s happening with the fossil fuels. Fossil fuels have been in the earth for millions of years, somebody comes along and says those are mine and takes them and gets fabulously wealthy while we just stand around, the rest of us, not doing anything or knowing what to do.

That was the main impetus behind me writing that book in the first place.

You became something of a cult figure in the 1970s after writing the Humanure Handbook and developing a compost toilet. You mention in the Balance Point that humans are the only land animal that insists on defecating in our water source, an interesting insight.

It’s a fact. Nobody ever thinks about it. It’s kind of mind-boggling for me, because I’ve lived without a water toilet for 40 years nearly.

Your family all uses the compost toilet?

When they lived here they did.

We have a culture that’s very insulated. We don’t realize that two and a half billion people don’t even have a toilet. Imagine. Imagine if you did not have a toilet, ever, you were born and raised your entire life, you grow old, all you have is a hole in the ground outside, if that. And if you have a pit latrine, it’s gotta be far enough away that you don’t have to smell it because they stink. So your toilet is 100 feet away, outside, it’s a hole in the ground, or you have nothing. You’re like an animal, you just go out and crap on the ground somewhere. Well that’s the normal situation for a third of the human race.

I go out say to Africa or someplace and these people are old. They have mobility issues, trouble walking, some of them are bedridden, they walk with canes or whatever, and not having a toilet really has a hard impact on their lives. When I show them how they can have a toilet in their house right beside their bed, it changes everything for them.

It’s for me, very surprising and interesting to see that these people everywhere I go – Central America, Asia, Africa, United States, North America – everywhere I go, the idea of having a compost toilet is completely alien.

Revolting, even. People called me up yelling after I wrote about humanure six years ago.

Well that’s the United States.

Right. While in Africa, where they’re facing “Day Zero,” an old woman offered you land in her village, she was so grateful.

She was speaking for the community. They asked me to address the members of Parliament in Tanzania to introduce this toilet system. They wanted to put ‘em in the hospitals, the prisons, the schools, because they don’t have toilets, they have pit latrines. And the pit latrines stink, they’re dangerous, they breed flies by the millions, and they have no alternative. These people don’t have running water, don’t have electricity, and still need to have toilets.

And when I tell them about this compost option it’s like they never would have ever thought of it. That’s the remarkable thing. Cause to me it’s just normal.

And it’s really just the addition of sawdust or some finely shredded plant material, right?

Carbon-based material. There are things that smell really bad. Sh** is one of ‘em. Carcasses, roadkill. They have a really bad smell. They have for a million years. It turns out if you cover them with dirt the smell goes away. So that’s how we learned to bury our dead and that’s why people started digging holes to defecate in. It all makes sense, very easy to understand. You just do it. But what we have evolved now to understand is if you bury smelly things like that in carbon material instead of dirt, then a whole different phenomenon occurs. The smelly material is converted back into soil by microorganisms, and in the process parasites and disease organisms and the sorts of bad things that can live in the soil are eliminated. So through evolution, through time now, we understand, don’t just bury it. Don’t just bury your sh**, don’t just bury your dead animals. You can actually bury them in plant based material and end up making compost. It’s actually a new phenomenon in the history of the human race, and that’s why these people never heard of it, never would have thought of it.

Do you think it’ll require desperation, a Day Zero type situation, for the compost toilet to catch on?

In flush toilet cultures, yeah. But there’s the rest of the world, people who don’t have flush toilets, they never have and they never will. Go to Dongobesh, Tanzania. There’s no electricity there, they may have some solar panels. They bring water from the river. It’s been like that forever and will probably always be like that. So these aren’t people who need to wait to be convinced. They already want compost toilets, they want them now and they want them bad. The whole older generation, they don’t want to go out and squat over a hole in the ground anymore. Even people with little kids, what do you do when there’s no toilet and it’s night and it’s raining? You don’t want to go out.

Unfortunately they’re people without much money. How do you get the training, the cover material, the toilets to them? That’s the dilemma. That’s where I’m at now, trying to brainstorm that.

Would you describe yourself as a hippie?

At one time people would have called me a hippie. I’m not so attached to labels. Like this whole liberal/conservative thing, I think that’s bullsh**. It’s just divide and conquer. If they didn’t allow themselves to be corralled like that it would be a lot easier for everybody to get along. We’re all liberal, we’re all conservative to some extent or another. We don’t just fall easily into two categories. It’s a mistake to fall for that imposed dichotomy.

The concept of the “balance point” refers to a spiritual happy medium between the ego and eco. Have you found your balance point?

The balance point is an ongoing thing. It’s not like boom. It’s not like finding Jesus or something, you know? You’re constantly reevaluating your positon on this planet. Every time you get in an airplane, or in a car, or you buy something in a disposable package, I’m always asking myself, what are the alternatives? A lot of people never think about these things. And for me, in our culture right now there really isn’t any way to be 100 percent ecologically sustainable, but we can try to do the best we can. I think that’s the essence of the balance point idea.

- Interview by Becca Tucker

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