2 years ago: ‘We know how to get out of this mess’

September 26, 2011, here on slacktivist: ‘We know how to get out of this mess’

One thing that has always amazed me about the Dark Ages was how we managed to stop knowing so much of what we had previously known about, for example, sanitation.

One of the nice things about the Roman Empire was the way it didn’t require one to walk around ankle-deep in human excrement. Much of the former Roman Empire later opted to revert to having feces in the streets. I can’t believe that was a matter of preference. I don’t think people in Rome were muttering, “I wish the Empire would just fall already so we can get rid of this wretched sanitation and go back to raw sewage in the gutters.”

And yet that happened.

Europe knew how to solve the problem of sanitation and then, fairly suddenly, it stopped knowing how to solve that problem. And it took more than a thousand years of filth, stench and disease before they would figure it out again.

We seem to be doing the same thing right now. We’re ankle-deep in a mess we know how to fix, but we’ve chosen instead to pretend we don’t know how to fix it. That stinks.

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  • MikeJ

    The sewers in Paris were built in 1370 by Hugues Aubriot. Wikipedia says, “He was on very poor terms with both the Church, and the University of Paris, which was dominated by the Clergy.” One of the reasons they hated him was him didn’t let them persecute minorities.

    Mister we could use a man like Hugues Aubriot again……

  • Laurent Weppe

    Keeping the sanitation functional at the end of the Roman Empire would have meant for the rulng class of land owners to give up part of ts wealth to pay the workers needed to do the job.

    You have three tries to guess what happened.

  • J_Enigma32

    They wired all their money to the Cayman Islands and other tax havens with the other 31.2 trillion dollars floating around out there.


  • Laurent Weppe

    Almost: they deserted Rome, and went to Ravenna to keep on partying without giving a fuck about the breakin down of the infrastructures and the hunger the common people suffered until the Western empire completely collapsed

  • TheBrett

    The “walking around in their own filth” claim about the Middle Ages (and Middle Age sanitation in general) is usually mythical. Larger residences usually had attached privies that emptied into cesspools, which were then taken out of the city by groups of member who did that type of work. Smaller homes usually had to make do with urinating/defecating into a bucket/basin, which was then dumped into the nearest stream or river. You couldn’t throw it in the street, because most medieval towns and cities had ordinances requiring that you keep the street in front of your home clean.

    This Quora essay by Tim O’Neill goes into more detail about it.

    Ironically, the “walking around in your filth” thing was more likely to happen in the rapidly expanding cities of 19th century Europe, and particularly London (described in the excellent book Ghost Map about a cholera outbreak that happened because of this). London, for example, had expanded so quickly that it had outpaced the traditional methods of getting rid of waste (gong farmers emptying cess pools and taking the waste outside of the city), but it hadn’t built a sewer/sanitation system yet. That meant you had a ton of overflowing cesspools in poor areas.