What is connection between a roman emperor, a book by Sally Magnusson, world food price crisis of 2008, the mining industry of Morocco and dutch street urinals?

Stay with me for the next 1600 words or so and I will tell you in several installments.

If you are mystified, let me explain. I am quite fond of the BBC documentary series "Connections". This is the reason for the somewhat mysterious introduction - I tried to mimic Burke’s "Connections". If you never saw the show, here is the idea: sometimes bizarre connections between events or people lead to unforeseen chain of consequences.

So, let’s take each of my bizarre connections in turn and see if I can make you interested.


Bust of Emperor Vespasian

The starting point of this series of connections can be traced to one of the roman emperors, namely Vespasian. When Vespasian came to power after a short but brutal civil war Rome was bankrupt and the city itself partially destroyed. It speaks a lot about his administrative abilities that in less than a decade Rome recovered its looks and, more importantly, recovered financially.

A parisian urinal  known as 'vespasienne'

Vespasian is known to have struggled to improve public sanitation even before his time as an emperor; his hands-on experience with public building and street maintenance in Rome made him an utter pragmatic and possibly gave him later the idea to tax urine collection. Because urine collection was so lucrative and indispensable as a cleaning agent the tax return was very significant. It may well be that recycling human waste helped restore the Roman Empire to economic well being. Somehow, Vespasian’s name came to be so strongly associated with public sanitation, that even today it lives on in the french word “vespasiennes” - referring to french public urinals.

We can readily understand the need for public sanitation. But why was urine so important commercially?

Urine - a most versatile commodity

Cover of the book 'Life of Pee' by Sally Magnusson

Urine was a very important commodity for most of human history. Used as a detergent; used in food industries as diverse as baking or ale production; used in animal skin processing; dye fixing or gunpowder production; early paper mills or as a fertilizer; in medicine or in art; in textile industry or in making beautiful stained glass - the list can go on and on.

It is only rather recently that we started flushing it out or sight and out of mind. Not so long ago, however, urine was central to many commercial activities and was a money maker, as Vespasian was keen to note. To remind the modern creatures walking on the same old planet what urine meant during most of our history, Sally Magnusson wrote a book called "Life of the Pee - the story of how urine got everywhere" - immensely entertaining and humorous but no less true for all of that.

The book was published in 2010, two years after a food price explosion that shook the world and gave us a glimpse of what food shortage at affordable prices can lead to. Which brings us to 2008 and the link between food and rock phosphate price.

I would like to hear what YOU think. Please share your opinion (even more so if you do not agree)!

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