'The London Bathing Season,' from Punch, or the London Charivari, June 18, 1859. (The Cartoon Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

World - Unsanitary and deadly: The Great Stink of 1858 may foreshadow our future climate breakdown

One of the smelliest summers in history has stark implications for our present climate breakdown, experts say

As Summer 2023 continues to shatter heat records, climate change experts are talking about a "new abnormal." Studies indicate that ecosystems are likely to rapidly collapse as extreme weather events caused by these heatwaves pile up, one on top of the other. Sky high temperatures are rendering cities like Phoenix, Arizona into borderline uninhabitable heat domes.

If this type of unbearable heat is going to be part of humanity's long-term future, it behooves us to turn to history for precedents. Only in that way can we better understand what awaits us.

"While not directly related to sewage systems, there is definitely evidence that heat waves can impact water quality and supply."

This brings us to the Great Stink of 1858, which was an incident in English history during which the city of London was paralyzed by one of the hottest, smelliest and most unsanitary summers in history.

The story is set in London during the July and August doldrums. Because London's sewerage system had deteriorated over centuries, human waste was seeping into the banks of the Thames before it finally was dumped into the city's main river. In addition to untreated human excrement, the Thames was also full of industrial chemicals and other manufacturing byproducts. Even before the Great Stink of 1858, three separate cholera outbreaks had already been tenuously linked to the river by public health authorities. Yet there was not enough political will among the English elite to address the problem, so it simply festered — in many ways, literally.

Thousands of people died during the Great Stink, thanks largely to waterborne diseases like dysentery, typhoid and cholera while millions more were regularly forced to live in unsanitary conditions in the decades previous. The story is, at its heart, a testament to how the apathy of a society's leaders for the less fortunate can lead to unpredictable mass crises.

In another sense, the Great Stink is regarded as a tale of triumph, and in one respect that may be accurate. Joseph Bazalgette, a civil engineer, brilliantly convinced civic leaders to construct 132 kilometers (82 miles) of underground brick sewers that using a complex plan would divert the raw sewage away from areas where humans could interact with them.

Unlike today, when scientists know that disease is spread by microorganisms, Victorian Englishmen thought it was spread by "miasmas," or "bad air." In this sense Bazalgette's science was wrong, but his underlying reasoning was still correct: Use the potential of modern engineering to limit human contact with their own waste to the greatest extent possible. As a result of Bazalgette's ingenuity, cholera outbreaks in London were reduced and countless lives were saved.

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