It’s been just over a decade since The Economist cheekily sat Rodin’s famous statue Le Penseur on a toilet, a little thought bubble above the statue´s head asking, “Will we ever invent anything this useful again?” The question refers to economist Robert Gordon’s so-called toilet test, which compares recent inventions—smartph­ones, nanotechnology, and social media—against those of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—toilets and indoor plumbing, water, and electricity—and asks which group proves more valuable. Gordon is solidly a toilet chauvinist. The Economist concurs, noting that while we may feel like we live in a time of great innovation, from gene therapy to machine learning, we have yet to “come up with an invention half as useful as…the humble loo.”

Gordon and the Economist are not alone in their enthusiasm for the flush toilet. Nobel-Prize winning economist Joseph Stieglitz remarks that “toilets and electricity were much more important than Facebook…those innovations really did change our standards of living.” Economist Tyler Cowen agrees: inventions like the toilet benefit “virtually everybody. . . If there were a new invention as important as the toilet, shareholders would not and could not appropriate most of the gains.” For innovation cheerleaders such as these economists, the toilet is a symbol of the best of what modernity has to offer: sanitation, ease, and quality of life for everyone. Given all these benefits, it’s hard not to sing the praises of the porcelain throne.

The flush toilet came about after the first centuries of modernity, which sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls “solid modernity.” Bauman argues that this form of modernity was characterized by efforts to liquefy previous institutions and replace them with solid and superior substitutes. Indoor plumbing would indeed appear to be one of solid modernity’s successes, a rational replacement to the open latrine pits of overcrowded urban squalor. You would be hard pressed to find a sturdier example of the improvements that modernists believed were possible.

The flush toilet, however, has symbolic appeal for modernity’s detractors too. They use it to explain modernity but for quite opposite reasons. While engineering know-how of toilets and the modern sewer systems they rely on are incredible, ultimately, they obscure the real costs of their use. Author Paul Kingsnorth puts it this way: “The modern toilet, the flush toilet, is a good metaphor for the civilization we’re living in. You crap into a pipe, you flush it away, and you never see it, you never have to deal with your own sh*t, and then you end up deep in it.”

Author Wendell Berry also casts doubt on the toilet miracle. He notes that if he relieved himself in a pitcher of drinking water and then drank from it, he would be considered off his rocker. And if he devised a costly technology to combine his human waste with his drinking water and then “invented another expensive (and undependable) technology to make the water fit to drink,” he might be considered even more foolish. The flush toilet creates the very concept of waste by putting our digestive remains in the wrong place (the water) and not where they belong (safely incorporated back into the land). There are alternatives to our elaborate, expensive, and ultimately shortsighted sanitation model—Paul Wheaton’sWillow Feeder” or Joseph Jenkin’s simple thermophilic compost toilet both eradicate parasites and pathogens and recycle human bioproducts so that they can then be used safely in our own backyardsbut, as Berry notes, these types of solutions would put the army of experts who make their living from sewage out of a job and, thus, stand little chance of being widely adopted.

The flush toilet is a wonderful vehicle for demonstrating how modernist solutions are exquisitely primed to turn assets into liabilities under the guise of progress while disconnecting us from the real implications of our actions. The solution creates new problems, which then require more innovation to solve, which in turn leads to new problems. Toilets flush away the nutrients needed to renew the fertility of the soil, in the process contaminating communities downstream. Even when we do understand the importance of closing the carbon cycle, the practice of spreading biosolids from wastewater treatment plants as fertilizer has led to the contamination of prime agricultural land with “forever” chemicals, including PFAS (per-and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals), which have been linked to a whole host of health problems. And, of course, flush toilets and sewage systems assume that communities have the financial resources and political stability to maintain them in good working order, which, given reports about the long-term success of humanitarian-aid sanitation projects, is a big if. NGOs boast about how many toilets they have installed but are much quieter when discussing how few are working a year later.

The flush toilet is an excellent metaphor for both the wonders and pitfalls of modernity, especially Bauman’s formulation of solid modernity. But the nature of modernity has changed. As Bauman argues, what many call post-modernity is better described as “liquid modernity,” which he explains “is the growing conviction that change is the only permanence, and uncertainty the only certainty. A hundred years ago ‘to be modern’ meant to chase ‘the final state of perfection’—now it means an infinity of improvement, with no ‘final state’ in sight and none desired.” Previously, the modernizing project sought to dissolve old structures, many of which were in various stages of decline or instability, and replace them with structures they hoped would prove more resilient and solid. However, as Bauman argues, modernity has become permanently liquid; it no longer seeks solid replacements to the pre-modern world but finds greater value in transience, not just of institutions and things, but of human relationships too.

As the nature of modernity has changed, the flush toilet can no longer reign supreme for understanding our current civilization. Fortunately, its replacement eagerly waits in the wings, an invention so wonderful that author Malcolm Gladwell has crowned it a “perfect innovation”: the disposable diaper.

For Gladwell, the highest taxonomic ranking of “perfect innovation” is reserved for inventions like the microchip, whose performance doesn’t suffer as it shrinks. A smaller smartphone is harder to use; a smaller television is harder to watch; but like the microchip, disposable diapers have shrunk while improving in function. Gladwell explains that by the mid-eighties, brand-name diapers had shrunk by fifty percent; over the next ten years, diapers shrank by a third more without sacrificing performance. Decreased diaper size produced other benefits too: it lowered shipping costs and reduced the amount of shelf space required to stock diapers, in turn easing supply-chain challenges, which then increased the likelihood that diapers would be in stock when desperate parents came looking; price stabilization allowed for more innovation, including the Velcro-like hook-and-loop fasteners that keep diapers snug. All these benefits were made possible by a diaper core made of superabsorbent polymers and an acquisition layer that wicked away a child’s urine (or insult, to use diaper-engineering terminology) from the child’s body while the polymers soaked it in.

It’s hard not to get swept away by Gladwell’s messianic fervor for the continual improvements that have revolutionized the disposable diaper, making it breathable, durable, able to withstand more “insults” without leakage, and able to wick moisture away from a baby in seconds. Gladwell is decidedly bullish on the innovation importance of the disposable diaper, placing it alongside microchips as the “embodiment of the technological age.” In fact, the subtitle of his article—“the disposable diaper and the meaning of progress”—makes it clear that Gladwell wants us to see the disposable diaper as synonymous with Progress itself.

Just like the modern flush toilet, the disposable diaper is an undeniably ingenious invention. It has many of the same drawbacks too. Diapers turn assets (humanure) into liabilities (hazardous waste)—only now it’s not just poop that the experts need to manage, but poop-encrusted plastic. The challenge of collecting, transporting, and dumping dirty diapers is difficult enough in places with adequate infrastructure, as evidenced by the fact that probably everyone has had to step around a fetid diaper or two in a parking lot. But getting diapers to the landfill is only part of the problem. Once safely deposited, diapers (and the other trash) must be continually monitored to avoid adversely affecting the surrounding area. Of particular concern is leachate, a noxious slurry formed from rain collecting all types of toxic industrial and putrescent waste (including from poopy diapers) as it percolates through landfills. It’s great job security for the experts—at least as long as the public funding to maintain landfills holds steady, since by our best estimates, diapers take centuries to decompose—but it’s a long-range environmental hazard.

For communities lacking the same sanitation-engineering resources to ship diapers out of sight and out of mind, the situation is more immediately dire. In Indonesia, for example, an estimated 1.5 million diapers a day are thrown into the Brantas River—the water source for six million people. Not surprisingly, plastic particles from diapers and other plastic goods are found in a majority of fish in the river and, consequently, in the Indonesian food supply. The problem is hardly limited to Indonesia. Disposable diaper waste is an acute problem throughout the world and a growing one in “emerging markets,” where disposable diaper manufacturers are increasingly focusing as fertility rates crumble in the postindustrial West. Philip Owen, who works for a water conservation group in South Africa, explains that “over 4 billion plastic diapers are sold every year in South Africa alone. As soon as people have a bit of money, they buy them…people end up with bags of dirty diapers and nowhere to go. So people dump bags next to the road.” In order to get rid of diapers, many localities lacking adequate waste management systems end up burning the diapers, releasing harmful chemicals into the air. Even if the diapers do end up in a landfill, many landfills in Africa and elsewhere are not sequestered with a non-permeable lining, and the fecal matter and chemicals of disposable diapers leach into the watershed, “leading to increased environmental degradation and escalating health risks,” not only from pathogens, but from the materials—plastics, adhesives, polymers—used to construct the super-absorbent wonder diapers beloved of Gladwell.

Concern for the toxicity of diaper components in landfills and watersheds invites questions about the prudence of putting those same materials next to a young child’s skin. Infant skin is more permeable than adult skin and therefore absorbs chemicals more easily. Additionally, babies are more vulnerable to chemical exposure because of their smaller body size and rapid growth. In 2019, the French Agency for Food, Environmental, and Occupational Health and Safety (ANSES) examined twenty-three diaper brands and found they contained phthalates, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), formaldehyde, pesticides, and other worrisome chemicals. Some of these chemicals are endocrine disruptors; others are carcinogenic. Significant exposure to VOCs can harm the kidneys, liver, and central nervous system. Not exactly baby-friendly materials.

In addition to their ecological and toxicological costs, diapers encourage delayed potty training, thanks to the same super-convenient, super-absorbent aspect that makes them such a wonder of innovation. Delayed potty training increases the likelihood of all kinds of misery for young children (and their parents): terrible diaper rashes, urinary tract infections, frequent urination, bedwetting, and abscesses (painful pockets of pus) on a child’s perineum or buttocks. Children also struggle to make the shift to defecating in the toilet after so many years of pooping in their diapers. In one study that followed the potty-training journey of 482 children in a suburban pediatric practice, close to a quarter of children spent more than a month refusing to poop in the toilet, preferring to poop in a diaper or their underwear instead. The medical establishment calls this condition stool toileting refusal, or STR, but the clinical term hardly reflects the nightmare parents face trying to potty train their children. Many times, children will wait to poop until they are put back in a diaper, either for nighttime or naps. Some children simply use their underwear instead of the toilet. This frustrating situation can easily create enmity between parent and child, not to mention it can snowball to other problems, as the child may become constipated. When the child finally does try to go, it’s painful, thus causing a terrible feedback loop: the child associates pooping in the toilet with pain, making them balk at using the toilet even more. Prolonged constipation can become so bad that the child’s rectum becomes overstretched and the child becomes less able to know when they need to poop. As the Mayo Clinic explains, encopresis, as this difficult condition is known, “typically … happens when impacted stool collects in the colon and rectum: The colon becomes too full and liquid stool leaks around the retained stool, staining underwear.”

The side effects of delayed potty training are not uncommon, but despite these increased negative outcomes, the age of potty training continues to climb. A 2021 UK survey compared the average age that children in the UK were potty trained between 2004 (the last time a similar survey was conducted) and 2020. The average age had risen from 2.5 years old to 3.5 years old. This survey tracks with the observations of pretty much any older adult: kids didn’t used to spend so long in diapers.

There are many factors influencing this increasingly delayed potty training, including the very hyperabsorbancy of diapers that Gladwell praises, which disconnects children from urination, making it difficult to recognize when they need to pee. Another factor has been the enormous influence of celebrity pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton, who advocated for a more relaxed approach to potty training, becoming “the face of Proctor and Gamble’s plus-size diaper” and receiving a healthy paycheck to head up the Pampers Parenting Institute. Disposable diapers also make it easy to procrastinate potty training because parents aren’t faced with the ever-present hassle of washing cloth diapers to motivate them. The disposable diaper’s value lies in its transience, its disposability. It’s literally in its name.

These diaper-induced problems should at least give us pause before conferring on diapers miracle status, but that’s only part of their problem. Their technological ingenuity and convenience obscure other costs that have become so ingrained in our cultural landscape of liquid modernity that we have all but ceased to recognize them. More than any other human invention, the disposable diaper illustrates the attenuation of interpersonal relations in liquid modernity. While flush toilets reveal how modernity has severed us from the land and the natural cycles that sustain us, diapers reveal how liquid modernity severs us from each other. As Bauman explains, one of the hallmarks of liquid modernity is that “brief encounters replace lasting engagements,” using the dissolution of commitment in marriage to distill liquid modernity’s character, as “marriages ‘til death us do part’ are decidedly out of fashion and have become a rarity; no more do the partners expect to stay long in each other’s company,” whether it’s a married couple or capital and labor. The dissolving of these ties “replicates the passage from marriage to ‘living together’ with all its corollary attitudes and strategic consequences, including the assumption of the temporariness of cohabitation and of the possibility that the association may be broken at any moment and for any reason, once the need or desire dries out.” In short, relationships have become disposable, ready to be chucked when convenient.

The fleeting commitments of liquid modernity lead to a precarity that humans are poorly equipped to handle. Diapers are both metaphor for the liquid modern life as well as essential tool in ensuring that the liquefaction of human bonds starts from the very beginning of life. But it’s hard to see how diapers integrate babies into liquid modernity without a baseline understanding of the inborn expectations a newborn baby brings with it.

Human babies come into this world quite helpless. This human vulnerability means infants rely completely on their caregivers to meet their needs. While these needs (mainly food, sleep, and comfort) are relatively simple, they are not easy for one person to provide. According to anthropologist Sarah Hrdy, the cooperative breeding of tight-knit hunter-gatherers improved survival rates for children and fostered cooperative approaches to child rearing. Children came to be reared not just by their parents but by other adult members of the group as well. Alloparent is the anthropological term for these other caregivers.

Babies are born expecting that their needs (including pottying) will be taken care of—promptly. If their needs aren’t met, they cry. How much they cry depends on the cultural practices of the community they were born into. In hunter-gatherer communities, babies spend very little time crying. As scholar Jared Diamond explains, “if an Efe Pygmy infant starts to fuss, the mother or some other caregiver tries to comfort the infant within 10 seconds. If a !Kung infant cries, 88 percent of crying bouts receive a response within 3 seconds, and almost all bouts receive a response within 10 seconds.” Babies in hunter-gatherer communities have little need to cry in part because they stay in close proximity to caregivers who can promptly satisfy their needs (the ratio of adults to children is on average four to one). These observations track with author Jean Liedloff’s experiences living with the Ye’kuana in the Amazon. Liedloff observed similar baby care techniques, leading her to theorize that the earliest stage of infancy is the “in-arms stage,” where baby is carried everywhere, carried not just in mother’s arms, but in many pairs of capable arms that are consistently and constantly part of baby’s life. In arms, baby is integrated into a moral and physical community with shared values and expectations. The presence of alloparents means that the care of baby is not an isolating responsibility shouldered by mother alone.

A baby, by nature, is a pre-modern creature. Babies haven’t changed, but the world they are born into has been radically refashioned, with the result that it is far more difficult to meet babies’ inborn expectations. Unlike their pre-modern counterparts, modern babies can go hours without anyone attending to their cries. One of the under-recognized challenges for new mothers and fathers in the industrial and postindustrial world is the near impossibility of making up for the alloparents and the moral community that have almost completely vanished. Bereft of the extra arms in which our babies should be carried in, we resort to artificial alloparents instead. Since there’s usually no loving auntie to hand baby off to anymore, mother or father puts baby in a bouncer to try to get a few things done before baby starts squawking again. There is no end to human ingenuity in inventing devices to compensate for our missing alloparents: bouncers, bottles, bumbos, blankies, pacifiers, mobiles, monitors, playpens, jumpers, walkers, highchairs, electronic baby shushers, crib tents, baby gyms, strollers, screens, car seats, toys, and, if you have the financial resources, high-end vibrating-rocking-and-white-noise-making bassinets. For every pair of alloparent arms that disappears, a multitude of market opportunities emerges. Most baby care products, including diapers, are a replacement for some kind of human connection.

Perhaps the environmental and physiological costs of diapers could be more understandably justified if babies really had no abilities in the potty arena, but babies are more capable than most of us realize and can communicate their potty needs. Babies also don’t enjoy sitting in their own urine and feces. They cry when their diaper feels wet or soiled, and they want to get rid of the discomfort as quickly as possible. We have to potty train children only because we diaper trained them first, and it’s rather pathological that we get frustrated when they are only insisting on continuing to do what we have taught them to do so well.

Despite being so deeply ingrained in our culture that they have become synonymous with babies, diapers have not always been a part of babyhood. In fact, there are still communities that don’t rely on diapers, where parents (and alloparents and older children) can tell based on a baby’s communication that they need to relieve themselves. A Western observer who helped run a medical clinic in Uganda described watching lines of women with babies, waiting for hours to be seen, and without fail, none of the babies were soiled, and none of the babies wore diapers. The miraculous nature of so many clean, diaperless babies finally prompted this Western woman to ask the Ugandan women how they did it. “We just go to the bushes,” the Ugandan women answered. Still not fully comprehending the situation, the Western woman asked them how they knew when the babies needed to go. The Ugandan women replied, “How do you know when you have to go?”

The communication pattern between caregivers and babies was so embedded in this community that it was second nature. This is not an anomaly. Families throughout history have understood that babies can communicate when they need to relieve themselves, although they have had a wide variety of strategies to handle baby potty needs. Knowing when a baby needs to go eliminates a significant amount of guesswork from baby care. It allows adults to understand common baby patterns that otherwise seem capricious: for instance, if baby starts to fuss just after nursing, it’s probably because baby needs to pee. If parents understand this normal pattern, both they and baby avoid a significant amount of frustration.

For the mother in a rich communal environment, paying attention to a child’s potty needs provides many benefits. It strengthens the relationship between child and community; it keeps the baby calmer and easier to care for; and it saves resources by not needing to buy expensive disposable diapers or wash cloth diapers. In contrast, in a materially rich but socially poor environment, paying attention to a child’s potty communication is a disruption to a family’s modernized rhythms. It doesn’t help that, in the modern world, baby is generally not “in arms,” so adults are less able to be in tune with baby. Even if baby is held a fair amount of time, the interpretative skill required to understand baby’s potty communication was lost generations ago, and there’s a real learning curve to remastering those skills. Additionally, the immediate cost of diapers is less in relation to the cost of interruption to daily life that listening to a baby would incur. It’s easier to finish other tasks and let baby soil its diaper before attending to baby’s potty needs. And since most time in the modern world is spent indoors or in vehicles, the diaper also helps protect expensive furnishings, such as carpets or upholstery, from getting ruined by an accident.

We have traded a valuable line of communication to our children for plastic poop wraps. Such a tradeoff may be perfectly understandable for surviving our cultural landscape (baby pottying is a pretty big job for just one adult living mostly indoors to manage successfully), especially with concerns about sanitation, but it is an exchange we have made nonetheless, and there are real costs, both to baby and to the natural world.

Raising children in a modernized world is full of these unconscious decisions, resulting in a steady accretion of practices that push us to rely more and more on artificial alloparents and less and less on each other. How we raise our children reflects our cultural mores and in turn prepares our children for the cultural world they will likely inherit. Ethnopediatric anthropologist Meredith Small demonstrates how different childrearing practices shed light on what a culture values by using a comparison of Gusii and American mothers. Gusii (in Eastern Africa) mothers avoid speaking much to their babies, believing such verbal stimulation promotes “self-centeredness, a characteristic unwanted in a family-oriented economy where sharing and belonging are paramount.” In contrast, American mothers feel pressure to provide significant verbal stimulation for their babies, with the hope that such an approach will produce a “smart, successful child in a society that favors independence and self-reliance.”

As Small observes, independent children are, in general, a priority for Western parents. But here I’d like to offer a gentle corrective. What we call independence is not so much independence as dependence on artificial alloparents instead of other human beings. Diapers represent the replacement of human connection and skill with plastic and technology. A baby in diapers isn’t actually more independent; it’s just dependent on a thing instead of a person.

Diapers are among the most essential of artificial alloparents. What was once a luxury for the better-off, disposable diapers are so necessary that we hold diaper drives to make sure that poor people can take care of their babies. The liquid modern world may be materially rich, but it is desperately people poor. In fact diapers, in concert with countless other artificial alloparents, teach children that human inventions and technology are more reliable than other human beings. Disposable diapers are key in training our pre-modern babies to fit into the rootless, isolating, never-settled world of liquid modernity. An infant’s potty needs add a lot of friction to the liquid modernist ideal of free movement, so disposable diapers act as a kind of oil that keeps the gears running smoothly; through diapers, baby is transformed into a frictionless object that can easily be transferred from one place to another without much disruption. Babies may have to sit uncomfortably in their poop for some time, but adults can get from point A to B without too much stress or mess. This has been part of the appeal of disposable diapers from the beginning: early advertisements touted not just how disposable diapers eliminated the labor of cleaning cloth diapers but how they were essential amenities for traveling with a baby. Disposable diapers freed up families, especially mothers, to go on vacation and visit family that lived farther away. They promised increased mobility and freedom for the adults caring for children.

As diapers reduce the friction of traveling by modern transport (car, bus, plane, train) with a baby, they also reduce the need for baby to be cared for by adults in tune with their needs. Babies are certainly capable of communicating when they need to go, but that line of communication doesn’t transfer automatically from caregiver to caregiver, especially in daycare, where children vastly outnumber adults. Since the level of communication between child and caregiver has dramatically diminished, diapers are needed to catch baby’s waste, which will, hopefully, be promptly addressed, but as the adult is able and willing (and there are plenty of stories about babies sitting in a mess because someone was just too tired or busy or lazy to promptly change the diaper). Given the ratio of childcare workers to children in institutionalized care settings, it would be next to impossible for workers to manage the potty needs of diaper-free little charges. Diapers mean far fewer adults need be involved in the care of babies—an efficient allocation of human resources for a market- and machine-oriented culture perhaps, but one that comes with the loss of sustained, responsive human relationships. Diapers allow relationships to become more interchangeable, something that is taught early and often.

Perhaps nowhere do babies more acutely express their pre-modern needs than in their difficulties establishing a sleep routine that makes the adults in their lives happy. Modern life is not set up to accommodate infant sleep habits, and it makes no allowances for the parents who wake up around the clock to care for their little night owls. No matter how many times you were up in the night, you still have to be to work on time. So it’s no wonder that parents turn to the highly popular, highly controversial practice of sleep training, also known as “crying it out,” “the extinction method,” or whatever new euphemism is in vogue. While there are various styles of sleep training, the basic idea is that babies are left in a room alone in their cribs to “cry it out,” teaching babies that their parents are not coming back until the morning, so there’s no use in waking up at night. Sometimes it works, and baby magically starts sleeping through the night. Sometimes it doesn’t, and parents are horrified that they let their baby scream for hours for nothing.

The very idea of expecting everyone to sleep through the night is a very recent concept in human history. As the historian Roger Ekirch explains, before widespread artificial light, it was the norm to go to bed for several hours, wake up and be up for a while, and then go back for a “second” sleep. Our nighttime sleeping has only been consolidated as our lives have come to be oriented towards machines and artificial light in the industrial age. Wakeful babies fit much more easily into pre-modern human sleep patterns, and so most of us find it necessary to forcibly fit these pre-modern creatures into the liquid modern world by leaving them to cry themselves to sleep.

No matter the outcome of sleep training, it would be unthinkable to expect a little baby to go unattended all night without diapers. Babies are probably going to need to use the potty sometime during the night, but thanks to superabsorbent night diapers, baby’s multiple “insults” over the course of the night will be wicked away; baby isn’t bothered by its potty needs, and parents aren’t bothered by baby. It’s safe to say that without hyper-absorbent diapers, the idea of a baby sleeping alone all night in its own room is impossible. There is no sleep training without diapers.

Diaper-facilitated practices, such as frictionless travel, institutionalized childcare, and sleep training are essential experiences for prepping children for the world they will inherit. Becoming comfortable with (or at least inured to) rootlessness, transitory relationships, and isolation are important skills for living comfortably in the liquid modern world. It’s a harbinger of our final years too. Babies learn to sit in dirty diapers until someone, often a stranger, comes to change them, as so many babies spend time in some sort of institutionalized care arrangement. Fast forward to the retirement home, or institutionalized care for the old, where once again, we wait for strangers to come relieve us of our soggy burdens. Liquid modernity is, for the majority of us, a great circle of plastic poop wraps. We are born into dirty diapers, and we will leave in dirty diapers.

If diapers are among the best of modernity’s inventions, something as close to perfection as Gladwell would have us believe, then we’ve been had. We’ve traded ecological and generational wealth to follow the will-o’-the-wisp into a mire of stinking, toxic landfill leachate. Unfortunately, it’s not simply a matter of stepping away from the quagmire back onto solid ground. Even if you can contemplate the value of being so in tune with your child that you know they are communicating that they are about to pee, it is not easy to integrate the practice into your life. Even if you dislike the deracinated and disconnected way most of us live, becoming a master of your baby’s potty cues alone is not going to turn back the tide of liquid modernity. It is just one (if powerful) illustrative piece of a culture that prizes technological innovation over human relationships.

Besides, it’s no easy task for us liquid moderns to adopt a practice (no matter how valuable) from an intact moral community brimming with supportive alloparents and helpful older children. You are just as likely to run yourself ragged as you try to do the work of many hands with only one or two pairs. Not surprisingly, many champions of baby pottying are the crunchy upper crust of American society, who have the financial and social capital to practice it.

Nevertheless, chucking the diaper is one of the best ways to stand firm against liquid modernity and its dissolving effect on kith and kin. Getting rid of diapers and learning to listen to your baby’s cues jams the humming gears of modernity quite effectively. Fitting yourself into the rhythms of a new baby instead of the rhythms of liquid modern life provides an unparalleled opportunity to pare away your reliance on technological wizardry, and it will illuminate the artificial human replacements that you had previously (and often unconsciously) taken for granted.

If ditching the diapers sounds like a lot of work, remember that the way you raise your child is preparation for the world they are likely to inherit. By forging deep connections and communication patterns, you are raising your child for a world that does not exist. In fact, sensitivity to one another’s needs and deep connection to people and place is a supreme liability in this liquid modern world. So your next task is to build a community and way of life where these core values of connection can serve as assets, not liabilities. Good luck.

Image credit: via Wikimedia Commons

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  1. It was great to read old news about African mothers sensitive to a baby’s rumbling digestive system and pre-streetlamp sleep patterns in Europe. But this ambitiously comprehensive essay rambled on and on with vague assertions, such as this declaration: “Since the level of communication between child and caregiver has dramatically diminished…”

    What’s the evidence? Less directi communication about bodily needs? The whole point of encouraging kids to verbalize is not to distract them from their bodies (which can happen as a side effect) but to make them capable of relating to strangers. Isn’t that what “inclusiveness” is about? How else does one balance a worldview rooted in the tribalism of relying entirely on “alloparents”?

    I also was turned off by the endless repetition of the unproven dichotomy liquid vs solid. Are we liquid? If so, then why is there such a strong tendency now to cling to identity tags as solid concepts that determine social interaction?

    • “why is there such a strong tendency now to cling to identity tags as solid concepts that determine social interaction?”

      This should be fairly obvious. If the traditional solidities are softening one will grab hold of what one can. That doesn’t mean that what is reached out for is necessarily more stable. “Identity tags” might be perceived as “solid concepts,” but that doesn’t make the perception accurate.

      The tendency to cling to what appears to be solid is an innate human trait. The ability to get it right, not so much.

      • Thanks, Rob. Yes the *tendency* is obvious. I suppose I should have been more definitive in my rebuttal: why are identity tags so solid now?

        The inaccuracy of perception might be a deeper truth. However, we are surrounded by presumed “solid” which has had unforgiving and even career-destroying effects on people. To me, that seems as obvious as the presumed “liquid” we perceive in regard to consumerism, etc.

  2. This is actually something Bauman explores. As so much of life is liquified, there is an imbalance between an individual’s freedom and security. “The brittleness and transience of bonds may be an unavoidable price for individuals’ right to pursue their individual goals, and yet it cannot but be, simultaneously, a most formidable obstacle to pursue them effectively.” As a result, Bauman says this vulnerability encourages people to tie themselves to essentialized identity groups, which provide the promise of a secure harbor that ultimately proves superficial.

    Bauman quotes Eric Hobsbawm: “Never was the word ‘community’ used more indiscriminately and emptily than in the decades when communities in sociological sense become hard to find in real life.” “Men and women look for groups to which they can belong, certainly and forever, in a world in which all else is moving and shifting, in which nothing else is certain.” And Bauman also cites Jock Young’s summary of Hobsbawm’s analysis: “Just as community collapses, identity is invented.”

    While I agree with all of these observations, I would add that some of the identities that people hold fast to (especially as of late) are desired in part because of their liquid nature. In one essay from the 2011 book Papa, PhD, one father writes, “My son reported to me that gender is so complex that there are a hundred genders, and that we can morph through twenty of them in a single morning.” I don’t think it’s simply a coincidence that such a perspective has gained currency among a significant number of those raised for a liquid modern life.

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