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On the brink


April 26, 2012

Recently, my husband and I indulged in a spate of Masterpiece Theater and BBC mini-series (I call them high-class soap operas), spurred on by our earlier delight with “Cranford” and “Downton Abbey.” We’ve since hunkered down for marathon sessions of Dickens’ “Bleak House” and “Little Dorrit,” as well as the 2002 version of “The Forsythe Saga.”

I particularly enjoyed the depiction of 19th century British “civilization.” As one inclined to bouts of nostalgia for a past I never actually experienced, I’m now convinced that I’d much rather live in 2012 than in a time when central heating, indoor plumbing and electricity were inconceivable notions. I prize those inventions that make my life easier, not to mention more hygienic.

My affection for modern conveniences was particularly reinforced as I watched scenes in which women wearing long dresses walked along unpaved streets while their expensive silks and brocades dragged over mud or cobblestones littered with horse manure. The wealthy had servants to launder the soiled hems (daily, I imagine, and by hand); the more downtrodden had to tend to the task themselves.

In fact, manure in America’s large cities reached crisis proportions by the turn of the last century. Elizabeth Royte, author of “Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash,” cites these unimaginable but true statistics: In the mid-1800s, when the population of Manhattan was less than one million, its streets were daily the dumping ground for 500,000 pounds of manure and 45,000 gallons of urine. Not to mention the garbage that residents routinely tossed out their windows. And the ashes from all those fireplaces. All I can say is “Ugh.”

Ironically, just when the problem of manure reached crisis proportions, the Model T (1908) began to replace horses as the preferred mode of transportation. Problem solved? We wish.

CO2 is the new manure. With our planet quickly becoming one big city, the automobile is just one of this century’s horse manure-making machines, compromising not the hems of our skirts but all life on the planet.

Even if we succeed in curtailing the dumping of CO2 into the atmosphere, our ecological problems will not be solved. There are just too many people on earth, all of them using the world’s finite resources to fulfill both real and imagined needs.