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economics General Politics Technology

Until it Stinks

Sir Joseph Bazalgette may have saved more English lives in Victorian England than any other single man.  I bet you never heard of him.

You need to know about Joseph Bazalgette because, perhaps in the future, a new Bazalgette will be remembered in the same way that he is, for saving us from global warming.  For the same reason: because the stink has become overwhelming.

There are profound similarities between Victorian-era London and the entire world today.  Victorian-era London had a major problem: it had millions of people living in close quarters who were all generating a lot of shit.  They were enjoying the convenience of not having to take any expensive measures to deal with their shit.  They just dumped it into the city drains and the drains dumped it into the Thames and from the Thames it came back.  Yes it did.  The tides and the variations in the flow of the Thames caused all that excrement to wash back up onto the shoreline where it splashed about and eventually worked its way into the drinking water and food and into the mouths of children.

This was not merely distasteful: it was poisonous.  People died of cholera and other diseases, and the smell was absolutely terrible.

Think about the government of that city.  When did it finally think that it might not be such a good idea to dump all of their shit into the river?  The truth is they always knew it was a bad idea.   They just didn’t have the courage to make the tough decisions required to do otherwise, including raising taxes to pay for what was needed.

What was needed was a massive complex system of pumps and reservoirs that took all the human waste and channeled it further out into the river at low tide.  It’s never been clear to me why this didn’t backfire as well, but it didn’t, and the system worked pretty well until they finally figured out a way to dump it into the North Sea.  Joseph Bazalgette designed and built that system.  I hope there is a statue of him somewhere in London.

You may wonder whether dumping it all into the North Sea was much of an improvement.  Well, it was for the people of London.

In any case, the similarities to climate change are uncanny.  And the lesson learned is simple.  People are too stupid to make modest measures in time to save themselves from having to take drastic measures when it is almost too late.  As the Marshall Islands sink into the sunset we can only wish that it would produce a stink that would envelop Wall Street and Washington.

Unlike London’s shit, climate change may not be so forgiving.  There is no way to take the carbon and dump it further out from the earth’s atmosphere.