To Flush or Not to Flush

The local newspapers last week reported with glee that Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London, never flushes the toilet after peeing – he stated this publicly, hoping to increase awareness of the global need for water conservation.

The immediate reaction of a reader of Metro (the freebie paper that I read on the train) was to extrapolate that Livingstone never flushes at all, and express horror at the probable state of his bathroom. Another reader took the argument further, excoriating all environmentalists as stupid. In today’s round of letters, an Italian environmentalist says that Livingstone’s initiative is “exaggerated and unrealistic,” but that we shouldn’t therefore condemn all environmentalist ideas.

Evidently the concept of the no-flush urinal has not reached Italy.

I wrote to Metro myself (it went unpublished) to point out that in many countries there aren’t even toilets, let alone water to flush them with. During my years at Woodstock we had water shortages, sometimes so severe that water had to be carried in buckets from a rainwater storage tank for toilet flushing and everything else. In that situation, you don’t bother to flush every time, nor should you use up scarce water to do so.

David Pollock’s book on third-culture kids recounts the story of a child raised by missionary parents in a water-poor country in Africa, who grew up with the rule: “If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down” – a habit which horrified his grandmother when he stayed with her in the US!

Italy is rich in water – for now. But when the Alpine glaciers melt away entirely, as they seem likely to do in a few decades, Italians will need to learn to be less fastidious in their bathrooms.

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