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Why Proper Sewage Handling and Garbage Disposal was a Recent Development

April 16, 2012 11 comments

Have you ever wondered why proper sewage handling and garbage disposal, of the type we see today, is barely a hundred years old? Isn’t it odd that the universal human aversion towards excreta and garbage did not result in the development of adequate means of disposing them for thousands of years? While some civilizations did develop rudimentary sewers and garbage handling systems, they rarely survived the their fall. Contrast this to the ability to build palaces, carve statutes, refine “precious” metals etc- all of which survived civilizational collapse, often multiple times.

I am trying to make you see an often ignored aspect of human behavior, namely that people will often expend much effort doing things with questionable utility for them, while ignoring others that might actually improve the quality of their lives.

Some of you might think that a lack of appropriate technology was behind the historical lack of interest in public sanitation. But is that really true? Even today, sewers are mostly gravity driven and the technology used in their construction is old and simple. Indeed even 5,000 years ago, the Indus Valley civilization, was able to build and maintain an extensive sewer network in their major cities for hundreds of years. Similarly the concept of a flush toilet is not exactly new, since the Indus Valley civilization and the Minoan Civilization built adequate flush toilets. However in both cases, subsequent civilizations in that region did not bother to rebuild decent sewers or install new flush toilets. The question is- why not? Isn’t it odd that subsequent Indian and Greek civilizations in those regions took off from where there predecessors left in almost every area of knowledge but sanitation?

Some of you might argue that the ability to treat sewage properly was a bigger impediment than building sewers and flush toilets. While modern sewage treatment plants are indeed complex and technologically sophisticated structures, they need not be so if you can live with lower efficiency and larger surface area. The vast majority of sewage treatment involves letting naturally occurring bacteria and fungi consume all the organic nutrients in sewage to outcompete and kill the pathogenic organisms in it- plus a little UV from the sun also helps the process. So pretty decent sewage treatment is possible even if the civilization has no electricity and pretty basic mechanical ability- as long as it exists in a region with warm weather, adequate sunshine and ability to build open, sequential semi-waterproof tanks connected by water-locks. The ability to plan and build such structures has been around for over 4,000 years.

Collecting and disposing garbage was even an even easier proposition. The ability to efficiently pick up and dump garbage at designated sites far away from human habitation was within the grasp of every civilization in human history. But why were cities throughout the world full of garbage heaps within the city? Even cities like imperial Rome simply moved around garbage from the richer sections of the city to the poorer ones. To make a long story short- cities from the 5,000 year old ones in Egypt and the Middle-East to early 20th century western cities were full of garbage.

I should also point out that there was no shortage of citizens, subjects or slaves to build and maintain sewers, install simple flush toilets, build open-air sewage treatment tanks, collect and dispose garbage properly.

So why did people, including the ‘elites’, live surrounded by shit, piss and other assorted filth? Why would people who built large buildings, tombs, temples and palaces not build sewers? Why did people who built all sorts of ingenious mechanical devices not build simple flush toilets? Why did people who built artificial ponds for temples, palaces and irrigation not build similar structures for treating sewage. Why did people capable of waging complex military campaigns not be able to collect and dispose garbage properly?

In my opinion- lack of knowledge, superstition and stupidity are inadequate to explain why the same things kept on occurring across many civilizations. I believe that the answer lies in understanding why people started caring about things like adequate sewage handling and garbage disposal. While discoveries in science certainly helped change public opinion about sewage and garbage- the real changes in behavior and actions occurred in tandem with the growth of socio-economic systems which benefited more than a small percentage of the population.

The real impetus for proper sewage handling and garbage disposal came from the spread of governance that derived its legitimacy from providing social goods, rather than the sole purpose of enriching an oligarchy. It is no coincidence that the Indus Valley Civilization, with its well maintained sewers and toilets in every homes, was also remarkably egalitarian. The same is also true of the golden period of the Minoan civilization.

What do you think? Comments?

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