Monday, October 12, 2015

Moral and environmental pollution

Front cover for a booklet advertising tablets for coughs and colds brought on by smog (1913) (Wellcome Library)

Not long ago the occasion of the Jewish new year gave me cause to write on the connection between moral and environmental catastrophe. Brett Beasley recently came at the topic from another historical angle in the Public Domain Review, in "Bad Air: Pollution, Sin, and Science Fiction in William Delisle Hay’s The Doom of the Great City (1880)". Beasley writes that Hay's book "imagines the entire population of London choked to death under a soot-filled fog. The story is told by the event’s lone survivor sixty years later as he recalls 'the greatest calamity that perhaps this earth has ever witnessed' at what was, for Hay’s first readers, the distant future date of 1942." He goes on:
Before we canonize Hay as an environmentalist and his story as An Inconvenient Truth in Victorian garb, we have to look at the story’s other features. Readers of The Doom of the Great City unfailingly notice that the story does not fit easily with other science fiction narratives, but seems to belong also to another class of tales, which Brian Stableford has called “ringing accounts of richly deserved punishment”. This is because Hay’s narrator seems to slide back and forth between material and moral explanations for pollution. While he talks of how “In those latter days there had been past years of terribly bad weather, destroying harvests”, he adds in the same paragraph, “prostitution flourished rampantly, while Chastity laid down her head and died! Evil! — one seemed to see it everywhere!”
In his emphasis on filth in both its moral and material forms, Hay was borrowing the vocabulary and social ethic of what have been called the “anti-contagionists”. The anti-contagionists tended to hold the belief that diseases spread by miasma, or “bad air”. The bad air could come from any number of places: from corpses or other rotting organic materials, from the bodies and homes of the poor, from cesspools and stagnant or dirty water, and even, in the view of one important miasmatist, from the groundwater lying beneath a city.
Most miasmatists equated bad air with bad smell. Thus, miasmatist works like Edwin Chadwick’s Report of the Sanitary Conditions of the Working Classes can be read not just for their contribution to the emerging discipline of epidemiology, but also as veritable anthologies of stories about stench. Chadwick correlates “miasmatic exhalations”, “putrid” and “obnoxious effluvia”, “pestiferous vapours and fogs”, “vitiated” and “foul air”, “noisome vapours”, “injurious gas”, and “foul ordure” with outbreaks of diseases like cholera and typhus. For him, the only solution was to institute broad sanitary reforms to remove the causes of these bad airs. At their best, the miasmatists practiced social medicine that included a focus on diet, education, and forms of social uplift. At their worst, they were racist and classist bureaucrats. But whatever their scientific and ideological deficiencies, miasmatists were amazingly successful at marshalling the resources and political will (often with the important tool of disgust at their disposal) to create a compelling vision of the sanitary city. If, as Chadwick put it, “all smell is disease”, then only a city-wide solution could possibly stop it. 
But by the time Hay was penning his tale in 1880, the whole miasmatist position was losing its power to provoke the kind of disgust necessary for political action. Analyzing the “Great Stink” of Paris, which also occurred in 1880, David S. Barnes shows that “scientific progress as represented by the nascent germ theory of disease, may actually have blocked rather than accelerated remedial mobilization”. The germ theory suggested that diseases were not spread by the air at all, whether good or bad, smelly or pure. Thus the stink could not produce what Barnes calls a “sensory crisis”, whereas a similar Great Stink in London in 1858 led to comprehensive sanitary reforms.
Thus, Hay’s lurid tale of destruction is technically scientific while also being a bricolage of available science. From the miasma theory, he takes his focus on the air and his social ethic. But he also jettisons the mechanism of miasma itself. 
In order to understand Hay’s work in its totality, then, we have to see it not just as representing a particular view of science, but a changing view of danger and how danger relates to a social system. As the anthropologist Mary Douglas showed in her groundbreaking work Purity and Danger, pollution behavior always has to do with the maintenance of a social system. She writes, “Dirt is the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements. This idea of dirt takes us straight into the field of symbolism and promises a link-up with more obviously symbolic systems of purity”.
Thus, for Douglas, rituals either in modern secular cultures or in primitive ones, reinforce duties, relationships, and morality. 
In the end, if Hay’s novella speaks to us today, it is not because Hay writes a rigorous science fiction tale using a form of science we recognize as our own. It is rather because his confusion — or what we see as confusion — helps us understand our own predicament better. Even in our most rigorously scientific environmental efforts, we still feel the need for moral parables. One thinks of the decidedly unscientific analogy of the boiled frog amidst the otherwise rigorous claims in An Inconvenient Truth. And certainly there are strains of dystopian imaginings and apocalyptic visions in some environmentalist writings — why shouldn’t there be? As Hay knew, in order to combat the ills of society we need to appeal to both science and morality — and if that doesn’t work, a little horror can’t hurt. 
For more on morality and the environment, see my earlier post here.

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