I don’t know if this is a metaphor, a call to action, or just a series of unconnected events, but… When I picked Spike The Accord up from his previous home in Birmingham, I thought I smelled something odd. More than odd. Just plain bad. It was a relief to fire Spike up and get a whiff of that 103-octane unleaded. Although it was seventy-two perfect degrees outside, I didn’t roll my windows down until I was fifty miles north of the city.
At the time, I put it down to being tired/irritable/oversensitive. Turns out that I wasn’t the only person to think that there is something rotten in Birmingham.
My feelings regarding New York are fairly comprehensively expressed by Daniel “Sultan Knish” Greenfield in his Urban Tyranny piece. I would be remiss if I did not credit Derek Kreindler with finding that article and sending it to me a few years ago. In much the same way that Rome had five good Emperors, TTAC had three good leaders, and Derek was one of them. He is a voracious and omnivorous reader. I benefit greatly from this. Left to myself, I would probably read nothing but Lapham’s Quarterly and Delicious Tacos.
Greenfield notes that “Unlike the country, the city is its own frontier. Its great adventure is not exploration, but existence. The city is always changing, mutating, falling apart and coming together under assault from waves of new immigrants and social challenges. Its spaces are inner spaces…” Late last year, when I took my son to Manhattan, I was surprised at how readily he identified the major logistical problems of putting eleven million people on a piece of stubborn rock. “How does all the food get here? And where…” Where does the poop go was his unspoken continuation.
For much of its history, Manhattan just poured its human waste into the surrounding bodies of water. Starting in 1924, it was carried by ferries to a site twelve miles away in the Atlantic Ocean. In 1986, a new dumping spot was chosen, some 102 miles off the coast. Millions of tons’ worth of “sludge” were dumped there in a very short time.
Eventually the EPA decreed that the deep-sea dumping had to come to an end. So the city began an interesting experiment: the Poop Train To Colorado. Insert Gladys Knight vocals here, of course. The Poop Train was remarkably successful; the city got rid of its waste, and the farmers got a better grade of fertilizer. (The reason I led off with the cover of The Dispossessed is because of a quote from that book which sticks in my mind some twenty-five years later: “Grain grows best in shit.”) Assuming, of course, that the Poop Train didn’t run on the tracks next to my subdivision — or, more crucially, run off those tracks — I think it’s a brilliant idea. It solves a major problem faced by the city: How do we dispose of the waste we create in these close quarters? A more cynical observer might wonder how New York managed to fill a train, since everybody knows there is no place to use the bathroom in Manhattan.
I say that the Poop Train was successful because it’s no longer running. The cost was too high. So now New York sends its waste via trains and trucks to various landfills in the South, where it does nobody any good whatsoever. It will biodegrade, of course, the same way that the deer scat in your backyard or the dogshit on the street does. It may even decompose more quickly under the pressure and resulting heat. But it doesn’t happen immediately, and the trucks are always running.
Birmingham and its surrounding areas are burying New York’s sewage and smelling the results.
“I guess we are not even as good as the fish, down here in Alabama,” said (the mayor of a nearby town). “Every state should be responsible for its own waste. We don’t want it dumped here.”
That’s a tough quote to read, because isn’t it true to some degree? Last week, in the online psuedo-pages of Road&Track, I referred to the unpleasant fact that the unelected mandarins of the European Union had weighed the known carcinogenic aspects of diesel particulates against the feel-good virtue-signaling of reducing vehicle-generated carbon dioxide — and promptly chosen the latter. Now there are a few thousand people getting cancer every year, many of them in low-cost housing near major roadways. Fuuuuuuuuuuck them, am I right? Who cares about the poors? We have to save the planet!
The EPA’s decision that New York sewage is too toxic for fish 102 miles off shore but perfectly fine for the hicks in Alabama feels a little bit too on-the-nose. When you consider the fact that it’s a matter of cost, not necessity, the insult becomes even more unpleasant. The Colorado Poop Train was good for all parties — but it’s cheaper for Manhattan to make Alabama take their shit. Literally.
There’s more than a little bit of synecdoche to this story. (Synecdoche: when a small part stands in for the whole.) How much “shit” does New York ship to the rest of America? What does it produce? How much of said production is anything other than sewage? Are we enriched, as a nation, by the work of the urban intelligentsia? Do we benefit from New York laws, New York values, New York media, New York culture? How many decisions are in made in New York, or Washington, or Boston, that must be redeemed on foreign soil with the blood of young Midwestern and Southern men?
During our trip to NYC, I explained to my son that the city has about three days’ worth of food on hand at any given time. If some enterprising soul was inspired by the Koran, the Little Red Book, or Pepe The Frog to dynamite the bridges and tunnels, it would have massive and unpredictable effects. The only thing you could pretty much guarantee would be that there would be some significant loss of life. Manhattan was doing “just in time” logistics long before it became fashionable in the world of automotive assembly.
I don’t think I will live to see it, but something like that will eventually happen. We’ve become a lopsided nation, too many city mice and not enough country mice. It’s not sustainable. Robert Silverberg covered most of the potential issues more than forty years ago, in his underrated The World Inside. The book is a series of short stories set in a 75-billion-person world of “urbmon” hives. What he didn’t consider is how we could get to that point in the first place.
Not everybody is cut out to live in 250 square feet. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, and that something doesn’t love a cage either. Not everybody will go peacefully into the cities. Ask the Chinese about that. The question then becomes: What happens when the country mice get tired of having everything from their gun-and-car laws to their soda-pop dictated to them by an intolerant, self-righteous, almost infinitely powerful urban elite? In other words, what happens when Birmingham decides it’s tired of taking New York’s shit?