Episode 20

Hello and welcome back to No Word Is An Island Advanced English, the podcast for advanced English learners and those who teach them. Don’t forget that each episode includes an interactive transcript with annotations on key vocabulary as well as Quizlet flashcard sets to study this vocabulary and learn it by heart.

[Note: As I now read out the key vocabulary at the end of the show along with definitions and explanations, I will simply highlight these key words and chunks. You will find them defined out loud at the end of the show and listed in the transcript. Don’t forget to test yourself using the Quizlet flashcard sets.]

Last week I talked about eco-anxiety and finding ways to draw on your skills to do your bit, that is, to make a contribution to society. And in this week’s episode, I want to talk about a case from the past. An example of how people were able to successfully deal with an environmental crisis. I think this is an important example to show us that we aren’t powerless. We can do something about climate change, and I say this – I don’t want to fall into the trap of wishful thinking. It’s not the idea that everything is going to be okay, no matter what. No, it’s the idea that if we take action – If you take action, if I take action, if we all take action – things can change, but only if we take action.

So today we’re going to be talking about the so-called Great Stink of 1858. Stink is a word which means an intense, unpleasant smell. And this, the Great Stink of 1858 is – I’m basing this episode largely on an essay I found online from a website called SkepticalScience.com and the title of the essay is Changing Climate, Changing Minds the Great Stink of London, and it was written by Andy Skuce back in March of 2012.

After having read this essay, I found out that London lacked a modern sewer system up until the 1860s. And obviously, London was a metropolis. Its population had gone from 1,000,000 at the beginning of the 1800s to roughly 2,000,000 by 1850, and imagine the quantity of human waste that was being produced on a daily basis. All of this human waste was flushed into the River Thames, which was also used as Londoners’ source of drinking water. Surprisingly, perhaps, people did not yet grasp the concept that diseases such as cholera and typhoid, which ran rampant at the time – that is, which were incredibly common and hard to control – well people did not realise that these diseases were waterborne – that is that they were transmitted through water.

Now imagine just over 150 years ago, inhabitants of the richest, most advanced city on the planet routinely drank water tainted with human waste, and thought nothing of it. People still believed in the so-called miasma theory, according to which disease was airborne, a hypothesis that dates back to Hippocrates in ancient Greece.

The silent highwayman : Death rows on the Thames, claiming the lives of victims who have not paid to have the river cleaned up, during the Great Stink. (Cartoon from Punch Magazine, Volume 35 Page 137; 10 July 1858)
The silent highwayman : Death rows on the Thames, claiming the lives of victims who have not paid to have the river cleaned up, during the Great Stink. (Cartoon from Punch Magazine, Volume 35 Page 137; 10 July 1858)

So in 1858 the newly built Houses of Parliament, also known as the Palace of Westminster or simply Westminster for short, were nearly abandoned by MPs, that is, members of parliament, because they were so overwhelmed by this stench, by the terrible smell of the River Thames. This problem with sewage in London that had been building up, well it had been a problem since the 1400s, but had really been getting acute as of the beginning of the 1800s, but it finally came to a head in this year, in 1858, in the summer of 1858, that is, it had suddenly become worse, so bad, that it had to be dealt with quickly. That’s what it means for a situation to come to a head, when it gets to a critical point that requires action.

So up until then, efforts to deal with the problem had been thwarted by those who either profited from the status quo, so it might have been land owners, companies, and these powers that be, they balked at the cost of proposed infrastructure. They didn’t want to pay for it.
Now The Economist, which to this day remains a hugely influential magazine on society and economics, back in 1848 criticised plans to build a new sewer system for London and wrote this following statement about levying taxes on residents to pay for it.

“Suffering and evil are nature’s admonitions [a warning or expression of disapproval about someone’s behaviour]; they cannot be got rid of; and the impatient attempts of benevolence to banish them [not allow someone or something to stay in a particular place] from the world by legislation, before benevolence has learned their object and their end, have always been more productive of evil than good.”

So let me translate this. In a nutshell, The Economist reckoned it was better to do nothing and presumably spend nothing to deal with the problem.

It would be another 10 years before the sheer stench of the sewage in London became so overpowering that lawmakers finally passed a law to build a modern sewer system that would eventually divert human waste away from the source of London’s drinking water.

So how could we apply what happened in London in the 19th century to what’s happening to the climate worldwide in the 21st? Should we assume that when things get really bad, governments will get their act together and finally tackle the problem? In the essay I mentioned earlier, the author, Andy Skuce, makes the important point that there are many key differences between these two environmental emergencies.

To begin with, human waste, that is, shit, well, it stinks. Newsflash! And it’s not a particularly pleasant sight either. Carbon dioxide and methane, on the other hand, are entirely invisible.

In the case of the Great Stink, it just so happens that Parliament was located at the epicentre of the problem, namely the River Thames. Members of Parliament literally couldn’t breathe.

Westminster Palace from the Thames
Westminster Palace: When those in power are directly affected change becomes more likely.

In the case of climate change, the rich and powerful, and that includes all of us people living in relative affluence in the developed world, are protected from the worst effects of climate change. So it doesn’t feel as urgent as the sewage problem felt to the average Londoner back in the 1850s. What’s more, once London started diverting and treating its waste, there was an immediate effect. Whereas carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere will remain there for years to come. So we’re dealing with completely different timescales.

In short, climate change is a far more complex environmental emergency than sewage was in London in the 19th century. Despite this fact, I agree with Skuce that we have grounds to be cautiously optimistic given that social attitudes to key issues can shift radically over short periods of time as they did back in the UK in the 19th century. And then I was thinking perhaps the real problem nowadays isn’t so much changing people’s minds about climate change, but convincing them to have faith in the political process. A lot of my students claim to be very political, yet paradoxically have little interest in the political process.

So, idealists of the world. Here’s my rather obvious yet sensible solution.

A polling station sign
Your ballot matters.

Start your fight at the ballot box. Voting does matter. Let me give you an example of positive change made possible by democracy here in Barcelona, the City Council under our mayor Ada Colau has taken drastic measures to limit cars within the city centre, redesigned the Central Eixample district to make it far more green and pedestrian-friendly, while also funding the biggest public housing programme of any level of government, anywhere in Spain.

The way I see it, this woman is moving mountains. And yet the local media are quite hostile to these measures and spread baseless stories about Colau’s alleged corruption. [It] kind of reminds me of the Economist back in 1848 saying “we don’t want sewers and clean water, thank you very much.” I’m impressed by our mayor’s ability to stand up to the establishment with calm authority and tell them that things are not business as usual anymore.

My call to action is this. If you care about the issues I’ve been discussing today and want to do something, get involved in the political process. You need to get informed about the local political scene. Not all political parties are the same. Some do have more integrity than others. Take the time to find out. Vote. Hell, why not stand for public office yourself?

Vocabulary Summary

draw on somethinguse information, experience, knowledge, etc., for a particular purpose
wishful thinkingwhen you believe that what you want to happen will happen, when in fact it is not possible
flushif you flush a toilet, or if it flushes, you make water go through it to clean it
graspcompletely understand a fact or an idea, especially a complicated one
run/be rampantif something bad, such as crime or disease, is rampant, there is a lot of it and it is very difficult to control
waterborneused to describe something, usually a disease, spread or carried by water
tainteda tainted substance, especially food or drink, is not safe because it is spoiled or contains a harmful substance or poison
come to a headif a problem or difficult situation comes to a head, or something brings it to a head, it suddenly becomes worse and has to be dealt with quickly
thwartprevent someone from doing what they are trying to do
balk atnot want to do or try something, because it seems difficult, unpleasant or frightening
levy taxes on someoneofficially say that people must pay a tax or charge
sheerused to emphasise the quality of something
stencha very strong bad smell
get your act togetherbecome more organised and behave in a more effective way, especially in order to achieve something
stinkhave a strong and very unpleasant smell (past: stank/stunk)
affluence (noun) / affluent (adjective)wealth / wealthy
have grounds to do somethinghave a good reason for doing, believing or saying something


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