Welcome to The Middle Way Society

The Middle Way Society was founded to promote the study and practice of The Middle Way. The Middle Way is the idea that we make better judgements by avoiding fixed beliefs and being open to practical experience. We challenge unhelpful distinctions between facts and values, reason and emotion, religion and secularism or arts and sciences. Though our name is inspired by some of the insights of the Buddha, we are independent of Buddhism or any other religion. We seek to promote and support integrative practice, overcoming conflict of all kinds.

The MWS Podcast 123: Amod Lele on Literal Conservatism

We are joined today by Amod Lele, who teaches Indian philosophy at Boston University. He is also Visiting Researcher at the Center for the Study of Asia, and an Educational Technologist with Information Services & Technology. He writes a regular blog in cross-cultural philosophy, called Love of All Wisdom on which I came across an article he wrote on ‘Literal Conservatism’. I was struck by his contention that in recent times the political left has been far more conservative in this sense than the right and this will be the topic of our discussion today.

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Policing by consent?

It took me completely by surprise to see two men armed with semi-automatic weapons heading straight towards me.

Of course that opening sentence – although true – is a deliberate attempt to grab your attention. I hope I don’t lose you by revealing further details: the two men were Authorised Firearms Officers of the Hampshire Constabulary on patrol in Winchester city centre. It was just by chance that I happened to be walking towards them with my family on a sunny summer Sunday afternoon.

Photograph of armed police officersSo it would seem that there ends the story, except… as our paths crossed I took a closer look at the gun of the nearest officer. The weapon’s magazine was made of a translucent material, and I could see the individual rounds within. And it struck me that it was possible that one or more of those bullets could be shot into me or my wife or my son, probably causing fatal damage. In the short time it took before my slow-thinking processes dismissed the idea as totally far-fetched, I felt my blood run cold.

Anyway, this short experience at the weekend led to certain lines of thinking: How flimsy is the barrier that separates the living me from the horror of a sudden, violent, mechanised death? How it has come to pass that some people can walk down Winchester high street on a Sunday afternoon carrying semi-automatic rifles, and others can’t? And, of course, what has all this got to do with the Middle Way?

I can supply a little more background information here, especially for any readers from outside the UK. In Great Britain police officers are not routinely armed and the public are, with a few exceptions, not permitted to carry firearms. I have seen British police officers armed with similar weapons before, but this was in high security locations such as Whitehall in London, or at Heathrow Airport. In contrast, the city of Winchester, where I crossed paths with these armed officers, was last year proclaimed ‘the best place to live in the UK’ due to its high employment, good wages, low crime and above average health and life expectancy. I assume they were patrolling as a kind of reassurance to locals and tourists that any acts of terrorism would not go unchecked, in the wake of recent atrocities in Manchester and London.

This paragraph from Chapter 6 of Robert M. Ellis’s book “Middle Way Philosophy 2: The Integration of Desire” helps set the tone for any discussion of policing in terms of the Middle Way:

The state’s responsibility, then, is to support the integration of desires by preventing the grossest expressions of conflict – those which would create an environment in which further integration is impossible. [… O]ur environment needs to strike a balance between security and challenge in order to prevent the arising of unintegrated desires, but that means that a basic level of security needs to be created by government. In order to do this it is obliged to use force to suppress those who would perpetrate conflict by violence or other coercion.

18815853363_c91b9befb4_oSo these armed police officers were one of the means by which the government ensures a basic level of security, so that I can, for example, feel free to walk up Winchester high street (pictured on the right) on a Sunday afternoon without needing to carry arms myself. If there were any people in the city centre who intended to perpetrate conflict by violence, or the threat of violence, then I would reasonably assume that these armed officers would use (possibly lethal) force in order to suppress them. In this way I am able to continue my business of becoming a more integrated human being.

I have little appetite for physical violence. I actively avoid it, and I certainly don’t have the physique or the weaponry to excel at it. I’m sufficiently appalled by the violence inherent in the food industry that I choose to eat a strict vegetarian diet. But if I tried to make the principle of non-harm an absolute – thou shalt not kill, ever (even if you’re a police officer) – then it isn’t workable, it doesn’t address conditions in which there are people who are willing to perpetrate conflict by use of lethal force.

A very similar sentiment was expressed (perhaps more bluntly) by Brad Warner in a blog post in March this year. He put it like this:

Human beings are fair and inclusive, when we have the resources to be. This ability to be fair and inclusive has a high price. A society that values fairness and inclusivity also has to be able to defend fairness and inclusivity. It has to be able to kick the shit out of those who threaten fairness and inclusivity.

I’m not saying this is a good thing. But it is a fact. I hope this is not always the case. I believe that someday, in the distant future, when neither I nor anyone else alive here in the year 2017 is around any longer, it is possible that this will not be the case.

But we will never get to that point unless we understand the real situation right now. Which is that if we want a fair and inclusive society (and I do), we need to employ people whose job it is to kill — or at least have the capacity and willingness to kill — other human beings who threaten fairness and inclusivity.

In short, monks need soldiers.“

So who are these people who have the capacity and willingness to kill on my behalf? I don’t mean this personally, I’m not questioning the virtue of individual officers – in fact two of my good friends from teenage years are now police officers, one of them a firearms officer, and I’m satisfied that both are competent and ethical individuals. I ask what is their status, and what do we have in common and what separates us?

The idea (in the UK, and many other nations) is that these people are citizens in uniform, rather than soldiers: their primary principle is to prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment. The soldiers mentioned above by Brad Warner are probably more relevant to conflicts between nation states. Note that the capacity and willingness to kill is part of a preventative process, which, if it is effective, is far preferable to resorting to repression by military force. The ideal is that in the act of prevention all citizens (uniformed and un-uniformed) are better able to maintain their integrity than would be the case during any after-the-fact violence.

439px-Robert_Peel_PortraitWhen I say that this is their primary principle, I’m referring to the so-called Peelian Principles which were set out in the ‘General Instructions’ that were issued to every new police officer from 1829. [N.B. The Peelian Principles were named after Sir Robert Peel (illustrated on the right) but apparently there is no evidence of any link to Robert Peel and the principles were likely devised by the first Commissioners of Police of the Metropolis, Charles Rowan and Richard Mayne]. This kind of policing is known as ‘policing by consent’ because the power of the police is supposed to come from the common consent of the public, as opposed to the power of the state. However there is the important corollary that no individual can chose to withdraw his or her consent from the police, or from a law.

If you’ve not come across them before, I recommend that you make the effort to find out more about them. I hadn’t heard of them until earlier this year, but when I started looking into them they made a lot of sense and helped to make more concrete the vague ideas I’d developed about the principles of policing in the UK.  It has also changed they way in which I relate to police officers – which has been increasingly helpful as I’ve continued to get older and the police officers get ever younger.

The issue of public consent is elaborated further in principles 2, 3 and 4. Specifically, the fourth stated principle is

To recognise always that the extent to which the co-operation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.“

So in my Sunday afternoon example, if I (a member of the public) see police officers carrying lethal weaponry, but refraining from using it because the situation does not call for it, then I am more likely to approve of their presence. It is not just for safety’s sake that they carry their weapons with the muzzle pointing towards the ground. The authority of the armed officers is not supposed to stem from the fact that they are armed, but because the public approves of the way that they conduct themselves whilst armed in the broader context of preventing crime and maintaining order.

There’s another issue involved in police officers being armed so that the rest of us don’t have to be: armed officers put themselves at greater risk of being harmed in the course of their duty of protecting other citizens from harm. This ‘ready offering of individual sacrifice’ is also mentioned in the fifth Peelian principle.

The sixth principle involves addressing conditions in an incremental way:

To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public co-operation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order, and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.

Again, the idea being that public consent will be maintained if police officers do their duty in an even-handed and proportionate fashion – and their duty does not extend to avenging individuals or the State, nor does it include judging guilt and issuing punishments (as it says in the eighth principle). The sixth principle urges the use of physical force only to the extent that it is necessary to address the specific conditions of a situation.

In conclusion, then, I’m reasonably satisfied that the Peelian Principles of ‘policing by consent’ are compatible with the Middle Way, and that only political extremists are likely to reject them as being a sound ethical foundation on which to organise the maintenance of civil society. The big issue, as ever, is to what extent the Peelian Principles are actually realised in the way that policing is carried out in practice. In my privileged (and compliant) position in society I’m pretty unlikely to find myself on the wrong end of an armed officer’s gun, so perhaps my role is more as a protector of the standing of the Peelian Principles. As I see the Principles as a valuable working system then I should speak out if I see them being flouted by corrupt individuals or being undermined or perverted or otherwise absolutised by political figures. What do you think?

Image credits

Further fodder for consideration

The MWS Podcast 122: Bernardo Sorj on Humanism without Hubris

Our guest today is Bernardo Sorj. Bernardo is a Brazilian social scientist, retired professor of Sociology at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. He is Director of The Edelstein Center for Social Research and of the Plataforma Democrática Project. He has published 30 books and more than 100 articles, on Latin American political development, international relations, the social impact of new technologies, social theory and Judaism and in 2005 was elected Brazil’s Man of Ideas. He’s here to talk to us about ‘Humanism without Hubris’.

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How to Solve a Problem Like John Lennon

‘Part of me suspects that I’m a loser, and the other part of me thinks I’m God Almighty’.


John Lennon was, with Paul McCartney, one half of the greatest song writing duo in history, and one quarter of the greatest bands in history: the Beatles (as very rare examples of absolute facts these, perhaps, represent the only time when Middle Way notions of provisionality, incrementality and agnosticism do not apply). Nevertheless, some would also have you believe that Lennon was a peace-loving, feminist icon who fought for the rights of the disenfranchised and the oppressed.  A man who declared that ‘all you need is love’ and dared to Imagine a world without war, nationalism or religion.  Others present him in an altogether different hue: as a violent, jealous and chauvinistic bully who abused his first wife, Cynthia and emotionally neglected his first son, Julian.  On one hand we have Lennon the hero and on the other we have Lennon the villain and in many cases he is presented as either/or, with commentators unable, or unwilling to negotiate this juxtaposition.  Sometimes, biographical accounts will even skim over, or ignore these conflicting characteristics entirely and instead focus solely on his musical career.  I remember watching a biographical documentary which, apart from briefly referencing his peace activism (and judging it to be an immature and naive embarrassment) did exactly that.

‘When you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out… in’.

There’s a tendency to dehumanise those whom we cast as heroes or villains, creating one dimensional figures to be loved or reviled.  This tendency is apparent with the treatment of exceptional individuals throughout history, such as Saints, military heroes and political activists.  The recent rise of the celebrity (a term which often invites scorn, but is actually an umbrella term covering people with a wide range of skills and achievements, like Elvis Presley, Princess Diana or anyone who appears in any reality TV program) has provided john-lennon-487033_960_720another category.  There clearly seems to be a need for us to create simplified archetypes and doing so does appear to be useful, but to do this with historical people that have lived (or are still alive) can deny us a richer understanding of their, and consequently our own, humanity (and can also create real dangers, as chillingly demonstrated by the recent case of Jimmy Savile).

‘Well, you know that I’m a wicked guy
And I was born with a jealous mind’.

Lennon’s lyrics often seem like raw, unguarded confessions that reek of insecurity and contradiction.  He seemed to be keenly aware of the conflicting aspects of his personality and didn’t shy away from exploring them in the material he released.  He acknowledged both the good and the bad; the hero and the villain.  While he declared that ‘all you need is love’, he also put to song the disturbing words ‘baby I’m determined and I’d rather see you dead’.  Filling the space between these two extremes was a Scared, Jealous Guy who felt in serious need of Help!  A perfect example of this uneasy juxtaposition can be found on the Imagine album.  As well as featuring the well-known title track, which has become something of a secular hymn, it also contains the track How Do You Sleep?, a venomous attack on his former writing partner and friend, Paul McCartney, which couldn’t be any further from the sentiments expressed in Imagine.

‘Hatred and jealousy, gonna be the death of me
I guess I knew it right from the start
Sing out about love and peace
Don’t want to see the red raw meat
The green eyed goddamn straight from your heart’.

He admitted that he had been physically abusive to women – not just Cynthia – and that he had not been a very good father to Julian.  He admitted that he was a bully.  He also described his own experiences of childhood abandonment and later feelings of fear and insecurity, which he concealed behind a mask of buffoonery and violence.  Not that this excuses the behaviour of a grown man, but it does provide us with some sense of a complex human being.  Add to that his later promotion of pacifism, feminism and social justice and the asymmetrical mosaic grows greater still.  In the later years of his life he became a devoted parent to his second son, Sean – with whom he seemed able to attain some sense of atonement.  Unfortunately, his relationship with Julian remained strained and distant.  Maybe the old wounds would have healed, had he not been shot and killed at the age of 40, but perhaps his earlier behaviour had been too damaging.

‘I really had a chip on my shoulder … and it still comes out every now and then’.

There are those that might cry ‘hypocrite’ at such apparent contradictions, but that would be over-simplistic and unfair.  It’s quite possible for Lennon to have been all of these things over time (or even simultaneously), with some characteristics perhaps being the consequence of another.  For instance, it’s likely that his feminism grew, in part, out of a need for redemption.  That’s not to say, then, that the villain of the piece was defeated; forever to be vanquished by the upstart hero and his eye shatteringly shiny armour.  No, far more likely was that the two existed side by side in an on-going (and probably uncomfortable) process of conflict and negotiation.  Acknowledging someone’s flaws does not necessitate that one question the sincerity of their strengths.

‘Although I laugh and I act like a clown
Beneath this mask I am wearing a frown
My tears are falling like rain from the sky
Is it for her or myself that I cry’?

JohnLennon1963A minor deviation here, but I would like to comment on the supposed naivety and immaturity of Lennon’s political views.  First of all, I feel that this is a misrepresentation of what he actually said.  If we look at the two main points that critics tend to pick up on: the invitation to imagine everybody living in peace and the request to give peace a chance.  Both of these notions seem far from naïve to me, in fact they seem like reasonable suggestions for incremental change.  There is clearly no unrealistic demand for overnight change; just a suggestion that we consider an alternative way of conducting ourselves, with the hope that things might start to get better.  In the UK similar accusations are levelled at Jeremy Corbyn, and they grate with me for the same reasons.  I’m not suggesting that anyone has to agree with either Lennon or Corbyn, but the condescending disregard of their, perfectly valid, views strikes me as being unnecessary and spiteful.  Secondly, the generalised criticisms of Lennon’s political views assume a fixed ideology that just doesn’t seem to have been present.  He changed, altered and evolved his ideas all through his life, and was often critical of things that he had previously said or done.

‘My role in society, or any artist’s or poet’s role, is to try and express what we all feel. Not to tell people how to feel. Not as a preacher, not as a leader, but as a reflection of us all’.

imagine-1913561_960_720While I probably wouldn’t go so far as to put Lennon forward as a Middle Way Thinker, I do think he provides a good example of how a Middle Way approach can be useful in the consideration of those whom we admire… and those we do not.  Gandhi (who has featured in Robert M Eillis’ Middle Way Thinker series) could, with some justification, be accused of misogyny and racism, but that doesn’t take away from his achievements or the legacy he left behind.  The medieval Saints of Europe become figures of greater interest and inspiration when their multi-dimensional and flawed humanity can be glimpsed beneath their holy veneers (a principle that, I have recently discovered, can be applied to Jesus too).  Of course, such figures need not be well known.  We also create heroes and villains in our day to day lives too; looking up to, or down upon family members or colleagues, for instance.  If we can recognise the messy middle from which others are composed and accept that people can be both good and bad, in different measures, at different times, then this might just enable us to become more open to those around us and more accepting of ourselves.  This sounds easy on paper, but can be difficult to achieve in practice.  I, for one, have a long way to go but the closer I look, the more complicated the picture becomes and the easier it gets.

‘We all have Hitler in us, but we also have love and peace. So why not give peace a chance for once’?

Songs Quoted (In Order of Appearance)

All You Need Is Love (Lennon-McCartney, 1967)
Revolution (Lennon-McCartney, 1968).
Run For Your Life (Lennon-McCartney, 1965).
Scared (Lennon, 1974).
Loser (Lennon-McCartney, 1964).

Pictures (In Order of Appearance)

Lennon Memorial Plaque, courtesy of Pixabay.com.
John Lennon Beatles Peace Imagine, courtesy of Pixabay.com.
The Beatles & Lill-Babs 1963, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Imagine John Lennon New York City, courtesy of Pixabay.com.

The trouble with toilets

As soon as I spotted the headline in the paper I felt a flush of vindication: I was right! I knew it all along! At the bottom of page six of the Times, the environment editor Ben Webster topped his short article with the following: ‘Water-efficient’ loos leak millions of litres every day.

File_000My prejudice against the so-called water-efficient toilets was seeded about two years ago when we moved from a one-lavatory house to a three-lavatory house – yes, that meant one lavatory per occupant. The big surprise on moving in was that the small outhouse on the back of the building contained a functioning old-style high-cistern pull-chain siphon-flush toilet, with panoramic views of the garden. This WC remains a little-used curiosity, and the outhouse is mainly used for storage now (or for posing in – see the photo on the right).

However, inside the house the other two lavatories were identical modern drop-valve dual-flush models, and both of them had the same problem: they leaked. It wasn’t really something that I noticed during the busy-ness of the moving-in process, but when I was lying in my new bedroom at night I could definitely hear the slow plink-plink-plink of dripping into the toilet bowl coming from both the upstairs and downstairs toilets. At frequent intervals this was drowned out by the sound of the partially drained cistern re-filling. Best of all the downstairs toilet featured a small sticker that said ‘Leak tested’ to which the previous tenant had added (in biro) NOT!

At what was a particularly stressful time of my life, the problem of the toilets that needed attention seemed significant and insurmountable. Of course eventually I just got to it and googled the problem, wrestled with the contents of the cisterns to determine what needed doing, ordered the replacement parts online and then spent even longer wrestling with the flush mechanisms to fix them. And through it all the thought was in my head: “These new style dual flush toilets are crap. The old siphon toilets never had this problem. I hate dual-flush toilets.

File_000 (9)That wasn’t the end of it though. When we moved in we were told by the letting agent that the house was not on a water meter – ‘Great!‘ I thought, ‘it won’t cost us if the toilets keep leaking‘. That turned out to be wrong, a letter arrived from the water company telling us that we did in fact have a water meter. Not long after that the flush mechanism in the upstairs toilet malfunctioned and I replaced it. A few months later the dripping began again and, much more quickly this time, I ordered the new washers and sorted it out. And this pattern has repeated, the toilets requiring regular minor maintenance leaving me wondering if I could bulk-order the replacement washers (see the photo on the right).

So, when this week I saw the headline in the paper I felt a sense of ‘I told you so!’ The dual-flush toilets are a false water economy! We were better off with the old siphon mechanisms! The only person nearby to tell was my son, but he didn’t care… and so this blog post started to take shape in my mind. It started with recognising the rush that accompanies Being Right (confirmation bias: I wouldn’t have paid the article much attention if I didn’t already think that dual-flush toilets were a false economy), was fed by the desire to explain the mechanics of toilet flush mechanisms (remember, I’m a physics teacher too) but ended up with me considering the complicated tangle of trying to make a difference for the better in the world.

Now that I’ve declared my interest (or prejudice) I can outline the shape of the rest of this article. In it I describe the difference between the old and new toilet flush technologies, with particular reference to their advantages and disadvantages with regards to water efficiency. I then discuss the context in which the old technology was superseded by the new, and why this supposed change for the better may have turned out to be a colossal mistake. I finish by considering where the toilet water-efficiency problem may go from here – what are the possible solutions, what are the ideologies within which the solutions will be conceived, and who is responsible for sorting this problem out?

In this article I will be assuming that improving water efficiency (by reducing wastage and demand) is a desirable thing: that it is morally good. I won’t be providing much justification for this, suffice to say that water is a renewable but finite resource and that here in the UK (where fresh water is rather abundant) we devote a lot of other finite and non-renewable resources to treating water for mains supply. I am also assuming that it is worthwhile to attempt to improve water efficiency by specifically focussing on the issue of flushing toilets – it may be in practice that any savings there are insignificant in comparison to other wastage in the system (for example, leaking supply pipes), and I’ve not investigated the figures for comparison. I do not suggest non-WC alternatives such as composting and ‘wild weeing’.

Right… are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…

Toilet technology
It is not completely impossible for a traditional toilet to leak, but due to their design they are very unlikely to leak. In a traditional toilet the water in the cistern must first flow upwards before it can flow downwards into the toilet bowl. Water will not flow uphill without assistance (as I’m sure you’re aware!) and your push on the handle provides the necessary lift to get the flush going. Once the flow has started the water will continue to siphon out until the cistern is empty.

This explains why siphon-based flush mechanisms are considered to be wasteful of water – every flush completely drains the cistern, whether or not that much water is actually needed to do the job. It also explains why they are so robust against developing a leak into the toilet bowl, simply because water cannot travel uphill unaided. On the rare occasions when I’ve experienced these toilets leaking it was down to a fault in the re-filling mechanism, and the dripping was from the overflow pipe on the outside of the building.

File_000 (10)In order to achieve variable-volume flushing the designers of modern ‘dual flush’ toilets have done away with the cistern-emptying siphon mechanism. Instead, in the common ‘drop valve’ design, when the flush buttons are pressed a plug is yanked out of a plughole in the bottom of the cistern and the water drains down into the toilet bowl. One of the flush buttons yanks the plug a long way out of the plug hole, so that the entire cistern drains before it falls back in to seal it up again. However, the other flush button only yanks the plug out a little way, and it drops back in when only a fraction of the water in the cistern has escaped.

The dual-flush design has the flexibility for toilet-users to choose to use an amount of water that is appropriate to the job. However, in order for the water to remain in the cistern between flushes the fit of the plug into the plughole must be perfect – if there is the slightest imperfection in this seal then the pressure from the water in the cistern will force water to leak down into the toilet bowl. Under the real-life conditions of bargain-basement manufacturing, inexpert installation and frequent flushing the flush valves rarely work perfectly for long, and as a consequence millions of litres of treated fresh water quietly leak uselessly through the toilet when it isn’t in use.

Lavatory legislation
The leak-proof design of the traditional toilet siphon was the primary reason why they were the only legally permitted style of lavatory design in the UK. However, in the early 1990s – against a backdrop of water industry privatisation, greater awareness of environmental issues and a spate of hotter, drier summers – public concern about water efficiency grew. Simple measures to reduce flush volumes were suggested, such as putting a brick into one’s toilet cistern, but this approach was limited by the fact that the siphon mechanism allowed a relatively low flow rate and so a large volumes of water was needed for a flush to shift solids into the sewers.

The law was changed in 2001 to allow non-siphon lavatories to be installed in the UK. To politicians in the late 1990s this must have seemed like a ‘no-brainer’. The dual-flush design promised huge improvements in water efficiency: they had a higher flow rate than siphon toilets, so less water was needed to shift solids from the bowl, and they also gave toilet users an obvious option of using a shorter flush when they were disposing of urine. Toilet users were able to feel environmentally virtuous every time they opted for the short flush – which would be many times per day –  and it’s not like they were doing it in order to save money, as few households at the time were on a water meter.

gabor-monori-2199So 16 years later, and the traditional siphon flush lavatory is an endangered beast. The dual-flush design is now far more popular, having been the installation of choice in new-builds since 2001. This is a long enough time for the drawbacks of this new technology to become apparent, and for not-for-profit bodies like Waterwise to investigate and report on the false economy of switching from siphon flushers to valve mechanisms. It makes for a satisfyingly ironic headline in the news: “So-called water-efficient toilets leak millions of litres every day”, but perhaps it is better seen as a cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of introducing what seemed like common-sense changes.

To use a particularly inappropriate metaphor, it seems as if the baby was thrown out with the bathwater in the aftermath of the change of legislation in 2001. In the name of ‘water efficiency’ leak-less siphon toilets have been displaced by the leak-prone dual-flush toilets. The problem is not insignificant: Waterwise claims that 4% of UK toilets leak from the cistern, and the average one leaks 215 litres a day. Total UK toilet leakage amounts to 400 million litres per day, which accounts for 5% of clean water consumption.

What went wrong?
So, were the benefits of the siphon flush mechanism under-rated when the changes to toilet legislation were being made in the late 1990s? The leak-proof design perhaps was not fully appreciated by those who had grown up with it in the background of their lives because it was just so good at invisibly and silently doing its primary job (from a water-efficiency perspective): not wastefully leaking water between flushes. The billions of litres of water per week that were not leaked by siphon toilets over the century or so of their prevalence could not be seen, or easily appreciated.

When dual-flush toilets were first introduced they made the siphon toilets look, by comparison, poor at performing their secondary job of flushing waste into the sewer using the minimum amount of water.  The key thing to note here is that the major benefit of the siphon toilet was inobvious to toilet users, but the major drawback was completely obvious: in a more water-efficiency conscious time the toilet user potentially had to face up to their guilt about wasting water every time they flushed a siphon toilet. Switching to a dual-flush was a noticeable change for the better – the cisterns were significantly smaller, and one now had the ability to easily choose a short or long flush, appropriate to the occasion.

The problem that cancelled out the gains in water efficiency only became obvious once the change-over was well under way. Presumably the early models were of sufficiently high quality that their drop valves did maintain their integrity for the required 200 000 flushes under laboratory conditions. In real-life conditions though, the drop valve toilets did not perform as well. Poor installation of the toilet could result in leaks. Debris introduced to the cistern during installation could get stuck in the valve, resulting in leaks. In hard-water areas limescale could similarly affect the valve, resulting in leaks. And when the leaks happened at first they would have been very hard to spot, with the water quietly and continuously seeping into the toilet bowl.

Perhaps, most significantly, the nature of the free market in bathroom supplies meant that consumers would opt for the cheaper models – especially landlords of rented properties and businesses – and in the race to produce the cheapest flush mechanisms the quality of the early models was not maintained. In order to keep my own dual-flush toilets in leak-free order I have to replace the rubber washer on the drop valve every six months or so. That’s not a problem for me, but then I’ve got the money to buy the spare parts and the skills and confidence to do the maintenance myself – but I don’t think I’m particularly representative of a typical toilet-owner, and the old siphon toilets didn’t require such regular servicing.

Where do we go from here?
The conservative lament that “we should never have messed with it!” is not particularly helpful, and if rejection of innovation was absolutely applied we’d still be squatting in the bushes when nature called. “If it ain’t broke then don’t try to fix it” is a slightly more refined argument, but it is only with hindsight that the siphon toilet doesn’t appear to be broken. There is some wisdom in being aware of our tendency towards neophilia, the love of new things simply for the sake of their newness: expect it, and challenge it – especially when it is coupled with the desire to be seen to be doing something rather than nothing.

Another point to be taken from this story is it that it is wise to accept the results of laboratory testing provisionally, and with caution: lab testing is unlikely to reveal the flaws that become apparent when the technology is used in the messy, complex real world. This also reminds me of the precautionary principle: when a new technology is proposed then the burden of proof that the technology will not cause more harm than good is on those proposing the change to the status quo. Simple arguments (like ‘dual-flush toilets use less water than siphon toilets, therefore we ought to replace siphons with dual-flushers’) are usually deceptively simple, masking the complexity of the issue. Our desire for straightforwardness and certainty when making decisions means that we are reluctant to think critically about what is being proposed.

In trying to improve the water-efficiency situation there is the danger of adopting an absolute scientistic view: that the sustained use of science and its application (technology) will fix the problem. I’ve already mentioned above the problem with over-reliance on the results of laboratory testing, and another aspect of this is the belief that the technological problem will be solved only by more technology – better toilets, more efficient flushing mechanisms, the integration of computer processors, sensors and actuators into the lavatorial arena. In this way we can end up overlooking simpler, more obvious, more universally applicable solutions (remember the large proportion of humans that don’t have access to even the most basic toilet technology).

school-toilet-209058_1920There are cultural factors at play here too, ones that are often difficult for us to appreciate because they are part of our own conditioning. One very simple innovation that greatly improves water-efficiency is the urinal, especially the waterless variety. However, when was the last time that you saw a urinal in a domestic setting? And, ladies, when was the last time you saw an (appropriately designed) urinal in a public lavatory? There are not really any material barriers to installing urinals in homes, or to widespread installation of female urinals in public toilets, so what’s stopping us? With the increased technology surrounding the business of urinating and defecating the subject has become closer to taboo in society – I don’t know how exaggerated the reports are, but consider the technological lengths employed in urban Japan to cover up the embarrassment that comes with the fact that humans need to urinate (musical toilets and so on).

Finally, there is the question of responsibility: who will take responsibility for improving water efficiency? We have to be careful of polarising the issue here: it is not entirely the responsibility of the government, neither is it entirely the responsibility of individual toilet-users. The government has and can play a part: regulating the manufacture and installation of lavatory technology, and legislating for increased use of water metering by the (privatised!) water supply companies – metering and creative tariffs are a way of introducing a financial incentive for end-users to improve their water efficiency. Personal responsibility could be as simple as applying this lavatorial heuristic: “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.” Good luck discussing that with your co-habitants.

Further reading and resources

Image credits

  • Photograph of me sitting on the outhouse toilet: own work (c) Jim Champion
  • Photographs of dual flush button and drop valve washers: own work, licence CC0 Public Domain
  • Photograph of happy WC: downloaded from unsplash.com
  • Photograph of urinals: licence CC0 Public Domain, downloaded from pixabay.com