Have you seen the Beijing Sky lately? It looks more clear sometimes, but often like this:
That’s not fog, that’s smog. We have a whole planet’s worth of atmosphere, and we manage to make a city’s air look like that. Beijing isn’t alone. Plenty of cities around the world look the same, as you know.
I couldn’t help but think of it when I saw Mel Brooks lately and remembered a gag from his movie, History of the World, Part 1. The scene introduces ancient Rome and shows people in a market promoting the things history books attribute to ancient Rome. One guy is selling plumbing, which, I guess, Rome invented or made big. He shouts out:
Yes, citizens, plumbing! It’s the latest invention to hit Rome! It moves water from one place to another! It’s astounding, it’s amazing! Get on the bandwagon! Pipe the shit right out of your house!
Part of the joke is the baseness of him referring to what we consider one of the great inventions of civilizations by “Pipe the shit right out of your house!” It’s funny because that’s one of the more valuable things plumbing does. You can see it at 1:50 in this low quality recording of it:
Before you could pipe the shit right out of your house, you had to deal with your own shit. You had to take responsibility for your shit or you’d have it in your house.
Now, I prefer my shit elsewhere once it’s out of my body, but I also like people to take responsibility for their own. Just because it gets out of view and your house doesn’t mean it disappears. Do you see how we’re getting toward the Beijing sky? Plumbing is great. It cleans your area, but it doesn’t make things cleaner. It moves the mess.
Moving the mess is no problem if you have infinite space to put it in. It’s also not a mess if it decomposes into food for plants, fungi, etc.
For thousands of years, space seemed infinite and our waste did decompose. Recently our species ran out of new places for us to move into, or at least the easy places, and we started producing waste that won’t decompose for thousands of years. The model of piping the shit right out of our houses doesn’t work any more. People fantasize that we’ll invent ways of fixing the mess, but we haven’t. Overall, we’ve only increased how much and how fast we create shit that we pump out of our houses, into the environment without taking personal responsibility.
I don’t think many people have realized the consequences of not taking responsibility and then taking responsibility. If you take responsibility to produce less shit, most people think that means living a lower quality of life, or that you have to live like before civilization. If you take responsibility for cleaning yours, you take on extra work and cost, which people think means you live a worse life too. As I posted recently, everyone cares about the environment until they want to see the Eiffel Tower. Then they don’t think about it. So everyone cares except when they do something that hurts others, and then just this one excuse is okay.
Except the Beijing Sky, Mexico City sky, Indonesian sky, Detroit water, and increasingly everywhere don’t listen to your excuses.
I’m a fan of plumbing, but we have to realize its limitations—it doesn’t make shit disappear, it doesn’t create more Earth to pump stuff to, and it doesn’t make plastic, heavy metals, and radioactive waste decompose.
Technical as they sound, those problems are ultimately social, as is dealing with a community’s shit, and technical “solutions” rarely solve social problems. Only social solutions do. I work on leadership to help develop social solutions. We don’t have them yet, no matter how much we dream of devices that can pull carbon out of the air or mercury out of the ocean and fish.
Until then, I see personal responsibility as our best hope. Even if you can pipe your shit out of your house, now that we filled the planet and create non-degradable waste, produce less waste.
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