In what are now the great capitals of Europe it was considered normal behavior to throw one’s waste into the street. In some cases the collection of this human waste was irregular and considered of only minor importance to the overall function of the metropolis. As time passed and the scale of the issue (pun intended) grew in tandem with the suspicion that there was some connection between the practice and the crisis relating to public health formalized procedures for waste collection grew, and finally, in some cases only well into the XIX century, sewage systems were built at tremendous public expense.
The topic of waste, from human to animal to industrial, in the modern city is an interesting one and one about which I have only read tangentially; I am certainly no expert on the topic. Drawing a parallel, however, between Industrial Age fecal waste and disease, and 21st century CO2 and climate change seems fairly simple and straightforward.
Just as with human waste no one ever found the exhaust of fossil fuel combustion to be pleasant, but tossing it haphazardly into the public sphere for many seemed to adequately dilute its repugnance. Over time the growth of the civilization(s) producing the waste made both prior behaviors and prior tolerances inadequate relative to the amount of waste produced. Just, for example, as only the most enlightened Parisians could see the value of a thoroughgoing waste process, as most complained bitterly about the tremendous expense, today there are some who perceive more completely the importance of tackling the issues surrounding global warming, while others complain that doing so is throwing gobs of money at a non existent problem.
Seriously, think of it. People walked out their doors and ambled along streets made filthy with human excrement and not only thought “Yeah, I can live with this”, but aggressively fought against efforts to improve the situation. In one hundred years, in two hundred years I think that people will look back on the latter XX and early XXI centuries and our attitudes toward air pollution in much the same way that we look back on the shit laden urbs of the XVII.
However that may be, imagine being that person who doesn’t mind the feces in the streets. Imagine being told that perfectly good pavements, pavements that would last decades if not centuries, were to be torn up only to be rebuilt with a hugely expensive, much more expensive than the road system itself, system of underground tunnels that you would never see just to carry off an effluent that you were completely inured to anyway! Ridiculous!
Now imagine being the person who understood that the viability of the entire system in the long term, given the continued creation and agglomeration of waste and its negative feedbacks, was dependent upon making adequate accommodations for removing and processing that waste. You would be right to reject the arguments of the pro poop-in-the-streets crowd, you would be correct in thinking that the enormous investment in an altered infrastructure was rational, reasonable, and necessary.
Another point of comparison between the two gets to the heart of the problem with both a laissez faire economic model and democratic governance; because the costs (disease, climate change) accrue to everyone equally going to great pains to remove your waste from the public sphere does nothing for you unless everyone does so, and both waste streams could not be removed from the public sphere without a large public investment. The solution to Madrid’s waste problem wasn’t 14,000 septic tanks, it was a sewer system.
This isn’t meant to be an essay on rail vs automobile transportation per se, but re-densifying and producing more wealth with less energy is obligatory if we plan to keep the project of civilization going at any level. Investing in enormously expensive but remarkably efficient electrified steel wheel public transit, for example, while removing subsidies for all but the most necessary rubber wheeled roadways would be one strategy for reducing co2 waste from the air. It is top-down, and non incremental. It is also, using just the math of energy efficiency relative to transportation, one of the few ways to perpetuate modernity. Keeping all the roads paved and using an individual internal combustion engines, or even individual electric vehicles running on rubber tires and asphalt roads to effectuate every commercial, social, political, and educational interaction is the equivalent of throwing our crap onto the street.
We need to be able to do nearly everything we need to do by walking, biking, and as a last resort, taking mass transit. Waiting for 100,000,000 driverless electrified uber cars won’t do it. Pinch points, peak times, and above all, energy profligacy, make the endeavor nothing more than a distraction. Rearranging life so that we don’t need personalized mobility devices is what has to happen, and “market signals” have already proven too slow to spark the necessary transformation.
I see it happening in the Knowledge Corridor; from New Haven to Holyoke there is now an archipelago of renovated train stations and platforms connected with updated rails. Increased daily service is set to begin and electrification should follow soon after that. Most people view the entire process as a huge waste of money; why would anyone want to go from New Haven to Springfield on a a choo-choo when, vroom, vroom, we’ve got cars to do it?
They are one version of modern day poop-in-the-streeters.