Happiness | Darrin M. McMahon

Summary of: Happiness: A History
By: Darrin M. McMahon


Welcome to the exciting journey of “Happiness: A History” by Darrin M. McMahon. This summary will provide you with a well-rounded understanding of the book, focusing on the key themes and interesting aspects of the history of water and its impact on human societies. Throughout this summary, you will discover how our relationship with water has evolved over time and how it has shaped our world today. The impressive ancient Roman aqueducts, water’s link to diseases, the struggle to access clean water, and the rise of bottled water all play a pivotal role in this fascinating history. Dive in and quench your thirst for knowledge with this engaging and informative summary!

The Roman Empire’s Influence on Water Politics

The Romans were the first to introduce water into private homes and give free water to their citizens. Their greatest achievement was constructing aqueducts over 2,000 years ago that still stand today. To have water flowing into their homes, citizens paid a tax and had a pipe installed to connect to the aqueduct. The introduction of aqueducts was mainly to supply bathhouses, but the third aqueduct was built to provide drinking water. Under Augustus, the Roman Empire transformed, and water was used to demonstrate the citizens’ better life under the empire. Augustus increased the number of public water stations Elaborately decorated with the words “Aqua Nomine Caesaris” located every 150 feet within the city.

The role of clean water in ancient and modern societies

The lack of knowledge about clean water caused many deaths in ancient societies, particularly crowded urban areas. It was only in the mid-nineteenth century, through the work of advocates such as London physician John Snow, that people began to realize the crucial role of clean drinking water. Snow’s discovery of the link between a polluted water supply and a cholera outbreak was a turning point in the history of public health. Once the importance of proper drainage and cleanliness was recognized, effective sewer systems and clean water supplies were implemented, doubling life expectancies.

People in ancient societies preferred beer and wine over water because they sometimes got very sick when drinking H₂O. This lack of knowledge about clean water resulted in awful living conditions in crowded urban areas like New York City. In 1748, New York City’s drinking water was so badly polluted that a journalist proclaimed, “horses from out of town wouldn’t drink it.” Despite the polluted water, people continued to drink it until a clean and safe public water system was introduced. As a result of these delays, many people died in yellow fever and cholera epidemics, like during the wave of disease that claimed 3,500 lives in 1832.

London physician John Snow was an early advocate for clean water and is credited with inventing the field of epidemiology. He used medical records, a map, and surveys to determine that the 1854 cholera outbreak in London was linked to a water pump on Broad Street. Snow found a dirty diaper near the water supply, which became the first-ever hard evidence that polluted water caused cholera. Once the importance of proper drainage and cleanliness was recognized, cities began to roll out effective sewer systems and increase the supply of clean water.

It was only in the mid-nineteenth century that people began to grasp the importance of clean drinking water. Before that, it was commonly held that diseases like cholera were caused by pathogens in the air, although crowded streets were increasingly flooded with dirty industrial runoff. The role of proper drainage, cleanliness, and clean drinking water became widely recognized, leading to effective sewer systems and clean water supplies that doubled life expectancies.

A Tale of Two Cities’ Water Woes

New York City and London experienced challenges and health risks in sourcing clean drinking water around the turn of the twentieth century. In New York, the initial project at Kalch-Hook was a failure, leading to the installation of a new water system from Croton and eventually the Catskills. Similarly, London’s Thames river was heavily polluted, causing the infamous Great Stink of 1858. It took the efforts of John Snow and lawyer Edwin Chadwick to convince the government to stop sewage dumping into the Thames, ultimately leading to improved water quality.

The Complexity of Clean Water

Sourcing clean water is not an easy task, and treating it is only the beginning. Freshwater sources are generally dirty, with wildlife excrement, bacteria, and dangerous levels of endocrine disruptors. Humans are partially to blame, with common medications and personal care products contaminating water sources. Though there are increasingly effective ways of treating water, a recent study suggests pharmaceuticals and their by-products still remain in treated water supplied to millions of citizens.

The Vulnerability of Our Water Supply

Batman’s Scarecrow may not be fictional after all. The lack of protection measures for water systems in the United States makes them highly susceptible to contamination and vulnerable to external threats. A broken into water tower costs a community $40,000, and a tragedy in Missouri resulting from bird waste in the water supply claimed seven lives. While water is tested for safety, only 91 of over 60,000 chemicals used in the US are legally considered contaminants. The reliability of the Environmental Protection Agency is also influenced by political leadership and funding.

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