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The Great Portland Pee. The Psychological Power of Disgust That Discourages Water Recycling
If you’re running a little short on potable water, you might want to take some empty jugs up to Portland Oregon, where for the next few days they will be throwing away 38 million gallons of water…treated, drinkable water… because the other night a young guy was caught on security cameras peeing into an open air reservoir.
Never mind that even if this kid had just had a whole six pack, the maximum amount of used beer he could have peed is 1/8 gallon. Into 38 million gallons, that means the level of ‘contamination’ is about three parts per BILLION. (Thanks to AP’s Seth Borenstein for the math.) And never mind that since it’s a surface reservoir, all sorts of animals do all sorts of things in the same water. And never mind that, exposed to the air, the water – already treated and pumped to the reservoir from which it awaits direct distribution to end users – receives fallout containing all sorts of chemicals and particles whenever it rains….which it does in Portland, a lot.
And never mind that, even given all those insults, post-pee tests found the water perfectly clean and safe to drink.
Portland is going to throw out 38 million gallons of water, at a cost likely to run well over $100,000, because as Water Bureau administrator David Shaff told the Portland Oregonian, “Even though there is very minimal public health risk, the bottom line is that our commitment is to serve water that’s clean...” “That doesn’t include pee. Not from people, at least.” (Duck pee? Deer pee? Racoon or skunk or RAT pee? Or POOP!!!!!!???? Apparently those are not a problem.)
Maybe the real problem is this… the video which at 1:09:12 clearly shows the young man draining himself into water that now will all be drained. To understand this essay, you need to go watch it, and come back. (Not to worry, nothing too personal shows up on camera.)
EWWWW!! ICCCK!!! DISGUSTING, right? That, of course, is the problem, the explanation for why such an irrational wasteful action is being taken. Disgust. It’s a powerful subconscious part of our risk perception system, designed to protect us from bad food and bad water and filth and disease and…well, things that are disgusting, and therefore potentially bad for us.
Do the facts matter…that there is no health risk, and the cost will be enormous? No, when it comes to risk the facts don’t matter, at least not as much as our feelings do. And disgust is a powerful part of the suite of emotions we use to gauge whether something is risky or not, and how risky it might be.
No wonder then that Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish said that “the professionals who report to me all said, 'Dump the water. Don't take any chances.' It's the conservative but correct call." Conservative means safe…for those officials…because who among them was going to take the chance of arguing that water that’s been peed in, on camera, is safe.
That response really makes the Great Portland Pee a teachable movement in the larger issue of water recycling. The problem is that “Don’t take chances” advice from water officials means “Don’t risk your neck stirring up controversy by telling people the water is safe when the disgust factor is so strong.” It has nothing to do with “Don’t take chances with water safety.” By the standard of that advice, we’d all have to stop drinking, period. There is no such thing as fresh water. All water has been recycled, peed or pooped in or contaminated with various potentially dangerous or disgusting things at one time or another. Tens of millions of people drink water in America taken from rivers carrying the effluent from upstream sewage treatment plants. The water was rigorously cleaned and filtered and treated before it was released, and it gets the same treatment again before it’s piped to new customers.
Most people know that… that all water is re-used, and that treatment systems work. Still, the idea of water going from somebody’s toilet to your tap just FEELS disgusting, and when it’s framed that way by officials trying to cover their butts with “total transparency”, or when you have actually SEEN some dude relieving himself into what you might soon be drinking…. EWWWW!!! ICCCKKK!!! GROSS!!! The emotion of disgust easily overwhelms our rational understanding that water can be filtered and treated and cleaned…and is…all the time.
What’s happening in Portland is precisely why cities across America have trouble building systems to re-use wastewater. As we run out of water in some places because of overuse and climate-change exacerbated drought, something has to change. The reality that risk perception is not rational, and that disgust is a powerful risk perception signal, CAN’T change. It’s built in. What can change, and must, is the ‘conservatism’ of public officials who lack the courage to explain that used wastewater can be made safe and clean.
In many places this is already happening. Where officials describe water re-use as recycling and engage the public in an open program to assure them that treatment systems work, the public accepts such systems. But where officials chicken out and, ostensibly in the name of honesty and transparency, call water recycling ‘toilet to tap’ or other descriptors that invoke disgust, opposition rises, as it did years ago in San Diego and Los Angeles, where wastewater recycling facilities were rejected. (San Diego is building one now.)
Those cities, and many others around the world, are going to need more water recycling. Understanding the power of disgust and the psychology of risk perception can help officials describe wastewater recycling systems in ways that will encourage public support. And they should thank the young dude in Portland for the lesson he unwittingly taught the world as he relieved himself the other night, on camera, in the local reservoir.
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.
- Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
- The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
- The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Jet bursting out of a blazar. Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
Cosmic death beams: Understanding gamma ray bursts<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cu2knVEk" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="c6cfd20fdf31c82cb206ade8ce21ba3f"> <div id="botr_cu2knVEk_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cu2knVEk-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Philosophers have been asking the question for hundreds of years. Now neuroscientists are joining the quest to find out.
- The debate over whether or not humans have free will is centuries old and ongoing. While studies have confirmed that our brains perform many tasks without conscious effort, there remains the question of how much we control and when it matters.
- According to Dr. Uri Maoz, it comes down to what your definition of free will is and to learning more about how we make decisions versus when it is ok for our brain to subconsciously control our actions and movements.
- "If we understand the interplay between conscious and unconscious," says Maoz, "it might help us realize what we can control and what we can't."
Puerto Rico's iconic telescope facilitated important scientific discoveries while inspiring young scientists and the public imagination.
- The Arecibo Observatory's main telescope collapsed on Tuesday morning.
- Although officials had been planning to demolish the telescope, the accident marked an unceremonious end to a beloved astronomical tool.
- The Arecibo radio telescope has facilitated many discoveries in astronomy, including the mapping of near-Earth asteroids and the detection of exoplanets.
Bradley Rivera via twitter.com<p>In 1963, the concave dish was built into a natural sinkhole on the northern coast of Puerto Rico. The location was <a href="https://www.space.com/20984-arecibo-observatory.html" target="_blank">picked because it was near the equator,</a> providing scientists a clear view of planets passing overhead, and also of the ionosphere, which is the uniquely reactive layer of Earth's upper atmosphere where the northern lights form.</p><p>Since its construction, scientists have used the Arecibo telescope to map near-Earth asteroids, detect gravitational waves, study pulsars, detect exoplanets and <a href="https://www.seti.org/goodbye-arecibo" target="_blank">search for alien civilizations</a>, among other projects. Here's a brief look at some of the discoveries and accomplishments made using the Arecibo telescope:</p><ul><li>1964: Astronomer <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Pettengill" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Gordon Pettengill</a> discovers that Mercury's rotation period is 59 days, significantly shorter than the previous prediction of 88 days.</li><li>1974: Physicists Russell Alan Hulse and Joseph Hooton Taylor Jr. discovers the first binary pulsar, for which they won a Nobel Prize in Physics.</li><li>1974: Scientists use the telescope to transmit the "Arecibo message" to <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Globular_Cluster_in_Hercules" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">globular star cluster M13</a>. The message, when translated into image form, contains basic information about humanity and human knowledge: the numbers one to 10, a map of our solar system, an illustration of a human being, and the atomic numbers of certain elements.</li><li>1989: Scientists use the telescope to image an asteroid for the first time.</li><li>1992: Astronomers Alex Wolszczan and Dale Frail become the first to discover exoplanets.</li></ul>
The Google-owned company developed a system that can reliably predict the 3D shapes of proteins.