Another one by TMQ – Gregg Easterbrook of ESPN.com
What Lies Beneath: Last week the British Medical Journal, a technical publication, released a survey in which physicians said sewers, not antibiotics or vaccines, were the greatest public health advance of the past two centuries. Those who live in the favored cities of the West should never take sanitation for granted. The construction of sewage systems in European and American cities, beginning in the late 19th century, dramatically lowered rates of disease, to say nothing of making cities more livable; lowered disease in turn helped Western nations grow more productive and affluent. Today much of the developing world is held back by the fact that its citizens are often sick, and thus not productive. Open conduits of sewage run down the streets of many large developing-world cities; raw sewage pours directly into the Ganges, where bathers are supposed to go for purification rites. In many developing nations the No. 1 need is clean water: clean drinking water, buried sewer systems and modern wastewater treatment plants. The United States appears to have wasted nearly $1 trillion in Iraq. That sum could have brought modern public sanitation to the 25 largest cities of the developing world, and made America the hero of the world’s poor for generations.
While sewers are a wholly serious issue in public-health terms, recently they have become an absurdity in pop culture. Action films have long depended on protagonists crawling through air shafts to reach secret installations; the air shafts are gigantic, though the typical actual air shaft in an actual building is no more than a foot wide at the point it opens into a room. (My favorite air shaft scene occurred in the old Star Trek, when Kirk and Spock were thrown into an alien prison and escaped by popping the flimsy grating off the opening to an air shaft they could walk through — this spacious, inviting air shaft attached to a prison cell.) Now gigantic sewers have become an action-cinema staple. In the television series “Angel,” plodding spinoff series of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the good vampire Angel was able to go anywhere in Los Angeles during daylight by walking through the sewers, where he could stand up, hold conversations and never soil his trendy clothes. In Sci Fi Channel’s recent “Project Viper,” under a small California town, impossibly good-looking wisecracking secret agents chased a monster through sewers that were at least 10 feet high. The sewers seemed designed to carry the River Tethys, yet contained only a trickle of water. In “Mission Impossible III,” Tom Cruise was able to sneak anywhere in the Vatican by moving through the sewers, which were gigantic, contained only a trickle of water, had a footpath, and also had doors that opened to any Vatican room. Sewers do not have doors that open into the rooms of buildings!