When I think about climate change, I think about the Great Stink.

By 1830, London was the largest, richest city in the world. But the city's waste management systems had not changed appreciably since medieval times. Most human waste was handled quite simply: it was just dumped into the River Thames.

The result was a slow-growing crisis that lasted three decades. Cholera outbreaks (from drinking tainted water, though nobody understood that then) periodically wracked the city, killing tens of thousands. The stench from the river gradually grew worse and worse, making life in riverside districts increasingly intolerable. The government was too hesitant to take dramatic action, though; it tried instead to mitigate the problem, by pouring lime into the river to cut the stench.

It all came to a head in the summer of 1858. A dry spell caused the level of the river to drop, leaving the banks coated with mounds of what the newspapers delicately called "impure matter." The stench was so bad that it became known as "the Great Stink." Parliament, whose halls were right on the river, could not conduct business. The smell in the chambers was so strong that all the curtains were soaked in chloride of lime to try and block it. (It didn't work.)

Parliament was now faced with a simple, stark choice: do something to clean up the river, or move itself out of London altogether. Members seriously discussed relocating to Oxford and St. Albans, but in the end, they decided to act. Municipal engineer Joseph Bazalgette was authorized to build a network of new sewers, at the then-staggering cost of £3 million, to be paid for by taxing every London household three pennies for the next 40 years.

Bazalgette's sewers solved the problem. They solved it so well they're still in use today. But democratic government had to be dragged kicking and screaming into making them happen. Only when the problem made their own lives intolerable did they finally act.

How all this relates to climate change, I shall leave as an exercise for the reader.

One saving grace: being Victorians, Bazalgette and his architect, Charles Henry Driver, believed that there was no reason a sewer system could not be beautiful.

This produced facilities like the Crossness and Abbey Mills Pumping Stations, which still appeal to the eye today, long after the gigantic steam engines they housed have been replaced by more modern equipment.


Abbey Mills:

Politics, covid mention 


Makes you wonder what would happen if parliaments were physically separated from the countries they run. They're already largely financially insulated due to the wealth of representatives.

See also: improved building ventilation and mask mandates to reduce spread of covid etc. We could greatly reduce the amount of people being killed, permanently disabled and just plain ill, but we're not bothering. It's very reminiscent of cholera pre-sewers.

@jalefkowit so the new sewers just dumped onto land outside the city?

@theruran The sewers redirected the waste to another part of the Thames, far from the city, from which point it would flush out to sea.

The basic system was improved upon multiple times over the following decades, with treatment systems being added and waste separation implemented to ensure that seaside waters where the sewers flushed out would be safe as well.

@jalefkowit I miss the aesthetics of that era! When they build the sewers in Hamburg, they included a "representation" entry to show the sewers to Emperor Wilhelm II. It has a small room to change into protective clothing, and down the stairs there is a pier for a boat tour.

more info in German: and pictures:

@jalefkowit Nice post! It brings to mind a recent discussion I had. An urban planner here was explaining to me that the structure and form of many parts of Berlin is a result of the plans of James Hobrecht, a civil engineer who was very into the latest techniques in sewage systems. He had big support from the physician/politician Rudolf Virchow who is sometimes referred to as the "father of modern pathology" (but a germ theory denier?!). He was allowed to plan the grid and zoning rules around optimized sewage management. So those nice old Altbau blocks you find here exist, in part, thanks to a dude who was obsessed with an urban planning scheme based on plumbing as a technical solution!

@jalefkowit how much is 3 pennies per year in today's money?

@lunch It's hard to make direct comparisons, just because so much economic change has happened between now and then. So something like an inflation calculator can give you misleading results.

That being said, according to "Mulhall's Dictionary of Statistics" (1886), the average renter in Britain in 1861 was paying £2/5 in rent per year, which works out to 540 pence. So while 3 more pence wouldn't have been a crushing burden for most, you'd definitely notice it!

@lunch Or to put it slightly differently: according to, the average Londoner in 2022 spends £815/month on rent. That works out to £9,780 annually.

If we apply the same ratio that the 3 pence tax was to the average rent in 1861 to that figure, we get an annual tax of £54.33.

@jalefkowit amazing that their first solution wasn't to fix the problem, but just move somewhere it won't effect them...

Like Mars 🤔

I really thought we'd evolve more than we have.

@Mouthygurl What would you have done with it?

The waste got flushed out to sea. It's biodegradable, so it would eventually decompose into its constituent elements. This is not a terrible solution, from a sustainability perspective.

30 years earlier, the painter John Martin had proposed a similar system, with the added wrinkle that the waste was to be captured and delivered to farmers for use as fertilizer. That may seem like an improvement, but unless it's carefully treated, using human waste as fertilizer can spread diseases like cholera.

@jalefkowit oh I think the system they finally came up with was brilliant. I was referring to them moving Parliament to Oxford.

@Mouthygurl Oh! I'm so sorry I misinterpreted you. On re-reading your original post I see what you were getting at now.

@Mouthygurl File my response under "@jalefkowit is an idiot."

It's a thick file 😆​

@jalefkowit @Mouthygurl Was it at around the same time the Victor Hugo wrote about how Paris was food sufficient (compared to London) because the night soil was used to fertilize farms around the city? I wonder how much Enclosure (kicking people out of the countryside and into slums and factories) contributed to the diseases? If traditional country life had the habits to avoid disease and attain sustainability. John Snow's map is impressive, but taboos against pooping in water supplies work too?

@jalefkowit I was thinking today in similar lines in how slow the dutch government was to deal with it's water-flooding crisis. Many people died in the floods, but only when the government started feel the pain in their wallet, it started to act.

@jalefkowit are you familiar with Neoliberal John Snow? "Broad street businesses were complaining so I reinstalled the pump handle."

@jalefkowit meanwhile in Chicago we just sent our problems downstream to St Louis and New Orleans

@be Perhaps, but Chicago has its own fascinating story of sewer engineering!

Around the same time as the Great Stink, Chicago was having its own health problems due to poor sewerage. But most of the city was at or near the level of Lake Michigan, so there was no room under it to build new sewers.

The solution they came up with was to raise the entire city several feet. Engineers went through the city building by building, using jackscrews to lift the entire building up, and then building new foundations with room for sewerage underneath. In one case, they lifted an entire city block at once.

@jalefkowit @be

Seattle had a similar problem, but they didn't raise the buildings, they just built entrances at the new street level and then raised the streets to match. So now many of the building have one to three floors underground that have windows and doors looking out onto streets that are underground.

@be @jalefkowit Related to that the water company in Louisville, KY is one of the oldest water sanitation companies in all of America. The city is downstream (on the Ohio River) of, among other cities, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, OH. Those upstream neighbors made sewage Somebody Else's Problem. A filtration system was needed to fight several recurring pandemics (cholera, dysentery) from upstream's bad habits.

@jalefkowit Solution of the exercise: Westminster will do something about the #ClimateCrisis only after being completely surrounded for months by masses of climate refugees, or maybe after a few years with at least a hundred thousands deaths for heat waves each summer.


The Great Smog of 1950's was dealt with in the same manner.

The primary reason is that in a democracy you have to first win the popular support, before any actual action — and you have to actually face people who deny *everything* just because status quo feels safe. The only thing that can actually win over this instinct is an immediate, tangible fear of death.

Let's hope the ongoing heat wave will be such thing...

Environmental pollution ≠ "climate change".

If you believe in climate change (you should be sceptical), the notion of "intolerable lives" is not applicable. The timescales are too absract and the effects will be too devastating, i.e. irreversible change experience will be too late to alter.

@lienrag I mean, it's all relative. British democracy was certainly limited and imperfect in 1838. But whose was any better?


Not sure how well the Fulani democracies or the Berber ones survived (to) the turmoils of 1838 but it's not really relevant.
Talking about democracy when the problem you pointed was more related to the aristocratic nature of the English parliament (i.e., they let poor people die until they were themselves touched) directs blame - and potential action - in the wrong direction.


Especially when relating it to current events, where there is a temptation to believe that authoritarian measures will be necessary to effectively fight Climate Change, it seems important to me to insist that the problem is not with democracy but with its confiscation by the ruling class.

@lienrag That's a fair point. I think unresponsive elites is a chronic problem of democracy in general rather than a specifically British thing, but it was not my intention to imply that democracy itself was the problem.

@jalefkowit I read your first line as The Great Sink, and was wondering where in your story you'd be circling back to that, but you never did

@jalefkowit I’m frustrated how good a metaphor this is for climate change inaction

@chucker @jalefkowit
Except Jacob is describing a government approach to an infrastructure issue whereas carbon pollution is diffused throughout the entire economy including mobile in that citizens can adhere to British law in Britain, but still produce the same amount of carbon pollution overseas.

#ClimateAction is fundamentally something that has to be accomplished by each individual. Sure we could get help from our governments and businesses, but waiting for them delays longer than we have to get immediate emission reductions. The businesses will follow the consumers' and employees' direction and governments should too although here in the home of the #KochBrothers I'm not as confident as I wish I could be.

If by climate action you mean pressuring the government then yes, it's something to be done by everybody.

Not only are the largest quantities of CO² put out by industries directly, foremost in the energy sector, but also are the decisions of individuals limited by what is available to them at what they can afford. Even ignoring that, if we wanted to organize (govern) the behaviour of a large fraction of people, we'd typically do this employing policies.

The idea to blame the individual looks even more like a desparate lie, once we widen our view to include poor people from those major parts of the world that aren't rich countries.

@GreenFire @chucker @jalefkowit

@RefurioAnachro @chucker @jalefkowit
Bringing up the poor is a poor way to address the #ClimateCrisis and is a distraction from getting the rich individuals to take responsibility for the harm they cause and for them to decarbonize first since they can afford it.

Just because you disagree with me and want to give polluters an excuse to pollute does not make you correct imo, but whatever dude.

@GreenFire @RefurioAnachro @jalefkowit sounds to me like you two are agreeing with each other, and your original toot was misleading

@chucker @RefurioAnachro @jalefkowit
No there has been a major split in climate action discussions about whether or not to call out individuals for high carbon emitting lifestyles or not with the mainstream, old-school consensus being to focus on getting government action and it worked in a lot of countries in EU. It has not worked in the USA though so I think that changing consumer behavior by making high carbon emitting lifestyles to be socially unacceptable may be our fastest method to get real, concrete emissions reductions faster.

If Republicans win the midterms this fall, what do you think our chances of getting our government to take #ClimateAction are?

I don't like this. First of all, I'm not saying that individuals can't contribute. I'm saying that blaming them is a well-known disinformation tactic employed by some to divert blame.

Your position sounds defeatist in my ears. As in we cannot operate our dysfunctional politicians, hence we should content with solving only a small fraction of the issue.

This is especially bad, because it gives a false sense of achievement, which will diminish people's willingness to fight further.

@GreenFire @chucker @jalefkowit

@RefurioAnachro @GreenFire @chucker You all can feel free to drop me off the cc: list for this argument anytime. It won't hurt my feelings. Honest

@RefurioAnachro @GreenFire @chucker There is only so much an individual can do by changing their won lifestyle, if circumstances won't allow them to change. How does one switch from using a car to using public transport when there is no usable public transport? That's where governments have to step in. Governments can also regulate industries by making it cheaper for them to produce in an environmentally-friendly way, and fund research into alternative energy sources.

@RefurioAnachro @GreenFire @chucker so true this - its the oldest trick in the conservative / neo-liberal playbook. "If the change you want is that important to you then change your purchasing habit". Yes, of course changing habits is important. But spending all our time chatting with friends about recycling has fuck all significance if we can't get them to insulate their house and stop flying everywhere. So, what about purchasing habits... 1/x

@duncan_lithgow @RefurioAnachro @chucker
Sounds like you have a very high carbon footprint that you are trying to justify by government inaction.

There is actually no way to get society to decarbonize without individuals reducing their carbon footprints or prove me wrong with equations.

I have been working to get government (USA) and businesses to decarbonize for decades, but I had not nearly enough help to do it. I hope you have better luck than I had with your efforts.

@GreenFire @RefurioAnachro @chucker you're like a commedian harrasing the audience. You know nothing about my climte impact nd I won't dignify your insult with a detailed reply. Genuine thanks for your work pressuring for legisltive change.

Your main mistake was trying to ignorantly and rudely insist that I was adopting programs from the conservative/neoliberal playbook.

I think that we should add to the climate action playbook by convincing consumers to decarbonize as quickly as possible. That you disagree with that tells me a lot about your understanding of our carbon budget.

Congrats on getting rid of Scotty from Marketing though btw.

@GreenFire I'm pretty sure we agree on the goal here and disagree perhaps on which parts of the puzzle we should spend our precious advocacy time working on. I'm not Australian, so as happy as I am that that fuckwit Scot Morris is gone ( I think that was was him) - its no special thanks to me.

There has certainly been a long running policy of not blaming individuals for the greenhouse gases they emit which somewhat made sense prior to [CO2] exceeding 350 ppm. My observation is that it hasn't worked and now that we are above 420 ppm every gram of carbon dioxide that individuals cause to be emitted causes more harm so I don't see what we have to lose by trying to get the high emitters to emit less, but I know it is still not a popular opinion.

Most people don't have my education nor experience trying to tackle greenhouse gas pollution, but that doesn't mean that I am correct that we should finally start now. It is my opinion though that we need to try to something new and more aggressive so I support extinction rebellion and tyre extinguishers actions to do it.

If we can't count on governments or businesses than I think that we should try to save ourselves somehow and am open to suggestions.

@GreenFire the opinion is fine and fair enough. I just think that people have limited bandwidth to understand any issue. If they understood the huge disparity between cutting down on holiday air flight and government policy reducing corporate energy waste & pollution - I think they will pressure politicians more.

I have definitely heard that opinion from most of the climate scientists and activists that I have interacted with since somewhere around 1994 or so. I believed it for a couple decades too. I have given up on that what seems like a utopian dream though as the physics of our planet's #ClimateCrisis as each tipping point inches us closer to Armageddon so I personally don't believe that we will have a sudden conversion of voters to care enough to defeat the fossil fuel industry disinformation at the polls in the short time we have left.

Hopefully, American voters will surprise me this fall. As a climate scientist, I predict the future based on physical laws. I am distrustful of people that base their predictions predicated on knowing what humans will do in the future. They seem to be a non-linear, illogical, impossible variable to model so it is best to split them into subsets that may behave more predictably, but since human behaviour is still an unknowable factor I maintain that by convincing the most "alarmed", as described by Yale Climate Communications political science institute, to strive to be net-zero as fast as possible will result in the quickest reduction in GHG emissions. The neighbor effect will then help to get the "concerned" group to adopt and that would be enough of a political tipping point to PULL businesses and governments towards more sustainable policies.

Or of course this may be yet another one of my pipe dreams on my journey towards reducing the harm humans are causing ourselves and our mother earth by changing earth's climate. Only time will tell.

@jalefkowit Hate to wonder but I wonder… Could this common #FacialParalysis be linked to bad ecstasy or other dirty drugs? I’ve seen this before & wondered if there was a correlation. Best thing the world can do is to accept safe & natural #Psychedelics & leave the rest behind.

@jalefkowit Years ago on Democracy now, when the Australian PM was denying the Climate Crisis, a scientist got the Australian "Man of the Year Award." I can't remember his name, just that he discovered more new species than anyone else. He was hopeful that the rich would see that Climate Change threatened them with disease too, and, as with Cholera, agree to public expenditures for mitigation the way the London rich had to agree to pay for sewers.. I can never find the interview though.

@jalefkowit I hesitate to boost this, because if you leave it as an exercise for the reader some will conclude that discarding democracy is the answer.

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