Home > Critical Thinking, Dystopia, Musings, Reason, Secular Religions, Skepticism, Thoughts on Economics > Why Proper Sewage Handling and Garbage Disposal was a Recent Development

Why Proper Sewage Handling and Garbage Disposal was a Recent Development

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?

  1. cognosium
    April 16, 2012 at 9:51 pm

    Well thought through article with a very plausible concluding inference

  2. Nestorius (A. Hourani)
    April 17, 2012 at 5:40 am

    There are many subjects here.

    Concerning modern sewage treatment plants. This is a very modern invention related to the discovery of the effect of bacteria and fungi on waste water. How do you expect anyone to invent something based on something he doesn’t know?

    Concerning garbage disposal. Garbage 60 years ago was different from modern garbage, especially that plastic was not yet used. A mixture of pottery, metals, wood and food leftovers was not and is not a nasty sight. The smell is not even strong. What makes modern garbage really nasty is plastic. Orange leftovers left to dry under the sun are not as harmful as orange leftovers kept in a plastic bag with their humidity.

    Besides, humans didn’t produce the amount of garbage they produce now.

  3. InT
    April 17, 2012 at 2:23 pm

    From what I understand, it took a long time for people to even build outhouses.

    The Bible Belt was almost called the “Hookworm Belt” because people shat out in the open and got infected when they stepped in it. This was going on as late as the 19th century, I believe.

    It’s crazy. In some places, like,India, people still shit out in the open. In India, something like 35% of people have illnesses related to all the piss and shit that’s everywhere.

    Thanks for outlining yet another reason why it is important to maintain a fair wealth distribution, and why its reversal is so disturbing. Heavy government investment in infrastructure is needed for a healthy society, as is heavy government investment in education and healthcare. Anyone believing otherwise is deluded

  4. Chris Travers
    April 17, 2012 at 9:52 pm

    I actually think the major reason is the development of the government-as-machine metaphor which comes out of the enlightenment. While there is a lot to dislike about the metaphor of everything as machine, it allows the development of complex administrative structures needed for this sort of approach.

  5. meh
    April 18, 2012 at 1:01 am

    ***”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.”***

    We know almost nothing about the cultural, religious, political, social, and economic organization of either of those two civilizations, so this statement is unsupportable pap. Some modern historians are notorious for imposing their own wishful thinking on to ancient, poorly understood societies.

    Except that the IVC is remarkable for the lack of ostentatious palaces and areas with poorly built houses. There were no elaborate burials or mausoleums. Moreover ever archaeological dig to date has shown all houses in the IVC had connections to both drinking water (via kanats) and the sewage network.

    For instance, the Maya were once thought to be peaceful people ruled by otherworldly scholars and astronomer priests until we deciphered their script and discovered they were actually bloodly brutal warriors ruled by warrior kings constantly fighting other warrior kings – ie, just like every other civilization known to history.

    The “noble savage” is a comparable myth, born of modern Western leftist wishful thinking.

    “Egalitarian civilization” is a contradiction in terms; varying levels of inequality are necessary for society to function. The society of Victorian Britain that created the first modern urban sanitation systems was not egalitarian.

    One suspects that the Indus Valley Civilization and Minoan Civilization were declared “egalitarian” based on the existence of urban sanitation, and not on any evidence of actual political organization. This is what we call putting the cart before the horse.

  6. Webe
    April 18, 2012 at 3:26 am

    Good article: “governance that derived its legitimacy from providing social goods”
    In other words, Protestantism. The culture of Protestantism, much as we all like to detest it, is the only force that has brought a civil service — public servants that treat the public fairly and equitably. Almost all other historical examples feature ruthless government bureaucracies that serve the ruling power or themselves. The degree to which public service is an historical anomaly (and a waning one at that) can hardly be exaggerated.

    In terms of sewage and garbage, it is easily forgotten that before the age of oil most excrement was collected and used for fertilizer. This remained true (to a degree) in Europe in the late fifties (!) and in Asia probably still applies here and there. Before the complete demise of the horse (and other animals), flush toilets did not represent a complete answer. (Even today lots of dogs and cats don’t use the toilet).
    Most bio-degradable garbage was re-cycled for compost and other ends. Plus there was much less garbage: no packaging and almost everything we throw out was considered valuable. In Europe today there remains a huge disparity in garbage collection between the north and the south (culture of Protestantism and public service).

    Historically it certainly is true that prosperous societies have a relatively more equitable distribution of wealth (and income). It is equally true that historically p r i v a t e creditors prefer relatively more clout within a shrinking economy to less clout in a prosperous one. Prosperous societies are built on equity, not indebtedness.

  7. Nestorius (A. Hourani)
    April 18, 2012 at 6:51 am

    “While some civilizations did develop rudimentary sewers and garbage handling systems, they rarely survived the their fall.”

    If a certain people becomes extinct, then you should expect that the knowledge that is held by this people will perish. Knowledge exists in humans and becomes extinct when they become extinct.

    “Contrast this to the ability to build palaces, carve statutes, refine “precious” metals etc- all of which survived civilizational collapse, often multiple times.”

    Why is the Renaissance called as such?

    “However in both cases, subsequent civilizations in that region did not bother to rebuild decent sewers or install new flush toilets.”

    Most probably because the invaders destroyed part of the original peoples and did not bother learning from them. The invaders were more likely more egalitarian than the invaded ones.

    On the other hand, many of the sewers and aqueducts that were constructed in Roman towns survived after the invasions and some still exist until now.

    “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.”

    Check some photos of Cairo from the 19th century:

    http://bibliotheque-numerique.inha.fr/collection/?nresults=200

    It doesn’t look really dirty to me.
    As I said above, garbage 60 years ago was different from garbage now. It was easily disposable and was often recycled. Wood could be used for heating and cooking. Food and paper could be burnt in ovens. Metal was recycled. Pottery can’t be described as garbage.
    Only in modern times, with the advent of plastic, that garbage has become a problem.

    “So why did people, including the ‘elites’, live surrounded by shit, piss and other assorted filth?”

    Most houses, even those of poor persons, were usually isolated from the exterior by high walls.

    “Why did people who built all sorts of ingenious mechanical devices not build simple flush toilets?”

    In rural areas, it suffices to dig a small well below the toilet. Urine and shit are absorbed by the earth. The earth acts as a filter.

  8. hans
    April 18, 2012 at 5:49 pm

    Very poignant article.
    The elites could care less how(if) we “usless eaters” live.

    And we´re heading right back into a world literally “full of shit”, if we let them continue to loot and misdirect us into killing each other instead of diposing of the actual parasites at the top.

  9. j
    April 22, 2012 at 8:41 am

    Rome had (still working) Cloaca Maxima. It was built because summer cholera epidemics as was London’s sewage system. It has little to do with democracy and much with fear of diseases.

  10. Gunn
    April 25, 2012 at 12:15 am

    I remember playing civilisation (the computer game), where in order to grow a city above a certain size (pop: 8 iirc) you needed to install sanitation or aqueducts or something. Thats probably remarkably true to life, i.e. sanitation becomes essential only at a certain point, and until you’re at that point you’re better off committing resources to other ends.

  1. November 10, 2013 at 10:12 pm

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