Why the World’s Greenest Bathroom is Also the Dirtiest

A few weeks ago, I drove down to San Diego to hike the Torrey Pines trail.

While the trail was as scenic as advertised, there were two moments of unpleasantness. The first was the discovery that the bathrooms at the trailhead were closed and thus hikers would have to use porta-potties, with the lack of sanitation and presence of noxious odors they invariably entail.

But for me, the far more unpleasant moment was seeing propaganda from the porta-potty company telling me that I was doing a good thing for the environment by going through this ordeal.


“Every day, portable restrooms save 125 million gallons of fresh water.” Thus, by using a bathroom with no flushing and no sink and thus no sanitation, I was being green–which is supposed to be good.

Well, they’re right, I was being green–but that’s a bad thing.

To be green is to minimize our impact on the environment, including to minimize our use of resources like water. And bathrooms with no running water use less water than those with running water.

But is that something to celebrate? Should I have celebrated the fact that the porta-potty’s nonexistent sink used less water than a sink that would have actually enabled me to clean my hands?

I say no–we should aspire to a world where portable bathrooms are less necessary and, when they are necessary, they are far higher quality with running water. (I learned that these existed when I spoke at an event at a remote location that featured numerous celebrities who, understandably, did not want to use a porta-potty.)

A world with better bathrooms would surely mean more water usage–and that would be a good thing. A good thing, that is, if human flourishing is our goal.

But if being green–minimizing our environmental impact, including our use of resources–is the ideal, then the porta-potty is a morally superior form of bathroom. If being green is the ideal, it was a moral mistake to abandon the outhouse–or the hole in the ground.

Being green doesn’t mean being clean, since life in nature is filthy. Being green fundamentally means being anti-human, since human beings survive by massively impacting our environment, including transforming much of nature’s dirtiness into cleanliness.

One of the core premises of the green philosophy is that if we freely pursue human flourishing, we will inevitably be inefficient, wasting and ultimately losing valuable substances such as clean water. Hence it is considered a virtue to “save” things–such as the 125 million gallons of fresh water porta-potty users allegedly “save.”

This is wrong. Free people pursuing their own flourishing have every incentive to be efficient–that is to create more and more while having to spend fewer resources per created unit, as might be achieved by, say, using non-potable water in toilets or using waterless urinals.

But even more importantly, free people are resource creators: we figure out how to take nature’s unlimited stockpile of matter and energy and transform it into usable resources. This is what we have done with once-useless oil, natural gas, uranium, and aluminum, for example. With water, we can turn naturally dirty water into clean water, we can transport clean water from where it is to where it’s needed, and in the future we will be able to purify ocean water on a large scale.

I believe we should approach the world around us with a happy combination of creativity and efficiency, knowing that abundance can be ours. That attitude will bring about a world of plenty and cleanliness–not a green world, but a human world.