The World Is Choking on Digital Pollution

Tens of thousands of Londoners died of cholera from the 1830s to the 1860s. The causes were simple: mass quantities of human waste and industrial contaminants were pouring into the Thames, the central waterway of a city at the center of a rapidly industrializing world. The river gave off an odor so rank that Queen Victoria once had to cancel a leisurely boat ride. By the summer of 1858, Parliament couldn’t hold hearings due to the overwhelming stench coming through the windows.

The problem was finally solved by a talented engineer and surveyor named Joseph Bazalgette, who designed and oversaw the construction of an industrial-scale, fully integrated sewer system. Once it was complete, London never suffered a major cholera outbreak again.

London’s problem was not a new one for humanity. Natural and industrial waste is a fact of life. We start excreting in the womb and, despite all the inconveniences, keep at it for the rest of our lives. And, since at least the Promethean moment when we began to control fire, we’ve been contributing to human-generated emissions through advances intended to make our lives easier and more productive, often with little regard for the costs.

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