Sewers and Civilization

RG08 – sewers & civilization
Yesterday’s televised health care reform session got me thinking about Coburg’s special election to decide whether residents will endorse their City Council’s plans for a new sewer system. President Obama arranged the televised work session to make visible his claim that Republicans have been obstructionists.
Health care works like sewers work — out of sight. You have permission not to think about your sewer system until your toilet backs up. It’s the same with health care, and the crux of Obama’s struggle. If the Republicans are obstructing some good thing from happening, why isn’t the clogged system forcing us to wade into our waste with a plunger of determination?
St. Vincent dePaul Executive Director Terry MacDonald once told me why he’s not hopeful about health care reform. “It’ll never happen until we have to step over sick or dying people on sidewalks. As long as we whisk our weakest off to emergency rooms, the problem remains unseen by too many people.”
I asked MacDonald this week what he thought about sewers. Pardon the expression, but I really stepped in it.
“Modern civilization comes down to three basic infrastructure improvements: clean water in, waste water out, and the electrical grid,” MacDonald said. “Remove those three, and you’re back into the Middle Ages. Think about that cold snap we had a couple months ago, when so many people had frozen pipes. They were camping out in their homes.”
If those same people were also without power, and for an extended amount of time, it becomes easy to see that the nicest house is nothing more than a hut with windows. It’s not surprising that MacDonald’s college degree was in Medieval Studies. “I’m still studying it,” he’s quick to add.
And, I would suggest, he’s fighting every day against forces that would allow us to slide back into that pre-modern state. Every day, St. Vincent dePaul is putting people in homes, getting people hot showers, salvaging stuff from our waste stream. He’s fighting for civilization.
I didn’t ask if he has an opinion about the Coburg system. I’m sure he would have told me his opinion doesn’t matter, that it’s up to the local residents, that he has to get back to work now. MacDonald keeps his work in front of him.
That brings us back to the problem of sewers and health care. Humans are not well equipped to care about things they cannot see, or to value what they cannot easily measure. As Albert Einstein famously reminded us, “Not all things that count can be counted, and not all things that can be counted count.”
The future, for instance.
A sewer system gives a community a future that can be different from its present or its past. Whether the residents someday identify that difference as “progress” cannot be counted on, but the inverse is certain. No sewers, no progress. Coburg cannot grow without better systems to take away their waste.
Is now the right time for Coburg to spring for such an upgrade? Although the city has attracted several federal grants to defray the costs, Coburg residents will see a new monthly bill if sewers are installed. For some whose finances are teetering on the edge, an extra dollar or two each day is beyond their capabilities. But for everyone else, the added expense will require adjustments in budgeting and a stronger faith in the future.
If Coburg votes for sewers, they will be voting to make room for more and other future Coburg residents. The current generation will be making some sacrifices for the sake of the next generation. That faith in the future is what drives civilization forward — regular people trying to make things just a little bit better.
A week from today a young friend of mine is hoping to purchase her first home. It’s a tiny house, it needs lots of love, she’s stretching to afford it, her parents are helping. She already has a five-year plan in her head for improvements she’ll be making and the house isn’t even quite hers yet. Her friends tease her that now she’ll settle down and have kids. Her parents are probably nursing similar hopes.
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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs.