Imagine for a moment that we are able to climb into one of those fabulous time machines of science fiction fable, set the clock back five centuries, and travel across half a millennium to Europe in 1489.

We arrive on a hill overlooking a village, amid green grass and yellow daisies. Before us we can see the red-tiled roofs of houses in the town, their steep slopes broken up by small windowed dormers. Our eyes are almost immediately drawn to the church and its high bell tower, which seems to form the center of the town, and which stands above all the other buildings, as if to direct and draw them up, as it were, into the heavens.

Our initial view is shaped by the romantic illusions we have brought with us from our more complicated technological world of rabid schedules and interminable rush-hour traffic.

The village we see before us is “picturesque”; a village, we imagine, bustling with friendly, healthy, hard-working people, who will surely welcome respectful strangers into their integrated community. These fortunate folk have no need for words like pollution, economic decline, ecological disaster, social despair, or nuclear winter.

The idyllic image, however, passes quickly. Even from a distance, we begin to focus on the dirt houses and the thatch roofs scattered without order around and within the village. (Those quaint red roofs are on the houses owned by the most prosperous inhabitants.) As we wander down from our pleasant, grassy knoll and enter this charming little village, our romantic curiosity turns to shock.

Everything stinks! We alone seem to notice the garbage floating in the rough-cut canals. Our breath is taken away by the mingled odors of smoke, refuse, and cooked cabbage.

The people we see have obviously not bathed. ...

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