The York University Magazine

Fall 2015

The alumni magazine of York University

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WHEN YOU'RE an expert, people listen. And when you're a thought leader on environmental education, even better. The Magazine caught up with three York professors who recently gave public talks on the theme "Our Fragile Planet" for the Toronto Public Library (TPL). They discussed Toronto's hidden aboriginal history, the city's amazing sewage and the fate of our, so far, (still) Great Lakes. On Sewage and the Sublime M I C H A E L M C M A H O N, a doctoral fellow in York's Faculty of Environ- mental Studies (FES), deals with at least one area in his research that most people might prefer to ignore (if not forget about entirely) – and that's sewage. In his recent TPL talk, "Sewage and the Sublime: The R.C. Harris and Ashbridges Bay Water and Wastewater Treatment Plants," he explored Toronto's environmental history through the lens of its water- side treatment plants and citizen con- cerns about the city's waterfront. "Funnily enough, I didn't envision 'Sewage and the Sublime' as being the title of my talk," says McMahon, who is intent on marrying two sub- categories in the academy – urban environmental history with urban political ecology. "That came partly out of my dissertation topic on sew- age and the sublime and the political ecologies of Great Lakes water. The head of public programming at TPL loved the title and thought it might very well intrigue people." So, how exactly did McMahon become interested in the whole realm of human excrement and its treat- ment? "Well, I was wondering where the sublime might be found in this subject matter," he says. "In the tra- ditional sense, we look to the heavens for the sublime, but might it not also be found – perhaps newer 'sublimes' – in a return to earth and, more spe- cifically, in our own bodies and their relationships with the bacterial swarm that's in our midst?" For McMahon, beauty is where you choose to find it – even bacteria that can kill us, can also aid us. The apothe- osis of that is the modern sewage treat- ment plant whose antecedents stretch back into both the creation of sewers and methods for treating effluent and providing safe drinking water that date back to the mid-1800s. Today's sewage plant is what McMahon calls the "organic machine." "We are lit- erally embracing the muck here," he says. "They are the equivalent of the human digestive tract. And, like our body systems, it is a delicate balance between purification and putrefaction. We need chlorine, which kills bacteria, to produce safe drinking water, but we need the bacteria that can potentially cause disease to aid in breaking down human waste." The germ theory of disease came to be accepted in the late 19th century in the wake of Louis Pasteur's discover- ies. It was suddenly realized that while germs can make us sick, they are also our friends. "Cheese, wine, fermenta- tion … we've been living with bacteria for centuries," says McMahon. "It is this wondrous, invisible realm, and eventually we came to enlist bacteria in our water and sewage treatment." Chlorine and bacteria live in an uneasy truce in our society, he notes. "Our individual health continues to be shaped by the health of the wider environment of which we are a part. Our urban environmental history is one that has seen substantial public They are the equivalent of the human digestive tract. And, like our body systems, it is a delicate balance between purification and putrefaction 28 The York University Magazine Fall 2015

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