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.

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