Monday, 12 May 2008

Tackling a taboo

A while back, in the Victorian waterbeds post, I mentioned Dr Neil Arnott. He was an extremely talented polymath, known particularly in his time for his popularisation of science, Elements of Physics (aka Elements of physics, or, Natural philosophy, general and medical : explained independently of technical mathematics, and containing new disquisitions and practical suggestions, in two volumes - they went for snappy titles in those days). He was also massively influential in the field of public health, though in a way that in hindsight achieved the right result for the wrong reasons.

The work of Joseph Bazalgette in setting up London's sewerage system is well-known. What's less known is that the impetus was based in a pre-germ theory: the miasma theory that disease was caused by bad smell (a view that persisted well after statistical evidence showed relevant diseases, particularly cholera, to be water-borne). Arnott was one of the supporters of Edwin Chadwick, the leading proponent of this view (see Death and miasma in Victorian London: an obstinate belief and City Chaos, Contagion, Chadwick, and Social Justice). Also less known is that, counterintuitively, London's problems as a growing city furthermore stemmed from the uptake of apparently improved sanitation in affluent households: the water closet. Sewers and other watercourses that originally carried rainwater down to the Thames now carried sewage, leading to pollution that culminated in the 'Great Stink' of 1858.

In this historical light, Dave Praeger's book Poop Culture looks worth checking out. He argues that taboo and perceived social betterment, not improvement of sanitation, led to the growth of the water closet; and that such taboos still apply now, and are damaging to rational approaches to sanitation. His blog, for instance, tells of Orange County’s solution: ending the marriage of poop and water: a story of how taboo creates recycling inefficiency in water-scarce California by favouring water perceived to be cleaner over readily available clean water. Not for the squeamish, but as Praeger says, "Two hundred years of propaganda have gone into making you uncomfortable with the subject of this book".


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