Victorian London’s ‘Great Stink’ sewer crisis offers lessons about solving climate change

Inside one of Joseph Bazalgette’s sewers under Hackney wick, East London. Image: Getty.

In the late 19th century, the irrepressible Mark Twain is reputed to have said in a speech:

Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it.

He’s said to have borrowed that quote from a friend, but if Twain were alive today he would no doubt have more to say on the subject. In a time when we are becoming increasingly accustomed to extremes in the climate system, the events of this year have risen above the background noise of political turmoil to dominate the global headlines.

While global leadership in dealing with climate change may be depressingly limited, I can’t help but wonder if 2018 will be the year our global tribe feels threatened enough to act.

Encouragingly, there may be a historical (and largely unknown) precedent for tackling climate change: Victoria London’s handling of the “Great Stink”, where growth had turned the River Thames into an open sewer.

Climate system extremes

This year is breaking all manner of records.

In January, the eastern USA and western Europe fell under persistent frigid Arctic conditions brought about by a weakening of the polar vortex.


Six months later, the north experienced exceptional hemispheric-wide summer warming and drought, most likely amplified by a weakening of Atlantic Ocean circulation – the latter (ironically) being expressed by unusually cool surface ocean waters.

In recent weeks, Florence, Mangkhut and Helene have become the latest household names to mark a succession of storms battering the USA, Asia and Europe this year.

Meanwhile, New South Wales is now suffering a state-wide drought, along with other regions in Australia. Early wildfires and the threat of more to come has resulted in the earliest government total fire ban on record.

As the crisis deepens, it’s worth reflecting on Victorian London’s “Great Stink” sewage problem - where things finally got so bad that authorities were forced to accept evidence, reject sceptics, and act.

A ‘deadly sewer’

In the Victorian age, London’s growth had turned the River Thames into an open sewer. Conditions were so bad they inspired many to write on the risks to public health.

‘The silent highwayman’, an 1858 cartoon from Punch magazine, commenting on the deadly levels of pollution in the River Thames. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Charles Dickens provided a lurid description in Little Dorrit, describing the Thames as a “deadly sewer” while the scientist Michael Faraday wrote to the Times that:

if we neglect this subject, we cannot expect to do so with impunity; nor ought we to be surprised if, ere many years are over, a hot season give us sad proof of the folly of our carelessness.

An 1855 cartoon from Punch Magazine in which Michael Faraday gives his card to ‘Father Thames’, commenting on Faraday gauging the river’s ‘degree of opacity’. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

In 1854, medic John Snow demonstrated the source of cholera in the London suburb of Soho was a local water pump. To test his ideas, officials removed the handle on the pump, and the number of cases all but disappeared.

Sewage sceptics

But there was an intransigence about meeting the threat. Ignoring scientific evidence, “sewage sceptics” held the view that poor air quality – so called “miasma”– was the cause of the frequent outbreaks of cholera and other diseases.

They convinced the government to reject the evidence, considering there to be “no reason to adopt this belief”. The scale of the sewage problem in London was considered too large to be solved, possibly encouraged by political pressure from the thriving water industry that delivered direct to those who could afford it. For several more years, this view persisted.

That was until the year of the “Great Stink”.


The ‘Great Stink’ arrives

In the summer heatwave of 1858, the Thames’ sewage turned noses across London. Conditions were so bad, teams of men were employed to shovel lime at the many sewage outlets into the capital’s river in a vain attempt to stop the smell.

Even the national legislators were not spared, with the windows of the Houses of Parliament covered in lime-soaked sack cloths. Serious thought was even given to relocating government outside London, at least until the air had cleared. The conditions created a heady stench that cut through the politically charged rhetoric of the day, and forced a rethink.

Within nine years of the “Great Stink”, the 900-kilometre London Sewage Network was constructed - an engineering marvel of the Victorian age. The politicians at the time weren’t immediately convinced the new infrastructure would help public health, but the disappearance of disease accepted as the norm for the capital convinced even the most ardent of sceptics. No one talks about miasma as a real thing anymore.

The Great Stink of 1858 overturned beliefs founded on misinformation. A challenge considered impossible, was solved.

Our generation’s ‘Great Stink’

Fast forward 160 years and the recent spate of climate headlines is on the back of an increasing trend towards greater extremes, with all the associated human, environmental, and financial costs.

In August of this year, the Actuaries Climate Index – which monitors changes in sea level rise and climate extremes for the North American insurance industry since the 1960s – reported that the five-year moving average reached a new high in 2017. This year promises to continue the trend and is no single outlier.

Will 2018 be the year when the world does something about climate change?

Will 2018 be our generation’s “Great Stink”?

The Conversation

Chris Turney, Professor of Earth Science and Climate Change, ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, UNSW.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Canada’s gay neighbourhoods are struggling. Can queer pop-ups plug the gap?

Vancouver. Image: Getty.

Queer life was highly visible in Western Canada last year. In May, Vancouver declared 2018 the “Year of the Queer,” celebrating decades of service that the city’s cultural organisations have provided for lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, queer and two-spirit (LGBTQ/2S) people across the region.

Yet 2018 also saw the loss of multiple queer venues and gay bars. While economic forces, such as rapacious gentrification are part of the story and struggle, our research shows that something creative and generative is happening in the city as well.

In the face of changing urban landscapes, economic hardships, and more straights moving into historically gay neighbourhoods, queer pop-ups — ephemeral gathering spaces whose impact lingers among revellers long after the night is over — now play a large role in the fight for LGBTQ/2S equality.

Scattered gay places became neighbourhoods

Queer life germinated in “scattered gay places” across cities in North America from the late 1800s to the Second World War. Inside cabarets, bars, theatres or outside in public parks, washrooms and city streets, queers found spaces which could hold and celebrate transgressive sexual connections while also providing respite from daily experiences of discrimination and social exclusion.

After the Second World War, scattered gay places congealed into permanent gay bars and residential “gaybourhoods” in a period anthropologist Kath Weston calls “the great gay migration.” Queer people flocked to urban centres and sexual subcultures flourished in cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Toronto.

The formation of queer community spaces has always been controversial. Cultural and legal backlashes marred early developments. A host of laws and regulations tried to suppress and contain homosexuality in North America by limiting its presence in the public sphere.

These measures resulted in frequent hostilities, police raids and violence. Queers congregated together not just to find love or community, but to protect themselves, to protect one another and to find refuge. Pride parades, now celebrated worldwide, commemorate these early turf wars.

Pop-ups revitalise queer spaces

Researchers have written a great deal on the cultural and political importance of gay districts in urban centres, and they have grappled with concerns that these areas, along with the establishments they house, are fading.

But innovative urban forms challenge arguments about the death and demise of queer spaces in the city. Our research suggests that queer pop-ups, or temporary cultural gathering spaces, cater to diverse and often marginalised queers.

Some gaybourhoods are dwindling in their residential concentration and gay bars are dropping like flies. But new queer place-making efforts are emerging.

Two of the authors at the queer pop-up in 2018 at East Side Studios in Vancouver. Ryan is on the far left, back row, Adriana is on the far right of the back row. Image: author provided.

Unlike gaybourhoods and gay bars, pop-ups are intentional in how they address persistent, intersectional forms of inequality. Queer pop-ups offer patrons a space to explore non-binary forms of gender and sexual identities, and especially a place to experience collective effervescence among queer people of colour, and femme lesbians.

Some pop-ups create environments that are explicitly trans-inclusive, consent-focused, and sex-positive. Pop-ups are not panaceas for queer life. Pop-ups can also be places where issues around socioeconomic status, gender identity and expression, and racial inequality are called out.

Yet these spaces directly and indirectly encourage dialogue on inequalities within the queer community, conversations that help produce safer spaces for marginalised queers to find each other and forge enduring queer consciousnesses.

Turf wars

Queer pop-ups show similar trajectories of infighting and compromise that the LGBT social movement encountered from the late 1970s through the early 2000s when trying to forge a collective consciousness, gain social visibility and win legal rights.

These turf wars, expressed as contests over space and inclusion, are generally sparked over three perennial concerns: privilege, race and gender. One interviewee, a 20-year-old self-identified queer, trans person of colour (QTPoC), who spoke about Vancouver’s gay district told us:

“I tend to avoid the gay bars on Davie [because] a lot of the gay bars there have now been taken over by cis-gender, heterosexual people. I’ve [also] heard from a lot of QTPoC friends that they are often uncomfortable going to gay bars on Davie, because it’s usually very dominated by cis-gender, white gay men.”

A 28-year-old white, cisgender, queer male found pop-ups more politically and culturally radical than gay bars. He put it this way:

“It’s very rare that we’ll ever have a conversation about politics [in gay bars]. It’s just about partying and things that we kind of see as very stereotypical portrayals of gay culture: like going out, dancing, drinking, fucking.”

Historically, gaybourhoods have served an important role in the fight for LGBT rights, but they have also developed to cater to a specific cis-gender, white, middle-class, male sensibility. One 30-year-old, white, trans DJ put it bluntly, “the mainstream scene is just not welcoming to trans people, in my experience,” adding that verbal transphobic harassment is common in the streets of Vancouver’s gaybourhood.

At Vancouver Pride this year we were reminded of this schism at a local pop-up event. “Gay men won’t come here, it’s too trashy,” shouted a white Australian lesbian playfully to friends over loud music. We were at Eastside Studios, a large warehouse turned into the newest collaborative queer venue in Vancouver.


The comment was striking because it highlights the visible bifurcation occurring in queer life and queer consumption in Vancouver. Many gay men tend to patronise businesses and events in the West End, Vancouver’s official gaybourhood; whereas, other members of the LGBTQ community are scattered across the city at events and venues that are far less permanent. Eastside Studios attempts to break through the homonormative bent some gay bars perpetuate. It is a space that generously houses some of the struggling pop up events who lost space to gentrification in Vancouver’s out of control rental market.

Historically, pop-ups arose as the first signs of urban sexual transgression. They continue to emerge as spatial innovations which nurture transgressive queer diversities that do not have space or representation in the gaybourhood. Weekly social media blasts via Facebook or Instagram and word-of-mouth dissemination play an important role in linking queers around the city to these events. Pop-ups take different tones and establish different vibes among patrons. Collectively, pop-ups highlight the many important projects local queers are undertaking to increase the plurality of what queer life looks like and how it is expressed.

Struggles for equality

Marriage is the leading story in many headlines these days, but queer struggles for equality were never only about relationship recognition or acceptance into the mainstream.

Queer struggles are also fights to resist oppressive normativity, to end racial inequality and white supremacy, to end sexualised violence, to reconcile generational traumas associated with colonialism.

Continuing these fights is perhaps what makes queer pop-ups unique. Organisers of these events are intentional and responsive to such concerns. They seek to create new worlds that soften the impact of inequalities, both in gaybourhoods and in other parts of Canadian cities as well.

Pop-ups nourish queer lives; they emerge as temporary meeting grounds where diverse, oftentimes marginalised, queers flock for community and collective, momentary release. Here an image from a Man Up pop-up event in Vancouver. Image: Shot by Steph/Facebook/The Conversation.

Many of these spaces are an opportunity for patrons to travel in a re-imagined world, even if only for the night. While not all pop-ups that appear survive, the ones that do matter, fundamentally, because they create spaces that resist heteronormative culture and homonormativity, address intersecting inequalities, assert and anchor queer cultural and political identities, and promote well-being for a wider portion of the community in ways that gaybourhoods used to and have always had the potential to.

Pop-ups nourish queer lives in ways that gaybourhoods and gay bars historically had. They emerge as temporary meeting grounds where diverse, oftentimes marginalised, queers flock for community and collective, momentary release. They allow patrons to dance and comfortably explore the implications of their gender and sexual identities around like-minded individuals. At times they are more than friendly social gatherings, becoming sites where the moral arch of the community is shaped through demonstrations on urgent issues impacting queer lives and the surrounding community.

Queer pop-ups are vibrant locations that work to push forward the unfinished projects of social justice first envisioned during gay liberation.

The Conversation

Ryan Stillwagon, Ph.D. Student, Sociology, University of British Columbia; Adriana Brodyn, Ph.D. Candidate, University of British Columbia; Amin Ghaziani, Associate Professor of Sociology and Canada Research Chair in Sexuality and Urban Studies, University of British Columbia, and D. Kyle Sutherland, PhD Student, Department of Sociology, University of British Columbia.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.