Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Ghost Map

Steven Johnson’s book, The Ghost Map, is a thoroughly researched, very interesting, and well written historical detective story.  It describes how Dr. John Snow proved that cholera was a waterborne disease, during an 1854 epidemic in London.  In those days, nobody knew that tiny invisible life forms, in a nice cool glass of water, could pull the curtains on your existence in a most unpleasant way.

At the time, London was suffering from a population explosion, soaring from one million in 1800, to 2.4 million in 1851 (5 million in 1900, now 14 million).  Its infrastructure was totally inadequate for the huge mob.  “It was a kind of permanent, rolling disaster, a vast organism destroying itself by laying waste to its habitat.”  One question tormented the minds of urban bureaucrats: “What are we going to do with all this shit?”  London had become the biggest city in the world, and the biggest city in human history.  To cholera bacteria, heaven looks like dense crowds of people who are unclever at sanitation.  Joy!

The domestication of grain in the Fertile Crescent was a half-clever blooper that enabled humans to exist in densities that were unnatural, unhealthy, and crazy-making.  Cholera apparently emerged in Asia in about 500 B.C.  Much later, in the age of steamships and locomotives, both people and pathogens could travel great distances at speeds never before possible.  Cholera arrived in Europe in 1829, advanced to Britain in 1831, and then sailed across the Atlantic to Montreal in 1832.  Boats and trains rapidly spread it across Canada and the U.S.  In the past two centuries, seven pandemics have spread cholera around the world.  The seventh began in 1961, and is still killing today.

In the old days, filthy cities were population sinks — the death rate exceeded the birth rate.  Child mortality was very high.  An analysis of 1842 data found that 62 percent of recorded deaths were children under 5.  The upper class life expectancy was 45, and for commoners it was their mid-20s.  Another source noted that in 1750, the population increase in all of England was cancelled by the high mortality of London.  Urban population levels were maintained by a steady inflow of rural peasants who had been forced off the common lands to make room for sheep, and refugees from the famine in Ireland.

Johnson described 1850s London as a city that wasted little.  Thousands of underclass scavengers did a remarkable job of recycling.  They included “bone pickers, rag gatherers, pure finders, dredgermen, mud larks, sewer hunters, dustmen, night soil men, bunters, toshers, shoremen.”  Pure finders gathered dog turds (“pure”) and sold them to tanneries.

Londoners got their water from shallow wells in their neighborhoods.  Sewage and other wastes were stored in cesspools.  When your cesspool was full, the night soil men hauled the dreck out to farms, where it was applied to fields.  As the city expanded, the distance to farms increased, as did the cost of removal.  So, more and more stinky muck remained in town.  Dung heaps grew to the size of large houses.  The entire city had a powerfully intoxicating aroma.  Parliament had to shut down during a heat wave 1858, when the flowing sewer known as the Thames River emitted the Great Stink.

The center stage of Johnson’s book was a well pump at 40 Broad Street, in the Soho district.  Near the end of August 1854, the six month old daughter of the Lewis family got sick and died.  Her soiled diapers went into the cesspool, and caused the biggest cholera outbreak in London history.  The cesspool was only accessible to the Lewis family.  Other tenants in the building “tossed their waste out the windows into the squalid courtyard at the back of the house.”  The cesspool was in the cellar, and the brick-lined well was just 32 inches (81 cm) away.  Oh-oh!

A thousand people used the pump.  Ironically, the water was clearer than water from other pumps in the neighborhood, and many preferred it.  In less than two weeks, 700 nearby people were dead.  Cholera symptoms included an upset stomach and rocket diarrhea.  When this happened, you might turn blue and be dead within 48 hours.  To become infected, you had to ingest more than a million bacteria, via contaminated water.  Stomach acid killed almost all of them.  If survivors entered your intestines, you might soon be joining your neighbors for a ride in the dead cart.

With the exception of Dr. Snow, all the experts agreed that the cause of cholera was miasma — stinky air.  Poor Dr. Snow was cursed with an ability to engage in critical thinking.  If the entire city smelled like shit, why did cholera only occur in isolated clusters?  Why did the sewer hunters, who spent their days wading in filthy muck looking for lost valuables, not die like flies?

Much of the book is a tragi-comical soap opera about the astonishing stupidity of experts.  Since miasma was certainly the cause of the problem, the solution was to move the stink elsewhere.  So, in the name of public health, they built sewer systems, and directed the smelly crud into river.  Before long, “the Thames had been transformed from a fishing ground teeming with salmon to one of the most polluted waterways in the world.”  Meanwhile, the epidemics continued.

In this era, private water companies were also growing, in response to the trendy flush toilet fad (flushes filled cesspools even faster).  There was no unified city plan.  So, it was not uncommon for water company intake pipes to be a bit downstream from sewer system discharge pipes.  Guess what happened.

Anyway, after much study, Dr. Snow concluded that the water from the Broad Street pump was somehow killing people.  The experts howled, shrieked, and called him a bloody nutjob.  He drew a map showing the location of the neighborhood pumps, and added a black mark for each cholera death, at the location of their residence — the “ghost map.”  Yikes!  Luckily, Snow convinced a respected pastor in the neighborhood, and they managed to get permission to remove the pump handle.  The deaths soon tapered off.

Meanwhile, Mr. Lewis, the father of the dead baby, also died.  Mrs. Lewis dumped his filth in the cesspool in the cellar.  If the handle had not been removed, the epidemic would have raged on.  The accuracy of Snow’s theory was supported by obvious smoking gun evidence and numerous eyewitnesses.  Yet, even after he made this revolutionary discovery, and curtailed the epidemic, the experts continued to ridicule him.  His achievement wasn’t honored until years after his death.

As I write, many in America’s ruling class refuse to believe that human activities are accelerating climate change.  Many consider them to be shameless loudmouth liars, because it’s impossible for anyone to actually be so stupid.  Really?

I enjoyed the book until the Epilogue, when it hit a patch of banana peels.  Johnson, a proud resident of the utopia of Brooklyn, praises the excellent cities in developed countries.  Birth rates are low, life expectancies are high, incomes are huge, health care is great, the technology is state of the art, well-educated residents are very cool people, the food and entertainment are amazing, and the environmental footprint is much smaller than in the suburbs.  Eventually, everyone will live in wonderful cities, and enjoy excellent lives.  Hooray!

The tone is mostly upbeat, but he does acknowledge that we may experience some problems in the coming years — climate change, energy limits, warfare, influenza pandemics, and so on.  Don’t worry!  Things also looked bleak in 1854 — but the experts saved them!  The global challenges in 2018 are many orders of magnitude worse.  There are now three megacities with populations over 30 million.  In many regions today, conditions are fairly similar to 1854, or worse.

Johnson believes that cities will survive the end of oil.  Hmmm…  Systems for water distribution, sewage treatment, trash removal, medical services, agriculture, transportation, lighting, heating, cooling, law enforcement, communications, manufacturing, etc., require enormous amounts of energy — primarily fossil energy.  Experts who believe in technological miracles, rational societies, and rapid radical worldwide change, suffer from thought processes similar to the miasma experts of London.  A human herd of seven-plus billion, largely urban, propelled by human muscles and horse power, is magical thinking.

Sorry for the ranting.  I really liked most of the book.  The Epilogue made me stop and think (and wince).  Maybe that was the clever plan.  Maybe Johnson is a coyote teacher, using slippery ideas to overwhelm our mental autopilot, and trick us into putting the whip to our prodigious brains.

Johnson, Steven, The Ghost Map, Riverhead Books, New York, 2006.

Sunday, May 13, 2018


Sebastian Junger’s bestselling book Tribe is fascinating and perplexing.  He’s a journalist who has covered a number of armed conflicts.  As a result of these experiences, he’s developed an admiration for war and warriors, because chaos brings out the best in people.  It creates an alternate reality in which it is acceptable and desirable to behave like human beings (sort of).

During times of helter-skelter, people shift into a tribal mode.  Divisive stuff, like race, religion, and politics, are largely swept under the bed.  Emotional disagreements over beliefs that are irrelevant to the immediate situation can get everyone killed — the opposite of the preferred outcome.  In chaos, people share, cooperate, care for others, and abandon class roles.  The tribal mindset feels pleasantly natural and satisfying, a refreshing change.  They cease being the isolated individuals that industrial society excels at mass producing.

In combat, warriors become capable of great courage and great cruelty.  They transform into fearless beings of holy rage who laugh in the face of death.  “They wore amulets and magical charms and acted as if they were possessed, deliberately running into gunfire and dancing while firing their weapons.”  They were intensely and absolutely alive (sort of).

This reminded me of stories about wild European warriors.  Berzerkers were sometimes swept away by a state of fury they could not turn off.  They killed everyone in sight, even friends.  In Ireland, Cu Chulainn was so overheated with battle rage that a group of naked women was sent out to calm him.  He was put in vats of cold water, which boiled and evaporated.

Junger noted that when a deployment ends, warriors plunge down a chute, back to consumer oblivion.  They return to “a society where most people work outside the home, children are educated by strangers, families are isolated from wider communities, and personal gain almost completely eclipses collective good.”  It’s a sharp slap on the face.  Equality comes to an abrupt end, class roles resume, and some brave warriors once again have to move to the back of the bus, work crap jobs, and suffer the arrogant rudeness of petty tyrants.  It immediately becomes apparent that the society that they had fought to protect is insane.

Back in consumer wonderland, herds of strangers, blissed out on antidepressants, devote total attention to tiny glowing screens.  Roads are jammed with frantic reckless drivers who have no sense of courtesy or common decency.  Alpha consumers proudly posture beside their shiny $50,000 pickup trucks and pretentious McMansions.  It’s like a loony zoo for primates born in captivity.  Warriors feel completely out of place.  Many snap.  Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is common. 

Junger is fond of American Indian tribes, because they honored and respected warriors, and performed ceremonies to help them successfully reintegrate into civilian society.  The mindset of modern warriors has elements in common with the tribal cultures of wild societies.  Humans have a powerful desire to be close to others.  Hunter-gatherers learned to share food, help one another, promptly resolve conflicts, and cooperate in team hunting and group defense.  Self-centered individualists were annoying pariahs, because they were a threat to group stability.

Junger reminds readers of colonial times, when whites captured by Indians actually preferred living in the wild society of their captors.  Many refused to return to rigid Christian society, even when begged by relatives.  This was so common that laws were passed that prohibited settlers from abandoning their communities and voluntarily choosing to live in tribal freedom.

Page one asserts that the white colonizers were aggressively conquering Stone Age Indians who had barely changed technologically in 15,000 years.  I disagree.  During the colonization process, Indians acquired horses, guns, and metal tools.  Horses dramatically cranked up the velocity and intensity of warfare, enabling the rise of the Comanche empire.  Hunting on horseback made it much easier to kill bison, which increased the possibility of overhunting and population growth.

The three sisters system of agriculture (corn, squash, beans) began expanding around 800 A.D., following several centuries of experimentation.  It allowed far more nutrients to be extracted from the same land area.  This led to surging population, increased conflict, mutual defense alliances, hierarchical chiefdoms, and large villages surrounded by rugged wooden palisades.  Junger mentions that the Iroquois empire dominated just about every tribe within 500 miles (804 km).

Tribal towns emerged at Cahokia, Illinois; Spiro, Oklahoma; Moundville, Alabama; and Etowah, Georgia.  Each invested many years of manual labor in building monumental earthworks.  Mound 72 at Cahokia contained the bodies of 52 young women, sacrificed in some way that did not leave marks on their bones. Their bodies had been stacked in two tidy layers.  South of the border, in the motherland of corn, Aztecs apparently sacrificed thousands of people every year.

Junger’s short book often feels like a supertanker of testosterone.  It feels like its primary message was a celebration of war, warriors, and tribal culture.  But anthropologists tell us that war is not a normal component for all tribes.  There have been many exceptions, and these cultures did not domesticate grains, or enslave horses or livestock.

I had a flash of excitement when Junger briefly mentioned the !Kung people of the Kalahari, the northern group of the San hunter-gatherers.  Louis Lieberman noted that the San are genetically among of the oldest modern humans.  Their hunting culture survived into the 1950s, and may have survived continuously for 200,000 years or more.  They possess all the positive characteristics of tribal people, minus the warrior tradition.

Junger’s book devotes abundant attention to the holiness of warriors.  Do you think the pathology of modern society could be cured by becoming more war oriented?  The book devotes far less attention to the creepy soul-killing civilian culture that warriors hated returning to.  Modern societies fail to provide a way of life that is comfortable, normal, and natural for primates.  We weren’t meant to live like neurotic caged animals amidst crowds of strangers in sprawling concrete metropolises.

The book’s subtitle is “On Homecoming and Belonging.”  Home is far more than a group of humans.  Even more important, home is also a place that supports a complex family of life — wild life.  From what I gather, Junger grew up in Boston, and has spent most of his adult years in New York City.  I sense that he, along with most Americans, has never experienced a healthy lifelong spiritual connection to a healthy wild ecosystem.  We are a society of lost and lonely homeless critters.

If this disconnection does not change, we can have no long term future.  Modern societies are possessed by a collective trance — an overwhelming blind faith in technological miracles, perpetual growth, and endless progress.  We are the greatest, and the best is yet to come!  It will take a profound cultural awakening to break out of this toxic trance.  Junger scores points for pointing out how dysfunctional our society is.  In order to successfully break the spell of powerful illusions, millions more need to join him in delegitimizing the black magic juju.

What’s missing is a heartfelt celebration of wildness, and the powerful medicine of healthy connection.  Also missing is a deeper discussion of the conflicts he reported on.  In two sentences, Junger mentions that he did not support the Vietnam War, or the Iraq War.  So, on the battlefields, young warriors learned some beneficial aspects of tribal relationships.  But the warriors were risking their lives to participate in wars that were not justified — wars that should never been started.  Might there be better ways of learning how to have healthy relationships with the family of life?

Junger, Sebastian, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Twelve Books, New York, 2016.