It’s really not only Americans who insist on trying absolutely everything else before doing the right thing, as Winston Churchill (or maybe Abba Eban) is supposed to have said. Tens of thousands of people were killed by the waters of the Thames River in the 19th century before London managed to build an effective sewer system and river embankments to stop the spread of cholera. Why did it take over fifteen years after the cause of cholera was pinpointed by physician John Snow before the city completed construction of the Victoria Embankment and the sewers that intercepted effluent and dumped it downstream of urban London? Jerry White, who has written three fine books on London in the twentieth, nineteenth, and eighteenth centuries (their order of publication reversed the temporal flow) pointed to the “querulousness, doubts, vacillation, personality clashes and petty jealousies, the almost endless timewasting” before the Metropolitan Board of Works finished work on the two projects (and as White notes, the achievement was “equivocal” in that heavy rains continued to overload the sewage system until at least the 1880s and in parts of London until the late twentieth century).
Does any of this have anything to do with Hurricane Harvey? I suspect that our American way of not doing the right things will not mirror the Londoners’ way of “querulousness” and “vacillation.” Our way seems to be more explosively obstinate. We have a president who scoffs at climate change (let alone “global warming”) because he says it is not nearly as big a problem as nuclear conflict, and maybe he is right. But couldn’t I expect our political leaders to pay close attention to both? Walk and chew gum: too much to ask? Sad to say they may be reflecting the muddled self-serving wishes of us, the constituents, to be “free” and “left alone” but also to count on government as our backstop. As Jerry White sums up how London coped or didn’t with mass deaths from cholera, “a mean-spirited reluctance ever to put enough capital into public works tarnished the very greatest of London’s civic achievements of the nineteenth century.” With floods made worse, if not caused in every instance, by global warming, in the end there is no such thing as a gated community–but you couldn’t tell that from our president’s speech today calling for cutting taxes on corporations and the wealthiest Americans.