The Great Stink

I walked past an open sewer the other day and caught the scent of something truly malodorous. As I hastened past the construction site, I was reminded of an episode of a great BBC special “The Seven Wonders of the Industrial World” that I saw a while back and rewatched this afternoon. The episode called “The Sewer King” tells the story of one of the greatest heroes of the industrial world of whom you have never heard. The show describes the struggle of Joseph Bazalgette to construct the London sewer system and it is currently available on Netflix. The show is informative, interesting and well-made and I highly recommend it to those who are interested in the history of engineering. Though it may seem a trivial matter, I think this story is one of enormous political, social and spiritual relevance.

In the middle part of the nineteenth century, London was in the throes of a tremendous growth spurt that would see the city double in size over the course of fifty years. As the city had grown, the drainage system, which had evolved organically from the original tributary streams to the Thames, had become clogged with human excrement. All of the fish in the Thames were dead and the stench was so horrifically bad that it was called “The Miasma” by Londoners and blamed for the periodic outbreaks of Cholera that killed many thousands of citizens.

Appointed as an assistant surveyor by the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers in 1849, Joseph Bazalgette originally has no idea how to solve the problem. Over the course of a number of years, he developed a series of ambitious plans to build a large sewer system to address the problem and meet the critical sanitation needs of the growing city. Though everyone paid lip service to the importance of the problem, the projects were repeatedly rejected for all of the usual political reasons.

After years of delay in the political process, Parliament is finally forced into action when a heat wave during the summer of 1858 combined with the condition of the drainage system and the Thames to cause an overwhelming stench that effected large portions of the city. The smell was so bad that the House of Commons made plans to evacuate and appointed a special committee to figure out how to fix the problem. This episode eventually resulted in Joseph Bazalgette’s plan being adopted and has become known as “The Great Stink”.

Now the first thing about this episode that leaps out to me is how bad the smell must have been. Remember that this is in an age when Europeans did not bathe as regularly as they do now. Anyone who has had the experience of travelling in a part of the world which does not practice regular bathing will know that people from such a culture can be hard on the olfactory senses. Not only that, but the entire of the Thames was an open sewer. The every day smell of London would probably be enough to make a modern city dweller gag. Can you imagine how bad the smell must have been for people from that society to consider evacuating Parliament?

An Illustration of Human Nature

The far more interesting lesson from this episode, however, is what it tells us about human nature. Everyone at that time agreed that the smell was an enormous problem and that removing the sewage would improve public health. Yet despite the readily apparent nature of the problem, the political process still failed to do anything until it was spurred on by a crisis. An observer of modern political debates can well imagine the kind of arguments that were used. People against additional taxes or people allied to the interests that profited from the status quo arguing against the project by either claiming that it was too expensive (the open approach) or that the proposal didn’t go far enough (a more subtle approach). People advocating different solutions (such as rail transport) arguing against the project and for their own pet solution. One might even imagine a Calvinist preacher arguing that, “If God had meant for us not to wallow in a horrific smell, then He wouldn’t have made our excrement smell bad.”

So here you have a guy who is trying for years to convince people that they don’t need to die of disease and walk around in human excrement. Doesn’t this seem like it should be “an easy sell”? Pay a few bucks to improve public health, clean up the Thames and reduce the overwhelming stench of the city? The only thing that I can imagine that should be easier is selling water to a man dying of thirst in the desert. And yet this man was opposed from every direction for years and only triumphed when Mother Nature lent a hand and caused nearly the entire civilian population to demand change. How does this happen? The simple answer to this question is that this kind of thing happens because of “human nature”, but what do we mean by this simple phrase and how does it cause the problem? Let us examine these questions.

One of the chief characteristics of human beings is that we are finite. We have a finite amount of time, we have a finite amount of money, we have a finite amount of understanding. When an issue is brought to the attention of a finite human being, that human being performs what we might call a “triage” wherein they decide what requires immediate attention, what might require attention later and what does not require attention at all. If an issue effects me now, then it is likely to be a “high priority” issue. If an issue effects my immediate friends and family, it is likely to be a “low priority” issue. If it has no impact on us or any immediate friends or family, then it is likely to fall into the “not a priority” category.

The above conclusions, of course, are weighted by the possible consequences of the issue in question. An issue that could ruin my dinner tomorrow will, for a human being of good upbringing, get a lower priority rating than something which might kill a group of strangers. Likewise, the conclusions are weighted by one’s perception of personal responsibility. If I can do nothing to fix a given issue, then I am likely to categorize almost any issue for almost any involved party as “not a priority”. Contrariwise, if I feel like I can make a significant difference in the outcome of the issue, then I am much more likely to decide that these issues are “high priority”. In short, when people decide how they are going to act concerning a given issue, they ask four questions:

  1. Who does this effect?
  2. What are the likely consequences?
  3. What can I do about it?
  4. How hard are the necessary changes?

If a person sees an issue that effects them personally with dire consequences and they can fix the problem with a very small amount of effort, then you will likely see that person act. If a person sees an issue that does not effect them, has low consequences and they cannot do anything about it, then you are unlikely to see action.

Now all of this, of course, makes sense. As a finite human being with limited knowledge, limited time and limited money, what else am I supposed to do? Can I really be expected to care about everyone else on the planet at the same level as myself? Even Jesus Christ, who demonstrated on the cross that he was not a pragmatist given to teaching moral standards that are easy to attain, confined his teaching on loving other human beings to “love thy neighbor”. This qualification is a divine recognition of our limitations as finite creatures. I cannot love everyone, but I can love those in my immediate vicinity.

Yet while the self-centered attitudes that are the consequences of our finite nature are logical, they also make human beings necessarily evil. What else would you say of someone who looked at a life or death issue for someone else and said, “oh, well, that isn’t important to me”? Yet this is exactly what happened before “The Great Stink”. One of the opening scenes of the BBC special was a montage of letters taken from the newpapers of the day where people literally beg for action to address the issue. They talk about the health of their children and they talk about the unbearable smell. Their pleas are touching and well understood by their neighbors who have some peripheral experience with the sewage problem themselves. Yet nothing was done because it wasn’t a high enough priority issue for enough people until it started to effect them personally.  This attitude could be caricatured by those unsympathetic to the human condition as, “Who cares if those people die?   Why should I care?” versus “I smelled something bad the other day!  We have to do something!”

In a previous essay, I talked about the essential link between being good and being self-existent. I argued that if good beings must be self-existent and self-existent beings must be good, then created beings could only be evil. What I meant in that essay was that as finite created beings we are ESSENTIALLY self-centered because of our finite knowledge and understanding of others. In the story of “The Great Stink” we see this link in the clearest possible light. People behaving rationally in the light of their own understanding of their best interests, yet we look at their behavior and say that it was selfish and stupid. The story suggests a picture of humanity that is spiritually illustrative.

Let us imagine a group of people living in a gigantic enclosed bubble with a pool of sewage. Each person contributes his or her share of excrement to the pool and the problem is gradually getting worse. Each person smells their own excrement and says, “that doesn’t smell that bad” while at the same time everyone asks, “What is causing that horrible stench?” Because their excrement does not smell anywhere near as bad to them as the pool of sewage, everyone blames everyone else and tempers begin to rise. What is the solution for these bubble dwellers and their sewage problem?

Jesus Christ Visionary

As people who have read a number of my essays will know, I am an avid follower of atheists on YouTube. Occasionally, one of them will argue that Jesus Christ made no significant contribution to our understanding of morality because “the golden rule” was known and taught by other teachers before him. One way in which I argue against these people is to say that Jesus Christ and his followers were the greatest popularizers of the “golden rule” because of the self-sacrificial way they lived their lives. Any self-seeking televangelist can preach the Golden Rule, but the authors of the New Testament lived it to the point where they were tortured to death and their example changed the world.

Another difficulty with their argument is suggested by the bubble people and their sewage problem. Jesus Christ’s unique contribution was how you solve the problem of moral sewage. The New Testament teaches us that we must “die to ourselves” and be willing to forfeit our own interests and desires. As I argue in another post, this demonstrates an advanced knowledge of what mathematicians would call “Game Theory”. Jesus Christ was to moral sewage in the first century what Joseph Bazalgette was to physical sewage eighteen centuries later.  With his teachings, he demonstrated a truly visionary understanding of the human moral problem two thousand years ago.  (see also Jesus Christ the One and Only)

Biblical Difficulties

Now this has already been a wide-ranging essay covering a number of different topics, but there is one more aspect that makes the story of “The Great Stink” spiritually relevant. Consider the following verses:

Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. (John 14:12)

He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20)

When I was a younger Christian, these verses were very hard for me. The New Testament tells of Jesus Christ raising the dead, healing everybody in a city and feeding thousands of people from a few bread and fish. When has any disciple of Jesus Christ ever done anything comparable to these great miracles?

As I have matured, I have realized that the greatest miracles are miracles of conversion. When we see how hard it is to convince people to build a sewage system so that they don’t wallow in human excrement, we catch a glimpse of how hard it is to teach someone to give their lives to Jesus Christ in faith. If it is hard to sell someone on an inexpensive solution to a major problem with enormous immediate and practical benefits, how much harder is it to convince a hardened sinner that he deserves to die and that he should place his trust in an invisible God who requires adherence to strict moral standards?  Every time I meet a fellow Christian, I am meeting a miracle of God greater than moving any mountain, curing any disease or multiplying a few loaves and fish.

About Robert V

Former atheist currently living in Toronto.
This entry was posted in Atheist Arguments, Biblical Difficulties, Christianity, Politics & Culture and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Great Stink

  1. Tino says:

    I recently had a discussion with a friend who is not a believer. I was sharing my recent conversion. I know that I know that I know that Jesus Christ is Lord, he died on the cross for my sins, he lives and now I live with Him and He lives in me, but I might as well be from Mars when I communicate this message (1 Corinthians 1:23-25)… but at the same time Its impossible for me to keep Jesus a secret; He is God and he loves us and wants all to be saved from sin and judgement. (1 Timothy 2:2-4).

    While I realize that its not my responsibility, or within my ability to convince (only God can do that), it is my commission to plant (Matthew 28:16-20). Faith is a seed. It can never sprout to life unless its heard (Romans 10:17), and without faith its impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6); The greatest miracles of salvation/conversion can only happen when the seeds of the gospel (John 3:16-17) are sown…

  2. My wording was poor in the sense that it does imply that human agents are “responsible” for converting other people. As you have pointed out, this is clearly incorrect. At the same time, I do believe that acts of witness and prayer are necessary for every conversion and that the sowing of the seed through witness and the watering of the seeds through prayer are acts of faith. The result of those acts of faith is the miracle of conversion. This is the sense in which I believe that Jesus meant the words, “greater things than these”.

  3. Pingback: Crude Thankfulness | A Thoughtful Christian

  4. Pingback: Was Jesus Christ a Moral Innovator? | A Thoughtful Christian

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