Fatbergs and the apocalypse

Yesterday, Tim Adams at the Guardian wrote one of the most fantastic pieces of local news I’ve read recently. It’s about the fatberg under Whitechapel. If you’ve never heard of a fatberg, it’s the horrifying sewer equivalent of an arterial blockage. Instead of fat clogging one’s arteries, a mixture of wet wipes flushed down the toilet and grease washed down the drain unite in the sewers into a massive blob, with other detritus (used condoms, hypodermic needles, rubbish) and occasional small creatures going along for the ride. There have been a few around London, causing millions of pounds of damage. The article gives this one a number of catchy nicknames – the Whitechapel Behemoth, the East End Mammoth, the Leviathan – and brings in the history of Bazalgette’s sewer works, social history, and the fact that part of it has been conserved and will be in a Museum of London exhibit (called Fatberg!), opening February 9. This led me down so many paths of thought. First: just go read the article. Adams should win some kind of prize for such engaging writing.

One of the reasons this feels like a distinctly London story, is the horrible history of the city and its effluent, a history that until recently seemed happily confined to the past. Prior to autumn 2016, the last time we looked so hard at sewage was during the Great Stink of 1858, when a combination of a hot and dry summer and the practice of discharging the raw sewage of a fast-growing population directly into the Thames, turned the river brown and saw sewage 10ft-deep at the river’s margins. MPs were forced to debate in Parliament with handkerchiefs over their faces. Cholera and typhoid were epidemic. Like the burghers of Hamelin menaced by rats, the government charged the director of metropolitan works, Joseph Bazalgette, with solving the problem. With 318 million bricks and over the course of 16 years he did just that.

Second, he brings up one of my favorite tropes (sub-tropes?): the idea that the apocalypse is best represented by or in London. This is a trope frequently played with in the weird fiction of China Mieville (UnLunDun, London’s Overthrow), Will Self (The Book of Dave), and Neil Gaiman (Neverwhere). The city is often its own character, growing, heaving, digesting. Mieville lectured on cities – London in particular – as palimpsests of history, dark places where occasionally you can see clarity scratching through and enlightening one tiny moment. In this case, the fatberg has covered all the bases, becoming a metonym for London itself. It has grown underground, a vulgar beast composed of waste typical of the modern era, and pressed itself into our lives. The fact that it’s going on display completes its cycle. The fatberg, a chthonic monster, has found its way into the light and has made all of the disgusting practices of modern life (particularly those we shy away from, not just sex and drugs and excrement, but overuse of resources and inability to care about our environmental impact) clear to us. Not only clear, but enshrined in a temple of culture. Yes, this is the apocalypse – not the one we imagined, with fiery rain and four horsemen, but the one in which we reckon with the disasters of our own making, right in the heart of the city.

Third, I should mention that the urban relationship with fat goes deeper, and the history of Les Innocents Cemetery in Paris is worth mentioning. Just as London had a Great Stink, so did the Les Halles neighborhood, but theirs was caused by a buildup of human bodies not-quite-buried in the cemetery. There were too many bodies stacked too deep to decompose properly and so they rotted in the ground (which wasn’t dirt at that point, just more bodies) into a mass of bones and adipocere. There was a city-wide effort in 1786 to relocate the bones into ancient mine shafts, which are now the Paris Catacombs. The remaining fat was reportedly used to make soap and candles. Yes, like in Fight Club.

Fourth, it drew a link to another recent article on dystopias, beginning with the wonderful phrase:

This is not the dystopia we were promised.

You thought it would be like Black Mirror, right? With a fascist state and complete surveillance and biohacking. It’s not, though. This dystopia is fatbergs, and fatbergs are us. The fatberg is a perfect representation of the horror and fascination of modern urban life. We live in excess, we waste, and a team of flushers that, in an ideal world, would be mechanized and WALL-E like, are very real human beings have to go and shovel it out by hand while clothed in Hazmat suits. And it’s in a museum.*

 

*(I should make it clear that I am so excited that’s it’s going into MOL and I will be one of the first to see it.)

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UPDATE: Here’s an article from the MOL asking “how do you solve a problem like the fatberg?”

It’s an especially difficult challenge for us as conservators, because we have to protect not just the fatberg, but also ourselves and our visitors. The fatberg in its current state is an extremely hazardous material, teeming with bacteria and releasing small amounts of toxic gases. Given the amount of rubbish that people pump into London’s sewage system, we can’t know exactly what sort of dangers are lurking within the ‘berg. The sample of fatberg we’ve taken might contain hypodermic needles, condoms, or sanitary materials, and are certainly capable of spreading disease.

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Link Extra: Climate Change Special

It’s not every day that a news article gives me a panic attack. Last week, I found that special piece that sent me reeling on the tube. Perhaps you’ve read it: the New York Magazine article about the effects of unstopped (unstoppable?) climate change. The author, David Wallace-Wells, argues that when the planet heats up by 6 degrees, it will basically be a Mad Max situation with less food, more violence, total inability to go outside in the tropics, and even more severe weather:

In a six-degree-warmer world, the Earth’s ecosystem will boil with so many natural disasters that we will just start calling them “weather”: a constant swarm of out-of-control typhoons and tornadoes and floods and droughts, the planet assaulted regularly with climate events that not so long ago destroyed whole civilizations. The strongest hurricanes will come more often, and we’ll have to invent new categories with which to describe them; tornadoes will grow longer and wider and strike much more frequently, and hail rocks will quadruple in size.

Reading this article, I felt a similar state of heart-in-my-throat horror to two years ago, when the New Yorker article about a potential devastating Pacific tsunami was published. That feeling was appropriately summarized by internet wonder Mallory Ortberg of the Toast (RIP), interspersing quotes about the disastrous consequences with emotional pleas and very appropriate pearl-clutching. Screen Shot 2017-07-17 at 19.54.51

I read the article many times, listening to Florence and the Machine’s “What the Water Gave Me” on repeat. I was in a state of shock, and Mallory helped me through it. I wasn’t alone in my fear. Plus, we could move everyone away from the Pacific coast, right? Not this time, pals. This time the whole world’s in trouble. There’s no Captain Planet to come in and fight the bad guys, because there aren’t really bad guys – it’s us and our decisions, and the capitalist need for economic growth.

… in the aftermath of the 2008 crash, a growing number of historians studying what they call “fossil capitalism” have begun to suggest that the entire history of swift economic growth, which began somewhat suddenly in the 18th century, is not the result of innovation or trade or the dynamics of global capitalism but simply our discovery of fossil fuels and all their raw power — a onetime injection of new “value” into a system that had previously been characterized by global subsistence living. Before fossil fuels, nobody lived better than their parents or grandparents or ancestors from 500 years before, except in the immediate aftermath of a great plague like the Black Death, which allowed the lucky survivors to gobble up the resources liberated by mass graves.

I can’t handle it. As much as I want to know the horrors our future will bring, I struggled to finish the article. It’s all the apocalyptic scenarios in one. My friends made a facebook chat so we can find each other and skill-share. I’m responsible for foraging, but will the same plants even grow? I only know wild ones, and precious little about farming. In the grocery store, I wondered who had ever thought cultivating peaches was a good idea – so difficult to transport and a total waste considering the caloric value. My mind turned to medicine. What happens when the antibiotics run out and all we have left are antibiotic-resistant bacteria? What happens when our IUDs expire? What happens when… you can’t let someone suffering from anxiety read this stuff. I woke up early, in the middle of a dream that the rising water took my passport.

Then salvation came in the form of a follow-up piece: it’s not as bad as NYM makes it out to be! Apparently climate scientists have taken to twitter to explain that the situation described by Wallace-Wells is overly disastrous.

But what are the odds? That’s the crucial question. In light of current energy trends and the Paris climate agreement, it seems more likely at present that human society will slowly bend its emissions curve downward, missing targets set by climate scientists (and blowing by 2 degrees Celsius of warming) but not hitting these worst-case scenarios, either.

So. Whew. A little bit. I can stop panicking now, right? The Paris climate agreement (which the US has backed out of) ensures we won’t warm 6 degrees, right? Maybe there are some steps I can tale to personally limit my carbon footprint?

This article gives some helpful tips to continue my Captain Planet-ing. Have one less child (I’ve got none! tick), don’t own a car (tick!), avoid one trans-Atlantic flight (as long as the UK doesn’t deport me, sure!). I already feel much better. There’s not much I can do as an individual. Worrying about whether to cut out the greasy bit of the pizza box so I can recycle the rest is not a huge deal in the grand scheme of things. On the other hand, I still feel awful and personally responsible for the increased temperatures and future wars whenever I don’t bring my spork to a take-away. I mean, at least my six years of being vegetarian has saved 4,920 kilograms of carbon.

Next, this article from QZ supports the decision I made last year to stop buying consumer items by stating that even buying “ethical” goods doesn’t make a difference, because that item still had to be produced and shipped and packaged. (See further: there is no ethical consumption under capitalism.)

The problem is that even though we want to make the right choices, it’s often too little, too late. For example, friends are always asking me where to take their old clothes so that they are either effectively recycled or make it into the hands of people who need them. My answer? It doesn’t matter where you take them: It will always end up in the exact same overloaded waste stream, which may or may not eventually dump it in Haiti. This isn’t your fault for trying to do the right thing: It’s the fault of the relentless trend cycle of fast fashion, which is flooding the secondhand market with a glut of clothes that Americans don’t want at any price.

It also brings up the fact that the sustainability movement is privileged and elitist, as quality “ethical” goods are too expensive for the average consumer, which goes back to Terry Pratchett’s $50 boot argument. If you can afford it, make sure the things you buy now are quality, and then stop buying them; instead of going shopping, lobby for change, and instead of spending $20 on a t-shirt, donate it to a charity of your choice.

My friend Elinor responded to this by writing an article on ethical food consumption, which is still something I struggle with:

She ignores the pivotal role of food — which we cannot simply consume less of. She ignores the fact that one of the biggest solutions to climate change comes down to individual food consumption choices. She doesn’t mention that one of the “structural incentives” that keeps some companies with unsustainable business models in business, is the fact that their consumers don’t give a shit. Or we do give a shit, but when we’re standing in the supermarket aisle trying to make a snap decision about what to eat for dinner whilst speaking on the phone to a friend about our holiday plans, good intentions do not translate into conscious decisions.

I have this problem daily. Do I spend £1 more on organic canned chickpeas when I don’t know what “organic” means here? Do I avoid the packaging waste by getting dry chickpeas by the kilo in my reusable shopping bag, which will require an additional shopping trip, a day to soak, and the risk that my housemates will throw them out before I get around to cooking them? I often just give up and buy the 50p can, but at least I go for the dented can nobody else will buy. This article directs readers to a further list of climate actions, 17 of which have to do with food, particularly food waste. She stresses that “the fact that the world is in a mess doesn’t make it more difficult to tidy your bedroom, and tidying your bedroom doesn’t really stop you from cleaning up the world.” Change starts at home, and it’s good to set an example. My friend Amy has inspired me to carry my own tupperware and bring my own mug to cafes. I hope my refusal to drink water from disposable plastic bottles inspires someone else. I’ve overcome my phone anxiety to call politicians. Small steps will make small changes; a (slightly nonsensical) Malian proverb says “little by little, the bird builds its nest”.* As individuals we must believe in our collective power to make a bigger difference. Let’s be slightly less doomsday about it: we can’t focus on cutting the grease stain from the pizza box when we’re curled up in the corner panicking.

 

*Thanks to my friend Jonathan for this.

Later update: having watched the new Game of Thrones season opener, I noted the Archmaester’s warning, summarised thus by AV Club:

The Archmaester tries to convince Sam that this is just another threat to the realm in a long list of threats, and that none of the past ones have truly brought the apocalypse some predicted: however, the whole point of this story is that this is no normal winter, and “Dragonstone” successfully makes clear that everyone but Jon Snow has a long way to go before they realize there is more at stake than the Iron Throne.

True that.