What if CO2 pollution was black? Or stinky?

After watching this little clip* I can’t get the image of black CO2  balloons out of my mind.    Now that’s sticky messaging.    Try it.

We usually stop dumping waste into our air and water only when we can see it or — better yet — smell it.**   Which brings to mind, of course, London’s 1858 “Great Stink,” a priceless metaphor for our current predicament.

Ten years after Dr. John Snow first discovered that raw sewage seeping into drinking water was causing cholera outbreaks — killing 30-50,000 Londoners, mostly children, every decade or so — the British government still refused to build a sewer system.    Why?   At first,  they didn’t believe Snow; bad air, most thought, not bad water, caused disease.    Second, the dead were mostly poor families, who they probably brought it on themselves somehow.   Finally, building sewers was just too damn expensive.     This may be beginning to sound familiar.

But official dawdling ended one hot day in June, 1958, when the steamy, sewage-filled Thames River backed up, causing such a stink — literally and figuratively — that Parliament was forced to shut down.    Tens of thousands of dead kids?     (Shrug.)     Members of Parliament inconvenienced?    “Emergency!    Emergency!”   Sewers were soon built and cholera disappeared.    Incidentally,  London’s economy boomed.

Is there a lesson here for climate activists?    Predictions of worsening droughts, floods, hurricanes, crop failures, famines, refugees, and mass extinction hasn’t done the trick.  These horrors seem too distant in time and space.   So what might sufficiently inconvenience the rich and powerful — here and now — to motivate action?   What’s the climate equivalent to the Big Stink?

Next week —  Enlisting the other reliable mobilizers of human effort:   greed and lust.

* We found this Alliance for Climate Protection ad via ClimateSpeak.

** An important exception:   The ban on ozone-depleting chemicals, which really took off when the chemical industry realized that they could make more money selling safe substitutes.

For more on London’s “Great Stink” and John Snow’s discovery of the cause of cholera, see The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson (2011) and Earth:  The Operators’ Manual, by Richard Alley (2011).

Leave a Reply