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The Culture of Flushing: A Social and Legal History of Sewage

By Jamie Benidickson

Review By Arn Keeling

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 155 Autumn 2007  | p. 149-50

In a small, unbuilt parcel of land in East Vancouver surrounded by houses, streets, and Tyee Elementary school, a grassy gulch takes the shape, on closer inspection, of a thin, winding creek bed. At the south end of the lot – known to neighbourhood residents as “Gibby’s Field” – a ghostly streamlet emerges from a culvert out of a steep bank and wends its way northward, downslope towards the ocean. As it meets 18th Avenue, it enters a widemouthed, grated structure built into the side hill and supported with masonry. Crouch down there. You can hear, perhaps faintly above the roar of traffic on Knight Street half a block away, the rush of creek water below. Here, amidst the pavement and houses of East Vancouver, a remnant of the former landscape sings out from the cast concrete channel of its former life. Now incorporated into the city’s sewerage and drainage system, something of “Gibson Creek” yet remains: a subtle reminder of the intersections of nature and the built environment of the city and, in particular, of the complex flows and management of water that enable modern, urban life.

These intimate connections are explored on a rather grander scale by legal historian Jamie Benidickson in his illuminating and engaging new book, The Culture of Flushing. Part of the UBC Press Nature/History/Society series, the book examines the legal and physical “enclosure” of waterways into systems of urban and industrial waste disposal. As Benidickson illustrates, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the ability to “usefully” impair water quality (up to a certain point) through waste disposal became regarded as a kind of resource use in its own right, albeit one that constantly threatened to infringe on other rights and uses of water (such as drinking) that were dependent upon its relative purity.

In twelve short, detail-packed chapters, Benidickson’s book artfully combines legal, environmental, and political history perspectives in a sweeping survey of waste disposal and water law in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada during the rise of urbanization and industrialization in these countries. His contention is that a “culture of flushing” emerged during this period out of the gradual codification and sanction of the traditional use of waterways for the disposal of domestic and industrial wastes. In spite of their ever-growing volume and their changing composition, these effluents were permitted to flow into creeks, streams, and ocean waters on the basis of legal and institutional assumptions about the proper use of water and the rights of stream users and occupants (“riparians”). Rapidly changing and uncertain scientific understandings of water pollution further complicated debates over the use and abuse of natural waterways by growing urban and industrial centres on either side of the Atlantic.

The result, asserts Benidickson, was the general decline of water quality and widespread damage to aquatic ecosystems during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Overall, natural waterways “were sacrificed to waste through ignorance of the consequences and through misunderstanding and delusion about self-purification and the apparent infinity of the oceans” (327). For humans, declining water quality could be fatal as the increasing reliance on natural streams for the disposal of domestic wastes threatened municipal water supplies with diseasecausing microorganisms. The responses of the public, policy makers, and lawyers to these problems reflected local and national conditions and trends but, overall, tended to privilege the principles of economic growth and “efficiency” over those of conservation and environmental protection. The “culture of flushing,” Benidickson maintains, remains deeply inscribed in the institutions and values that shape contemporary water law and policy, compromising the protection of the environmental systems upon which society depends.

Tracing these developments across three countries inevitably necessitates a shifting lens to capture both local examples of these impacts and general trends across national and international scales. Benidickson skilfully moves from, for example, case studies of Manchester or Toronto or Chicago to consider broad developments in common law and national policies on water and waste. The international dimensions of law, science, and policy are a welcome addition to the literature on water and waste, which tends to focus on local and national scales. The inevitable selectivity in cases, however, means that the diversity of local and regional environmental problems within each country remains somewhat obscure; for instance, in Canada, Toronto – and, to a lesser extent, Montreal and Ottawa – largely stands for national trends in sewerage and pollution problems.

Though there is little reference to British Columbia in these pages, Benidickson’s book will be of interest to observers of debates over water supply and water quality in that province. Something like the “culture of flushing” deeply influenced sewerage practices and water pollution laws in British Columbia, much as they did elsewhere in the English-speaking world in the early to mid-twentieth century. For those more generally interested in how legal regimes and public policy have shaped both practices and attitudes towards nature, Benidickson’s work will be a standard reference.