Odourless Utopia

In Europe, the war bulletins come not just from Ukraine, but also from the climate front. The French government has cracked down on water use, banning watering lawns and washing cars in 62 of 101 departments, as more than 100 municipalities no longer have potable water. Nuclear power plants on the Rhône and Garonne have had to reduce production due to insufficient water in the rivers. In Italy, the government has declared a state of emergency in 5 of 20 regions, while Second World War bombs are discovered on the beds of its largest river, the dried-up Po. In Germany, the Rhine is so low that the barges plying its 1,000 kilometres from Austria to Holland have had to reduce their cargo from 3,000 to 900 tons so as not to run aground, and the river is expected to soon become impassable to freight traffic. In England, for the first time on record, the source of the Thames has dried up and the river is beginning to flow more than 5 miles further downstream. In Spain, restrictions on water consumption have been imposed in Catalonia, Galicia and Andalusia.

These are all warning signs. In a few centuries, the idea of water as an abundant resource and universal right may be unimaginable. It is easy to forget that even in the so-called advanced world, domestic running water – for toilets, cooking, personal hygiene, washing clothes and dishes – is a very recent and ephemeral phenomenon, dating back less than a century. In 1940, 45% of households in the US lacked complete plumbing; in 1950, only 44% of homes in Italy had either indoor or outdoor plumbing. In 1954, only 58% of houses in France had running water and only 26% had a toilet. In 1967, 25% of homes in England and Wales still lacked a bath or shower, an indoor toilet, a sink and hot- and cold-water taps. In Romania, 36% of the population lacked a flushing toilet solely for their household in 2012 (down to 22% in 2021).

The availability of domestic running water varies depending on one’s individual wealth and on the affluence of one’s nation. While in Western Europe and the US, the number of households with toilets equipped with running water currently exceeds 99%, in a number of African countries the percentage is between 1 and 4: Ethiopia 1.76%; Burkina Faso 1.87%; Burundi 2.32%; Uganda 2.37%; Chad 2.50%; Niger 2.76%; Madagascar 2.83%; Mozambique 2.87%; Mali 3.71%; Rwanda 3.99%; Congo 4.17%. In these countries the toilet is a marker of class status; in Ethiopia less than one in 56 households has one. The data also contains some surprises: there are more toilets in Bangladesh (35%) than in Moldova (29%), India is in roughly the same situation as South Africa (44% versus 45%) and just ahead of Azerbaijan (40%). While in Baghdad the number of houses with flushing toilets is 94.8%, in central Kabul it is 26%, and in Afghanistan as a whole it is 13.7%.

It is possible to trace the social and geopolitical history of running water. Its widespread accessibility was the the result of two primary factors: 1) the industrial revolution that provided the pipelines and purification plants needed for this colossal planetary enterprise; and 2) urbanization, for it is fairly obvious that bringing running water to a series of isolated cottages is far more expensive and complex than to centres of high population density. Urbanization was stimulated by the industrial revolution, and then in turn by the availability of running water for newly-arrived citizens. This may well be one of the most significant, and most peculiar, features of contemporary civilization. For what it created was the utopia of an odourless society. This would not have been possible without the spread of running water, but it was accelerated by the growing desire to deodorize the human habitat. In the twenty-first-century, we no longer perceive smells as our ancestors did.

In The Foul and the Fragrant (1988), Alain Corbin asks, ‘What is the meaning of this more refined alertness to smell? What produced the mysterious and alarming strategy of deodorization of everything that offends our muted olfactory environment? By what stages has this far-reaching anthropological transformation taken place?’ An incisive answer is offered by Ivan Illich in his brilliant little book, H2O and the Waters of Forgetfulness (1986), which reminds us that it was not until the last years of Louis XIV’s reign that a decree was passed for the weekly removal of faeces from the corridors of Versailles. It was in this era that the project to deodorize began. ‘The sense of smell’, Illich writes,

was the only means for identifying the city’s exhalations. The osmologists (students of odors) collected ‘airs’ and smelly materials in tightly corked bottles and compared notes by opening them at a later time as though they were dealing with vintage wines. A dozen treatises focusing on the odours of Paris were published during the second part of the eighteenth century…By the end of the century, this avant-garde of deodorant ideologues is causing social attitudes toward body wastes to change…Toward the middle of the century shitting, for the first time in history, became a sex specific activity…At the end of the century, Marie Antoinette has a door installed to make her defecation private. The act turns into an intimate function…Not only excrement but the body itself, it was discovered, emanates bad odours. Underwear that up to this time had served to keep one warm or attractive began to be connected with the elimination of sweat. The upper classes began to use and wash it more frequently, and in France the bidet came into fashion. Bed sheets and their regular laundering acquired a new importance, and to sleep in one’s own bed between sheets was charged with moral and medical significance…On November 15, 1793, the revolutionary convention solemnly declared each man’s right to his own bed as part of the rights of man.

Being odourless thus became a symbol of status:

smelling now began to become class-specific. Medical students observed that the poor are those who smell with particular intensity and, in addition, do not notice their own smell. Colonial officers and missionaries brought home reports that savages smelled differently from Europeans. Samojeds, Negroes and Hottentots could each be recognized by their racial smell, which changes neither with diet nor with more careful washing.

Naturally this myth was self-fulfilling, to the extent that colonized peoples were denied running water, soap and flushing toilets. Subaltern classes also began to smell and arouse revulsion. ‘Slowly’, Illich continues,

education has shaped the new sense for cleanly individualism. The new individual feels compelled to live in a space without qualities and expects everyone else to stay within the bounds of his or her own skin. He learns to be ashamed when his aura is noticed. He is embarrassed at the thought that his origin could be smelled out, and he is sickened by others if they smell. Shame at being smelled, embarrassment at coming from a smelly environment, and a new proneness to be offended by smell – all taken together place the citizen in a new kind of space.

Realizing this ideal of olfactory neutrality required increasing amounts of water. Before the Second World War, bathing once a week was considered hygienist paranoia. Only with the mass production of household washing machines did cleaning clothes become more frequent. I remember the London of the 1970s: on the Underground, the City clerks could be recognized by their detachable cuffs and collars; the former were changed regularly but the latter were grayish from having been worn for a week straight. The families that hosted us would ask us to insert coins into a special hot water meter: breakfast was included in the price, showering was not.

Now, though, the utopia of an odourless humanity has conquered much of the planet. Yet, as with many aspects of modernity, the moment we acquired the means to achieve a goal, its enabling condition (namely the abundant, unlimited availability of water) was lost. An ever more populous and rapidly warming planet will likely return to a state in which water is scarce and contested. This future may however be marked by a significant cultural difference. Whereas in the past, water was scarce for a humanity able to live happily with odours, now it will be scarce for one that considers their own odours insufferable, not to mention those of others.

I remember being struck by the extraordinary success of the Canadian TV drama H2O (2004), whose trailer announced:

A dead Prime Minister. A country in turmoil. A battle for Canada’s most precious resource – water. On the eve of testy discussions with the US Secretary of State, Prime Minister Matthew McLaughlin is killed in an accident. His son, Tom McLaughlin, returns to Canada to attend his fathers’ funeral where he delivers a eulogy that stirs the public propelling him into politics and ultimately the Prime Minister’s office. The investigation into his father’s death, however, reveals that it was no accident, raising the possibility of assassination. The trail of evidence triggers a series of events that uncovers a shocking plot to sell one of Canada’s most valuable resources – water.

As James Salzman noted in his book Drinking Water (2012), this omitted ‘the most exciting part, where American troops invade Canada to plunder their water supply’. A US–Canadian war over water! Until now, such conflicts seemed to be the preserve of semi-desert areas in the Middle East (think of Eyal Weizman’s writing on the Israelis’ use of water to surveil and punish Palestinians), or torrid Africa (as in the latent conflict between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam built on the Blue Nile). But with the possible desertification of the central European plain, war for water will become a real prospect, even in regions once famous for high rainfall and water infrastructure. We citizens of ‘rich countries’, ‘industrialized nations’, ‘more developed powers’, will fight to smell less.

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti.

Read more: Nancy Fraser, ‘Climates of Capital’, NLR 127.