Karen Bayly

Author and Copywriter

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I feel the need for clean (sorry, Top Gun)

Recently, I did an author spot at a virtual book club meeting. Not only was it exciting to have my book featured as "Book of the Month", it gave me a wonderful opportunity to talk about why I created a "clean" steampunk world.

Steampunk worlds are thrilling and wondrous, but are often grubby and polluted from a reliance on coal-based steam. This saddens me, as we already know in our world that the air pollution from fossil fuels is a killer.

The Streets of Lantern City. Concept Art by Section Studios.

This week, I read that China’s ban on the movement of traffic from February 10 to March 14 prevented over 12,000 premature deaths from air pollution. That’s three times the number of lives lost from the pandemic in the same period.

Shockingly, 91% of the world’s population live in areas with air pollution above World Health Organization limits. Just over a year ago, researchers reported that outdoor air pollution caused a minimum of 7 million early deaths per year worldwide. Around 800,000 of these deaths occurred in Europe.

London - Nick Ansell/PA - The Guardian

In adults, air pollution is killing more people than tobacco smoking, primarily through heart disease. It even affects unborn babies - a study done in Greater London found there was a 15% increase in risk of low birth weight for every additional 5 micrograms per cubic metre of fine particle pollution.

London is no stranger to the problem of air pollution. In the 1500s, Queen Elizabeth 1 complained about the coal smoke around the Palace of Westminster. In 1661, the diarist John Evelyn noted in his book “Fumifugium” that London was:

“so filled with the fuliginous steam of the sea-coal, that hardly can one see across the street, and this filling the lungs with its gross particles exceedingly obstructed the breast, so as one would scarcely breathe”.

John Evelyn’s Fumifugium

By Victorian times, the problem was immense. London’s skies were murky with smoke and “pea-souper” fogs. Those too poor to avoid the worst of it paid with their health, particularly during two major pollution events - the Great Stink and The Great Smog.

The Great Stink occurred in 1858 when unusually hot weather hit London. Human waste, dead animals, rotting food, and toxic raw materials from the riverside factories turned the River Thames into a reeking sewer. Cholera and typhoid fever ran rampant, and people hid indoors to avoid both the smell and the disease. The Houses of Parliament had to be closed as nothing could keep the stink out of the building.

The 'Silent Highway-Man', Punch, July 1858.

It took time to fix. Joseph Bazalgette designed then built 1,100 miles (1,800 km) of additional street sewers. His plans meant that human waste was no longer dumped on the shores of the Thames. The city also began a co-ordinated waste disposal system that reduced swarms of disease-spreading flies.

However,  the fumes of London’s industry remained and the infamous “pea-soupers” regularly blanketed the city. These only worsened as more motor vehicles clogged the roads.

In December 1952, Londoners faced their second deadly challenge - The Great Smog. This was a visible, poisonous fog that crept into people’s homes through cracks and under doors. Visibility outside was virtually zero. It killed around 4,000 people in five days.

Over the ensuing months, another 8,000 more died from respiratory tract infections, from suffocation by pus arising from those infections, and from hypoxia.

The Great Smog - N T Stobbs, CC BY-SA 2.0

At first, the government denied any connection between the smog and the premature death of thousands of Londoners. They blamed influenza or extreme weather conditions. (Although, in retrospect, we now know that the weather played a part in the smog being so bad). However, the ongoing death toll lead to an investigation which eventually led to the Clean Air Act of 1956.

'We Want Clean Air' protest banner at Paddington, 1956
© Henry Grant Collection/Museum of London

Yet, London still suffers from pollution, which is one reason I decided that New Londinium in Fortitude would be a cleaner city. I wanted my characters to inhabit a world that had solved its pollution problems, one that was constantly striving toward a better future for all its inhabitants. If I ever have a reason to write a sequel, the cities I have in mind will also reflect this brave new world.

I also knew that the world I created couldn’t be perfect - nothing ever is. After all, we are merely human, and by definition imperfect. We are always learning, although not always putting what we learn into practice! We choose what suits us, not what is best. We are still overly reliant on fossil fuels and are slow to develop cheaper alternatives. We need the Parthena Ripleys and Corazon Pagets of our world to take the lead.

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