Monday, August 27, 2007

Horse manure

Eric Morris writes about "From Horse Power to Horsepower" in the Spring 2007 issue of Access. The story has been around for some time but it is much too good not to revive.

In 1898, delegates from across the globe gathered in New York
City for the world's first international urban planning conference. One topic
dominated the discussion. It was not housing, land use, economic development, or
infrastructure. The delegates were driven to desperation by horse

The horse was no newcomer on the urban scene. But by the late
1800s, the problem of horse pollution had reached unprecedented heights. The
growth in the horse population was outstripping even the rapid rise in the
number of human city dwellers. American cities were drowning in horse manure and
well as other unpleasant biproducts of the era's predominant mode of
transportation: urine, flies, congestion, carcasses, and traffic accidents.
Widespread cruelty to horses was a form of environmental degradation as well.

The situation seemed dire. In 1894, the Times of
London estimated that by 1950 every street in the city would be buried nine feet
deep in horse manure. One New York prognosticator of the 1890s concluded
that by 1930 the horse droppings would rise to Manhattan's third-story
windows. A public health and sanitation crisis of almost unimaginable
dimensions loomed.

And no possible solution could be devised. After all,
the horse had been the dominant mode of transportation for thousands of
years. Horses were absolutely essential for the functioning of the 19th
century city - for personal transportation, freight haulage and even mechanical
power. Without horses, cities would quite literally starve.

All efforts to mitigate the problem were proving woefully
inadequate. Stumped by the crisis, the urban planning conference declared
its work fruitless and broke up in three days instead of the scheduled

The rest, as they say, is history. Does the episode suggest that we should remain sketpical over the modern doomsday forecasts? To ask the question is practically to answer it.

Simple extrapolations of known ways of doing things have always been pointless.