Unsustainable – Chicago 1900 – On the Brink of Ecological Disaster

You want unsustainable? I’ll give you unsustainable.  This is from Eric Larson’s “The Devil In the White City” a story of The Columbian Exposition at the end of the Victorian Era.

“As the firm (Burnham & Root) grew, so did the city (Chicago).  It grew dirtier, darker, and more dangerous.  A miasma of cinder-flecked smoke blackened its streets and at times reduced visibility to the distance of a single block, especially in winter, when coal furnaces were in full roar. The ceaseless passage of trains, grip-cars, trolleys, carriages, all with iron-clad wheels that struck the pavement like rolling hammers – produced a constant thunder that did not recede until after midnight and made the open-window nights of summer unbearable.  In poor neighborhoods garbage mounded in alleys and overflowed giant trash boxes that became banquet halls for rats and bluebottle flies.  Billions of flies.  The corpses of dogs, cats, and horses often remained where they fell.  In January they froze into disheartening poses; in August they ballooned and ruptured.  Many ended up in the Chicago River, the city’s main commercial artery.  During heavy rains, river water flowed in a greasy plume far out into Lake Michigan, to the towers that marked the intake pipes of the city’s drinking water.  In rain any street not paved with macadam oozed a fragrant muck of horse manure, mud, and garbage that swelled between granite blocks like pus from a wound.

Had Chicago continued to “develop” in this fashion everybody would have been dead from parasitic diseases, blind from air pollution or crazy from the noise. Yet many saw the stock yards, the smoke and the crowded streets as the price of progress.

Is it unfair to judge the past by today’s standards?  Hey, give me a break.  Even a caveman shouldn’t have to live like this.  You’ve gotta be asking yourself why were business leaders, politicians, and the man on the street (such as they were) oblivious to all this?

“Were they out of their minds? What were they thinking?”

“Were they overcome with greed and arrogance ascribing this to progress?”

“Maybe they doubted the scientific evidence that drinking water fouled with offal and excrement caused cholera?”

Nobody could be that ignorant, shortsighted or self-centered, right?





One thought on “Unsustainable – Chicago 1900 – On the Brink of Ecological Disaster

  1. You have nailed it with the Chicago Example. Like today’s Mover and Shakers often rely soley on the promise of new technology and the latest engineering marvel as a subsitute for simple “self directed behavior modification” the key componet to Sustainable development. The one of the engineering trick used in Chicago 1900 was to reverse the Flow of the Chicago River away from Lake Michigan towards the Rural Farmers. YES, the question is what have we learned from Chicago 1900?

    In 2011 we have an Abundance of Information with World Wide Scarcities of Wisdom.

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