Everyone Poops: Consumer Virtues and Excretory Anxieties in Locke’s Theory of Property

Political Theory 50 (5):673-699 (2022)
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It is a problem that the environment is often seen and treated as a reservoir of resources awaiting human use. How did this outlook arise? This essay analyzes a formative moment in the constitution of the environment as a buffet of goods to be consumed: seventeenth-century efforts by agricultural improvers, including John Locke, to eradicate waste. Locke’s theory of property prohibits the wasteful spoilage of food and charges mankind with a responsibility to cultivate, incorporate, and thereby appropriate earth’s nonhuman eatables—what I call his “partition of the digestible.” But eating both underwrites and unhinges Lockean property rights, for all food contains materials that cannot be used by the body and must be excreted from it. Poop and pee serve as visible reminders that consumption is inhabited by, and thus cannot resolve, waste. Even the improvers’ ostensible solution of repurposing excrement as manure to produce more food just creates more waste: this “peristaltic circle,” as I describe it, is voracious and expansive. Circular waste-eradication projects are best understood as enabling preconditions for the wastefulness of linear, take-make-waste political economies, not their antidote.



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