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That’s not what I meant

This is a true story, and it’s based on the research of Dr. Scott Nixon at the University of Rhode Island. I spent last week at a conference in Newport, and was entirely fascinated by his plenary talk. Besides being a neat juxtaposition of history and technology, it has some interesting implications for worldbuilding in science fiction.

Narragansett Bay within Rhode Island

First, let me orient you. This is Rhode Island, and Narragansett Bay is outlined in red. Providence, the largest city in Rhode Island, is at the north end of the bay, about where it touches the red box. Rhode Island itself is 48 miles (77 km) long and 37 miles (60 km) wide.

The Narragansetts and the Wampanoag tribes lived along the bay when Giovanni da Verrazzano found it in 1524, and the first European settlement was established in the 1630s. It’s really the Europeans we’re concerned with here.

Providence was founded in 1636 by religious dissenters. After the American Revolution it had 7,614 people. The economy depended mostly on the bay for fishing, with a bit of agriculture.

The Industrial Revolution made it to the new United States when textile machinery was built in Rhode Island in 1787, following English plans. Industrialization took off, and by 1831 the population of Providence had reached 17,000.

The city is right on the water, at the head of Narragansett Bay, so anything it does affects the water quality of the entire bay. But even as Providence became a thriving industrial city, its impact on water quality was surprisingly low. as its population increased enormously In 1865, when the population of Providence was 54,595, eelgrass beds were mapped all along the Providence River.

eelgrass - Zostera

So what? Well, eelgrass (Zostera marina) is very sensitive to nitrogen levels in the water. All those people in Providence weren’t affecting the water quality much at all, or the eelgrass would be gone.

That’s a lot of people; how were they having such a small impact on the bay? Well, this is the age of outhouses. Most human waste was solid, or only small quantities of liquid. When you have to haul water from the town well, you don’t use very much of it. Most waste stayed where it was put, only leaching out slowly over time.

I’m certainly not claiming that outhouses are a good way to manage a city’s worth of human waste: Providence had at least two major cholera epidemics in the mid-nineteenth century. But that pollution wasn’t making it into the bay. Much of the human and animal solid waste was being hauled into the country and used as fertilizer.

The prospect of a public water supply was an exciting one, and after a couple decades of planning, the water was turned on in 1871. Public health and fire safety, not to mention simple convenience, were strong motivations.

People started using water at much, much higher rates: flush toilets! no more hauling buckets! (From 7-11 liters per person per day to 190-380.) The city planners expected that the existing street gutter system would be adequate to deal with the increased volume. They were wrong.

It didn’t take long at all for the cesspools and privy vaults to overflow and seep into the streets. Planning for a sewer system began almost immediately, but it didn’t begin service until 1878.

Providence wasn’t alone in this: many cities installed public waterworks in the nineteenth century, and none began planning for sewers until after the water was running.

The sewer system carried waste directly into the rivers. Where before the nutrients were being taken to inland farms, now they were swept right into the bay. The first Providence sewage treatment plant didn’t begin operation until 1901, and by then there were 175,597 people in Providence.

The eelgrass was long gone.

And it wasn’t just the people. Providence relied on horses for transport and hauling. The number of horses in the city peaked around 1900, and then fell off sharply when the automobile was introduced. During that peak, though, an estimated 90 g of horse manure per square meter coated the city streets.

Providence has gotten much better at managing its wastes over the past century, of course, although there’s still room for improvement.

I came away from this lecture with two thoughts about worldbuilding for fantasy and science fiction.

First, even though we often set stories in horse-dependent worlds and with primitive technologies, we don’t usually think about what comes in and what goes out. Scientists call this mass balance. Horses need to eat a lot, and they excrete a lot. So do people. How is this handled in fiction? (Usually by ignoring it!) Where do things come from, and where do they go? Thinking about this some can help to create a world that feels real. Energy too: where does it come from?

And then there’s the impact of new technologies. It seems so obvious in retrospect, but nobody considered how water use would increase when it became easy to use it. The city had to struggle to catch up, and the bay will never be the same. That kind of threshold event can make for a great story.

What are the human and environmental consequences of the next great thing?

The Volcano Always Wins

In Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day the main character is James Stevens, a butler proud to serve his master, Lord Darlington – a rather dim aristocrat with political ambitions who becomes close to Mosley’s philo-Nazi Blackshirts. Stevens sacrifices all vestiges of self-expression, including the possibility of love, to become the perfect servant. His dignity and sense of office forbid him to question social and political rules and he remains loyal to the master-servant ideal even when its time is long past.

A week ago, Mas Penewu Surakso Hargo, known as Mbah (Grandfather) Maridjan, died on Mount Merapi in the Yogyakarta region of Java (founded as a sultanate in 1755). Maridjan, like his father before him, had been appointed guardian of Merapi by the sultan of Yogyakarta. He was in charge of ceremonies to appease the spirit of the mountain and he described his job as being “to stop the lava from flowing down”.

In 2006 and again in 2010, Maridjan refused to evacuate when Merapi erupted, calling himself and his fellow villagers the fortress whose function was to protect the sultan’s palace. Both times, others followed his example on the strength of his moral authority. He was found in a praying position, overwhelmed by pyroclastic flow from the mountain. Also killed were thirteen people who were in his home trying to persuade him to leave. The local populace is clamoring for a new guardian and the sultan plans to appoint one soon.

Most people consider Stevens a deluded pathetic figure, despite his dignity and loyalty. Ditto for Harry Randall Truman, who elected to stay on Mt. St. Helens in 1980. In contrast, many consider Maridjan admirable, a laudable example of spirituality and adherence to principle, even though his actions led to preventable deaths.

Inevitably, there are more threads to this braid. Truman and Maridjan were in their mid-eighties; both voiced the sentiment that their time had come, and that such a death was preferable to dwindling away in increasing helplessness. The people of Yogyakarta are trying to preserve the pre-Islamic heritage of Indonesia against mounting pressure from the increasingly hardline official policies and the imams who enforce them. Additionally, many Merapi evacuees were left with nothing but the little they could carry, in a nation that has a rich legacy and tremendous recources – but one that also has had more than its share of natural and man-made disasters and whose political, ecological and economic status is wobbly.

Maridjan is admired as the keeper and transmitter of endangered cultural knowledge. I have already discussed this issue from the angles of deracination and art. The time has come to also point out the problems and dangers of tradition.

There’s no doubt that unique cultural customs keep the world multicolored and kaleidoscopic. Even though I’m an atheist and consider all organized religions unmitigated disasters for women, I’m still moved by the Easter ceremonies of the orthodox church. However, I’m not interested in their Christian-specific narrative. What moves me are the layers embedded in them: the laments of Mariam for her son are nearly identical to those of Aphrodite for Adonis, and they’re echoed in folk and literary poetry in which mothers lament dead sons (the most famous is Epitáfios by Yiánnis Rítsos, set to unforgettable music by Mikis Theodorákis). When I hear them, I hear all the echoes as well, see all the images superimposed like ghostly layers on a palimpsest. For me, that’s what lends them resonance and richness.

But there are times when I must part most decisively with tradition. There are plenty of traditions whose disappearance has made (or will make – many are still extant) the world a better place: from spreading bloody wedding sheets to foot binding to female genital mutilation; from forbidding women to sing lest they distract their husbands to knocking out teeth of new wives to show they will rely on their husbands’ prowess henceforth; from slavery and serfdom to polygyny and concubinage; from having unprotected sex with virgins to “cure” sexually transmitted diseases to “laying hands” on a child sinking into a diabetic coma.

Then there are the power-mongering charlatans who prey on fear and despair, particularly when hard times fall upon people: sickness, natural catastrophe, occupation, war. It’s true that Western medicine follows the heroic model – and as such it’s outstanding at treating acute illnesses but tends to over-specialize, sometimes at the expense of a holistic approach that treats the root cause rather than the symptoms. It’s equally true that modern technology has allowed ecological depradations at an enormous scale that threaten to become irreversible. Finally, it’s painfully true that deracination and colonialism often go hand in hand with modernization. Oppressed people revive or revert to traditions, often the last vestiges of suppressed cultural identity, as an act of resistance.

However, prayers don’t shrink a tumor nor frighten invaders away and the sun rises and sets whether beating hearts are offered to it or not. Too, if someone jumps from an airplane or a high ledge without a parachute, no amount of belief in divine favor will waft them away on a magic carpet or give them wings. Nor were traditional states pre-lapsarian paradises, as an objective reading of Tibetan, Aztec and Maori history will attest.

When we didn’t know the reasons behind phenomena, such customs were understandable if not necessarily palatable. Not any more, not with today’s knowledge and its global reach. The mindset that clings to the concept that incantations will stop a volcano is kin to the mindset the refuses to accept evolution as established fact. Standing in the path of a meteor is not the same as standing at Thermopylae, romantic notions of doomed last stands notwithstanding. The 300 Spartans who stood at Thermopylae had a concrete goal as well as a symbolic one: they stopped the Persian army long enough to give the rest of the Greek city-states time to strategize and organize. And the rarely-mentioned 1,000 Thespians who stood with them did so against their particular customs – for the sake of the new-fangled, larger concept of living in freedom.

In the end, the traditions that deserve to survive are those that are neutral or positive in terms of improving human life across the hierarchy of needs (and that includes taking care of our planet). Mbah Maridjan was the guardian of the mountain, which put him in the position of caretaker of his fellow villagers as well as of the putative Merapi spirit. If he saw his function as loyalty to an abstract principle of servitude rather than protecting his very real people, he was misguided at best – and his stance had far worse repercussions than those of Ishiguro’s Stevens, who only harmed himself and the woman who hoped to love him.

I once read an almost certainly apocryphal tale of a young woman who asked her rabbi, “Rebbe, is it ever acceptable to eat pork?” “Never!” said the rabbi. “Pig meat is always treff. Why do you ask?” “During last winter’s famine, I fed my young brothers sausages,” replied the girl. “It was either that or watch them starve.” “In that case, it was kosher,” decided the rabbi.

That’s the kind of humane traditionalism I can live with. Tribalism was adaptive once, but has become a mixed blessing at best. Tradition encourages blind faith, satisfaction with rote answers and authority – and history demonstrates that humans don’t do well when they follow orders unquestioningly. As for the questing mindset ushered and encouraged by science, I will close with words I used elsewhere:

Science doesn’t strip away the grandeur of the universe; the intricate patterns only become lovelier as more keep appearing and coming into focus. Science leads to connections across scales, from universes to quarks. And we, with our ardent desire and ability to know ever more, are lucky enough to be at the nexus of all this richness.

Images: top, pyroclastic cloud from the Rinjani volcano, part of the Ring of Fire to which Merapi also belongs (photo by Oliver Spalt); middle, a Han Chinese woman’s “golden lotus”; bottom, wayang kulit — the Javanese shadow puppets, part of the Yogyakarta people’s heritage.