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The Earth Impoverished by the Sea

So much is spoken of the environment and of solutions great and small, from men whom profess be pioneers and patriarchs of the Dream, to lesser base shadows of men whom cannot think but of profit or with such distanced disdain as that of little men with little minds that we find our planet in such peril.

Today let us turn to and consider the wisdom of author Viktor Hugo’s solution 200 years ago in France.

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Paris casts twenty-five millions of francs annually into the sea; and we assert this without any metaphor. How so, and in what way? By day and night. For what object? For no object. With what thought? Without thinking. What to do? Nothing. By means of what organ? Its intestines. What are its intestines? Its sewers. Twenty-five millions are the most moderate of the approximative amounts given by the estimates of modern science. Science, after groping for a long time, knows now that the most fertilizing and effective of manures is human manure. The Chinese, let us say it to our shame, knew this before we did; not a Chinese peasant—it is Eckeberg who states the fact—who goes to the city, but brings at either end of his bamboo a bucket full of what we call filth. Thanks to the human manure, the soil in China is still as youthful as in the days of Abraham, and Chinese wheat yields just one hundred and twenty fold the sowing. There is no guano comparable in fertility to the detritus of a capital, and a large city is the strongest of stercoraries. To employ the town in manuring the plain would be certain success; for if gold be dung, on the other hand our dung is gold.

What is done with this golden dung? It is swept into the gulf. We send at a great expense fleets of ships to collect at the southern pole the guano of petrels and penguins, and cast into the sea the incalculable element of wealth which we have under our hand. All the human and animal manure which the world loses, if returned to the land instead of being thrown into the sea, would suffice to nourish the world. Do you know what those piles of ordure are, collected at the corners of streets, those carts of mud carried off at night from the streets, the frightful barrels of the night-man, and the fetid streams of subterranean mud which the pavement conceals from you? All this is a flowering field, it is green grass, it is mint and thyme and sage, it is game, it is cattle, it is the satisfied lowing of heavy kine at night, it is perfumed hay, it is gilded wheat, it is bread on your table, it is warm blood in your veins, it is health, it is joy, it is life. So desires that mysterious creation, which is transformation on earth and transfiguration in heaven; restore this to the great crucible, and your abundance will issue from it, for the nutrition of the plains produces the nourishment of men. You are at liberty to lose this wealth and consider me ridiculous into the bargain; it would be the masterpiece of your ignorance. Statistics have calculated that France alone pours every year into the Atlantic a sum of half a milliard. Note this; with these five hundred millions one quarter of the expenses of the budget would be paid. The cleverness of man is so great that he prefers to get rid of these five hundred millions in the gutter. The very substance of the people is borne away, here drop by drop, and there in streams, by the wretched vomiting of our sewers into the rivers, and the gigantic vomiting of our rivers into the ocean. Each eructation of our cloacas costs us one thousand francs, and this has two results,—the earth impoverished and the water poisoned; hunger issuing from the furrow and illness from the river. It is notorious that at this very hour the Thames poisons London; and as regards Paris, it has been found necessary to remove most of the mouths of the sewers down the river below the last bridge.

A double tubular apparatus supplied with valves and flood-gates, a system of elementary drainage as simple as the human lungs, and which is already in full work in several English parishes, would suffice to bring into bur towns the pure water of the fields and send to the fields the rich water of the towns; and this easy ebb and flow, the most simple in the world, would retain among us the five hundred millions thrown away. But people are thinking of other things. The present process does mischief while meaning well. The intention is good, but the result is sorrowful; they believe they are draining the city, while they are destroying the population. A sewer is a misunderstanding; and when drainage, with its double functions, restoring what it takes, is everywhere substituted for the sewer, that simple and impoverishing washing, and is also combined with the data of a new social economy, the produce of the soil will be increased tenfold, and the problem of misery will be singularly attenuated. Add the suppression of parasitisms, and it will be solved. In the mean while the public wealth goes to the river, and a sinking takes place,—sinking is the right word, for Europe is being ruined in this way by exhaustion. As for France, we have mentioned the figures. Now, as Paris contains one twenty-fifth of the whole French population, and the Parisian guano is the richest of all, we are beneath the truth when we estimate at twenty-five millions the share of Paris in the half-milliard which France annually refuses. These twenty-five millions, employed in assistance and enjoyment, would double the splendor of Paris, and the city expends them in sewers. So that we may say, the great prodigality of Paris, its marvellous fête, its Folie Beaujon, its orgie, its lavishing of gold, its luxury, splendor, and magnificence, is its sewerage. It is in this way that in the blindness of a bad political economy people allow the comfort of all to be drowned and wasted in the water; there ought to be St. Cloud nets to catch the public fortunes.

Economically regarded, the fact may be thus summarized: Paris is a regular spendthrift. Paris, that model city, that pattern of well-conducted capitals, of which every people strives to have a copy, that metropolis of the ideal, that august home of initiative, impulse, and experiment, that centre and gathering-place of minds, that nation city, that beehive of the future, that marvellous composite of Babylon and Corinth, would make a peasant of Fo-Kian shrug his shoulders, from our present point of view. Imitate Paris, and you will ruin yourself; moreover, Paris imitates itself particularly in this immemorial and insensate squandering. These surprising follies are not new; it is no youthful nonsense. The ancients acted like the moderns. “The cloacas of Rome,” says Liebig, “absorbed the entire welfare of the Roman peasant.” When the Campagna of Rome was ruined by the Roman sewer, Rome exhausted Italy; and when it had placed Italy in its cloaca, it poured into it Sicily, and then Sardinia, and then Africa. The sewer of Rome swallowed up the world. This cloaca offered its tunnels to the city and to the world. Urbi et orbi. Eternal city and unfathomable drain.

For these things, as for others, Rome gives the example, and this example Paris follows with all the folly peculiar to witty cities. For the requirements of the operation which we have been explaining, Paris has beneath it another Paris, a Paris of sewers, which has its streets, squares, lanes, arteries, and circulation, which is mud, with the human forces at least. For nothing must be flattered, not even a great people. Where there is everything, there is ignominy by the side of sublimity; and if Paris contain Athens the city of light, Tyre the city of power, Sparta the city of virtue, Nineveh the city of prodigies, it also contains Lutetia the city of mud. Moreover, the stamp of its power is there too, and the Titanic sewer of Paris realizes among monuments the strange ideal realized in humanity by a few men like Machiavelli, Bacon, and Mirabeau,—the grand abject. The subsoil of Paris, if the eye could pierce the surface, would offer the aspect of a gigantic madrepore; a sponge has not more passages and holes than the piece of ground, six leagues in circumference, upon which the old great city rests. Without alluding to the catacombs, which are a separate cellar, without speaking of the inextricable net of gas-pipes, without referring to the vast tubular system for the distribution of running water, the drains alone form on either bank of the river a prodigious dark ramification, a labyrinth which has its incline for its clew. In the damp mist of this labyrinth is seen the rat, which seems the produce of the accouchement of Paris.

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