Taking Sides

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The Last Taboo

What unites the Vatican, lefties, conservatives, environmentalists, and

scientists in a conspiracy of silence?

It’s midnight on the streets of Calcutta. Old women cook over open fires

on the sidewalks. Men wait in line at municipal hand pumps to lather skin,

hair, and lungis (skirts), bathing without undressing. Girls sit in the open beds

of bicycle-powered trucks, braiding their hair. The monsoon’s not yet over, and

grandfathers under umbrellas squat on their heels, arguing over card games,

while mothers hold bare-bottomed toddlers over open latrines. On every other

block, shops the size of broom closets are still open, kerosene lights blazing,

their proprietors seated cross-legged on tiny shelves built above their wares of

plastic buckets or machetes or radios. Many people sleep through the lively

darkness, draped over sacks or on work carts full of paper or rags or hay. Groups

of men and women, far from their home villages, sprawl haphazardly across

the sidewalks, snoring.

I’m crossing the city in one of Calcutta’s famously broken-down Ambassador taxis. The seat’s been replaced with a box, the windows don’t work,

there never were seat belts. Sneezes of rain blow through. It’s always like this,

arriving in the dead of night after incomprehensibly long international flights,

exiting the hermetically sealed jet onto humid and smoky streets perfumed

with gardenias and shit. The coal haze is thick as magician’s smoke. Out of the

dark, suddenly, the huge haunches of a working elephant appear, tail switching, big feet plodding carefully over piles of garbage, each footfall spooking a

hungry dog. The mahout tucked between her ears nonchalantly chats on a cell

phone. . . .

That so many can live among the ruins seems impossible. Yet so many

do. The city is home to about 5 million people, at a population density of

70,000 per square mile—2.5 times more crowded than New York City. Another

9 million live in the urban agglomeration, bringing the population of greater

Kolkata to 14 million. More are added every day—though not as many as

you might expect from births. Kolkata’s fertility rate (the average number of

c hildren born to a woman) is only 1.35, well below the global replacement

average of 2.34 (the number where population stabilizes as births balance with

deaths). Instead, the city’s growth is fueled

Easton, Thomas (2012-07-01). Taking Sides: Clashing Views in Science, Technology, and Society, 10th edition (Page 122). McGraw-Hill/Dushkin. Kindle Edition.

What supports the crowds of Kolkata are what supports life everywhere:

air, water, food, fuel, climate. Three hundred miles north of the city rises the

mighty buttress of the Himalayas, home to 18,000 glaciers covering an area

of ice larger than Maryland. After the Arctic and Antarctic, this “third pole”

holds Earth’s greatest freshwater reserve, supplying the outflows of some of the

globe’s mightiest rivers—Ganges, Yarlung Tsangpo, Brahmaputra—water for

one in seven people on Earth. Fifty miles to the south of Kolkata, at the end of

those rivers, lies the enormous Bay of Bengal, where 3 million tons of seafood

are netted, hooked, and trawled annually. In highlands to the north and south

lie the seams of coal that fuel the city.

Seen from above, the circulatory system of roads and railroads of the

Indian east—home to 300 million people, roughly the same as the US— funnels

into Kolkata, with trucks and freight trains running day and night, laden with

fuel, fish, and food. The city itself funnels into a central core, a defensible bend

in the Hooghly River and the classic star-shaped, 18th-century Fort William—a

stronghold harking back to a time when wealth was measured in tea, silk, jute,

ivory, and gemstones, and when survival was assured with cannon fire.

Survival in the...
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