Gongol.com Archives: September 2023

Brian Gongol

September 4, 2023

Health Executing on the basics before the burn

The grand paradox of the 2023 Burning Man festival is likely to be how an event so libertine in nature is likely to offer an enduring case for good government. The event was derailed by unmanaged desert rainfall, of a scale that rendered most transportation impossible. That alone would be bad, but for an event dependent upon the manual emptying of portable toilets as a primary mode of sanitation, the lack of transportation also means a fundamental breakdown in some of the most basic aspects of civilization. ■ Nobody actually needs to attend Burning Man. But almost everyone needs to live within some kind of structured civilized environment. Cities and towns are the most obvious example, but even family-sized human settlments, at least in the United States, are almost always subject to regulations requiring roads for emergency access (even if they're only covered in gravel) and safe disposal of used water (even if only via a septic leach field). ■ Two imperative points should be taken from the 2023 Burning Man experience, even for those who stayed home. The first is that well-operated municipal services are, in general, vastly underappreciated by the American public. Put simply: Most of the time, we take public works for granted, noticing only when they break down catastrophically. That's a crying shame, and we ought to change our attitudes. Very little of that work is glamorous, but it is indispensable to maintaining anything close to an advanced society. ■ The second lesson is that municipal water and sanitation infrastructures aren't about saving the environment, they're about public health. This may not seem like an immediately obvious matter of importance. But most of the regulation that pertains to the delivery, use, rehabilitation, and reuse of water comes under the supervision of agencies operating under some version of the word "environment". This is no surprise, considering that the leading Federal agency for those purposes is itself the Environmental Protection Agency. ■ But the lesson from Burning Man is that the crux of the matter isn't what humans do to the environment, but how flaws in sanitation have almost immediate effects on the health of human beings. If you don't have clean potable water and a safe means of disposing water that has been used (for any number of purposes, including but by no means limited to, the use of toilets), then you don't have a healthy civilization -- in the most literal sense. Bad water makes people sick. ■ Nature (that is, "the environment") has many ways to heal water that humans have used and made unwell. They may not be swift, but the same processes that handle the waste functions of all the other animals would deal with ours as well. It is for human health and safety -- particularly when we gather in settlements of any size, even if only for a week-long festival -- that water disposal and rehabilitation matter so much. Human society starts to fail quickly if we're deprived of reliable means of sanitation. People can muddle through for a few days at a time, but if it goes on much longer than that, it's not the environment that suffers -- it's us.

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