Paddle without a Canoe

“Up Shit Creek Without a Paddle” is a saying which most of us are aware of, it describes a hopeless situation. The origin of the term may be disputed but I believe it refers to a human and environmental disaster from Victorian London. On the 3rd of September 1878 the Paddle Steamer The Princess Alice carrying around 750 day trippers returning from a day out collided with a heavy iron ship the Bywell Castle on the Thames below Barking Creek at Galleons Reach. In minutes over over 550 people perished in a foul mixture of Raw Sewage, Chemical Waste and river water in what is still the heaviest peacetime loss of life in the UK.

Just before the disaster struck a little up stream the Barking Creek sewage outfall had just discharged thousands of tons of sewage to be flushed out to sea on the tide and to make things worse this mixed with industrial waste from factories further up river which dumped their waste directly into the water. It was into this toxic brew that Victorian ladies in their finery floundered in their heavy frocks, kissed their children and sank. Records show that up to 550 men women and children drowned within 8 minutes.

The prospect that  flowers of Victorian society should perish in such filth was to outrage Parliament and new measures to deal with effluent were put in place and it could be said that this was the event that first moved government to introduce environmental legislation.

While it seems that we have progressed, our rivers and waterways have been restored and our countryside is protected our ‘out of site, out of mind’ mentality persists. The Victorians built parks and gardens and beautified London while pumping their effluent down river out of sight to pollute the lives of others. Now the developed nations do much the same. Our countryside is pristine while we export our waste to make ‘Shit Creeks’ of other less fortunate lands and expect the natural world to cope with the pollutants we pump into the atmosphere.
Just like our Victorian ancestors we are heading to towards another collision and another rude awakening. While nations argue who’s shit is causing the problem and even if shit is a problem anyway we drift inexorably towards catastrophe.
Even as the ice caps melt and the effects of our lifestyles are plain as the receding ice shelves and rising temperatures we choose to steam onwards.
If you care about your children and grandchildren then prepare a lifeboat for them now. Make sure they know how to grow their own food and give them practical skills for it may be too late to turn the boat about.
To underline what may be around the corner listen to the BBC’s ‘From our Own Correspondent’ Richard Wilson’s account (18 mins in) of a recent visit to Antarctica and how unexpected changes are hastening a major melt of ice that could increase sea levels dramatically and very quickly…

Ken Finn

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