A number of times in history, we’ve faced seemingly insurmountable problems. If things continued on that course, calamity was the likely outcome, with the possibility of everyone dying. While not all problems get solved by new technology, many of them do, and we don’t foresee it. In this article, I’ll give a couple of examples of “horse manure crises,” their solutions, and how we might be in the middle of one of them. Then, I’ll show that we are actually in the middle of a big problem already being solved without harsh measures.
The Actual Horse Manure Crisis
In the late 1800s, things were bad. As industrialization took off and cities grew, populations exploded. Unlike today, muscle power was still the best way to move people and stuff around within the cities. Sure, there were trains, but they couldn’t put a train track on every street and lead to every factory. To move people around, move goods to shops, raw materials to most factories, and to satisfy many other transportation needs, people used horses and various types of wagons.
The problem: horses produce between 15 and 35 pounds of manure per day, and they also produce about two pints of urine. They’ll often pee and poop on the go, so most of the manure ended up on the city streets. Instead of exhaust gases to be concerned with, the manure would cake and layer on the streets when it couldn’t be picked up quickly enough. When a horse died, people would leave it in the streets to rot a bit so it would be easier to cut apart and sell off.
With all of that poop piling up on the streets, plus the dead horse here and there, public health suffered. The smell surely bothered people, but the parasites and infections that resulted were more than a sensory inconvenience. We literally evolved a sense of smell and hate certain smells because they’re dangerous. People who were exposed to the stinky stuff too much didn’t tend to survive and reproduce as much, so an aversion to being around poop is a useful mutation.
As it got worse, city planners tried to find solutions, but were stumped. The growing manure problem was more than teams of cleanup crews could ever hope to keep up with. In New York, there was 100,000 horses making 2.5 million pounds of manure daily. In 1894 The Times in London predicted that in 50 years, every street would be buried in 9 feet of manure.
We know in hindsight that this didn’t happen. 50 years later (1944), there wasn’t manure in the streets, but there was a world war going. Militaries and civilians alike were using mechanized transport for nearly everything and horses were a rare sight in a city.
It didn’t take 50 years to solve the problem, either. By 1912, the number of horses on city streets worldwide fell to almost zero. Cars, buses, and transit replaced the horses and ended the horse manure crisis before it could doom the cities.
Humanity Didn’t Starve Itself
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the biggest villain so far was Thanos. His goal? The destruction of half of all life in the universe. Sounds pretty evil, right?
Thanos thought to the end that he was the good guy, though. He thought that many of the planets in the universe were becoming overpopulated, and that people (and other alien species) were suffering immensely. He thought that by killing half of the universe, he’d put things back into balance and prevent suffering and catastrophe.
This idea of overpopulation causing suffering and extinction wasn’t something Stan Lee came up with out of thin air. It’s actually based on the writings of Reverend Thomas Malthus in 1798.
His idea, called Malthusianism, is that mankind is overpopulating the earth and that we’d eventually starve ourselves out. There was only so much nitrate in nature to grow crops with (from animal droppings, etc), and so much arable land. He saw that technology could help, but counter-argued that eventually the growth of human population would eat up the difference and leave us with too little food and too many mouths to feed anyway. Even today, some people think harsh measures like human population planning (things like requiring a license to have a child) are necessary to prevent a Malthusian disaster in the future.
Malthus’ predictions didn’t come to pass, though. Improvements in crop technology (synthetic nitrates, mechanized production) combined with the voluntary adoption of birth control in most countries led to a slowing of population growth combined with greater availability of food. Neo-Malthusians think we’ll eventually run into population growth problems at some point in the future, but the original predictions didn’t pan out.
Malthus simply couldn’t foresee that the biggest bottlenecks in agricultural production would be solved, and current population alarmists are now met with skepticism, because the skeptics think technology will save the day again.
Are We Making The Same Predictive Mistake Today With EV Mandates?
In some ways, this argument mirrors that of Stephen Davies at FEE, but we are in the enviable position of seeing the solution happen. Past predictions of catastrophe often didn’t pan out because it’s impossible to predict future events in great detail. We can’t see the technologies that don’t exist today. The few who can are the people who invent/develop them.
When it comes to the problem of internal combustion engines screwing up air quality and trashing the climate, we aren’t in 1894 anymore. We aren’t at the part of the story where manure is piling up and we can’t see any good way out. Comparing things to the manure crisis, we are closer to 1905. We can actually see not only visualize the new technology that saves us from the crisis, but many of us are actually using that technology ourselves today, or want our next car to be an EV.
We can also see the economic winds shifting. Battery prices are falling, and will soon reach the point where an EV costs the same to drive off the lot as a gas car, and maybe even cheaper. When the car costs the same and the fuel and maintenance are far cheaper, it’s a no brainer.
We still have people telling us that the proverbial streets will be buried under nine feet of manure, or that we’ll all die, unless harsh measures are taken. Coastal states in the US and other countries around the world are competing with each other over who can come up with the biggest and boldest future gas car ban, and Washington state is in the lead among the States.
But consider that horses aren’t banned from most cities today, and never were. There are stories even today of Walmarts with hitching posts for Amish and Menonites who still use a horse for transportation.
Consider that we don’t have population control measures in most countries, and the most famous example of population control (China) had unintended consequences that it is now grappling with. If the whole world had adopted a One Child Policy, we’d be in a bad spot that we didn’t need to get ourselves into, as the population controlled itself with new technology voluntarily (birth control).
We have the benefit today of seeing the solution voluntarily unfold in real time, so it makes even less sense to keep advocating for harsh measures.
Featured image: Wagons slog through manure in late 19th century New York (Public Domain).