Hopeful news for us from the Horse Manure Crisis of 1894

Summary: We can better prepare for future threats by seeing how we defeated past ones. Here we compare a certain doom from the past with one in our future.

“We’re going to become extinct. Whatever we do now is too late.”
— Frank Fenner in The Australian, 10 June 2010. He is a Prof Emeritus in biology at the Australian National U; see his great accomplishments.

A future historian’s perspective on the Great Climate Crisis of 2018

The Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894

“In 50 years, every street in London will be buried under nine feet of manure.”
— Headline in The Times from 1894. Famous but fake, accurately describing the views of that time.

In 1880, New York City had over 150,000 horses, a number which would rise in the next few decades. A horse produces 20+ pounds of manure and ~2 pints of urine per day. The manure flooded the market, so that farmers were paid to take it. Piles of manure were 50+ feet high. Dead and rotting horses littered the streets. All this attracted massive numbers of flies which spread typhoid fever and other diseases. Horse-drawn vehicles killed people at far higher rates than today’s vehicles. The first International Urban Planning Conference convened in New York in 1898 to solve this problem. Scheduled for 10 days, they gave up on the third day and went home. (See this article for more information.)

Change came as new energy sources replaced horses, powering subways, trolleys, buses, trucks, and cars. For example, the first electrified underground urban railway opened in 1890 in London. This technology became more useful with the invention of the multiple-unit train control in 1897. In a few decades, cities were far cleaner. The solutions were being invented while people were despairing about the impossibility of solutions.

These energy sources were not invented as a response to the inadequacies of horses but as part of the 1870-1950 industrial revolution. Their success does not mean we should expect new tech to meet critical needs without conscious effort on our part. Nor plan on solutions appearing just because we need them.

The lesson from this history is that people often assume problems are intractable – ignoring contrary evidence already visible.

Forecasts of doom from climate change

“In 2002, as I edited a book about global climate change, I concluded we had set events in motion that would cause our own extinction, probably by 2030. I mourned for months …”

— From “Apocalypse or extinction?” by Guy McPherson (Prof Emeritus of Natural Resources and Ecology, U AZ) in October 2009. In 2017 he predicted that our species will be extinct by 2026. He is the author of Extinction Dialogs: How to Live with Death in Mind (2014).

I have documented the increasing focus during the past three decades on doomster scenarios about climate change. See Ignoring science to convince the public that we’re doomed by climate change and Manufacturing climate nightmares: misusing science to create horrific predictions. These doomsters assume that only massive government action can prevent horrific outcomes. Their confidence comes from misrepresenting or exaggerating the underlying science (e.g., regarding the worst-case scenario in the IPCC’s AR5).

They also make a second error: ignoring other solutions. Most obviously, the development of new energy sources (or large improvements to existing sources, such as solar). That is an odd oversight, since rapid tech innovation has been the story of the past 3 centuries. It is especially odd since there are indications today that a new solution might come soon.

Fusion, at last

Robert L. Hirsch ran the US fusion program in the 1970s, walking away from it after he realized that success was not 20 years away (as commonly said), but beyond the foreseeable future. Scientists relying on government grants have continued to promise results soon, without delivering on them. So climate change gurus “know” that fusion will not save us. They say that just as smart and experienced people conclude the opposite. See the following, showing increasing investments in fusion from private sources.

One mega-corp is investing in fusion: Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works began building a compact fusion system in 2010. See their website and the Wikipedia entry. From their October 2014 press release

“{Lockheed} is working on a new compact fusion reactor (CFR) that can be developed and deployed in as little as ten years. …The smaller size will allow us to design, build and test the CFR in less than a year. After completing several of these design-build-test cycles, the team anticipates being able to produce a prototype in five years.”

Most of these companies issue exciting press releases and videos about breakthroughs and timetables. Most are falling behind on their initial promises. The sums spent are small, as such things go. But the increasing interest of private investors – especially professional venture capitalists – marks the start of a new phase in the development of fusion power. Just like the inventors of modern urban transit systems a century ago, they pursue private profits and want quick results. But in the few decades they might – might – solve several major problems threatening the planet.

Mr. Fusion

Looking to our future

HORATIO:  O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!
HAMLET:  And therefore as a stranger give it welcome. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy {i.e., science}.

Pundits and scientists gives us absurdly confident forecasts about the distant future, things decades or generations away. Often about certain doom, usually based on mathematical models looking at only a tiny sliver of the countless factors affecting our world. Humility about our ability to see the future too seldom appears in these. The darkest predictions are those that deliberately ignore possible non-political solutions. The shrillest calls for political action are those that see only one threat and ignore the many other dangers that threaten us.

Scary press releases make easily written clickbait stories for journalists. A steady diet of them makes well-entertained but ignorant and passive citizens, overwhelmed by the daily tsunami of doomster stories and awareness that all have proven false in the past. We can do better. See The first step to protecting the world from its many dangers.

For More Information

Another often-told story about natural resources is about the replacement of whale oil by petroleum. The reality was much more complex, with no obvious lessons for us. See an analysis by Bill Kovarik, Professor of Communication at Radford University; also see the discussion in the comments.

Ideas! For shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information see The keys to understanding climate change, all posts about shockwaves, and especially these about some of the many large threats to our world…

  1. Is our certain fate a coal-burning climate apocalypse? No!
  2. Manufacturing climate nightmares: misusing science to create horrific predictions.
  3. ImportantThe oceans are dying. See their condition on World Oceans Day!
  4. How good are our global senses, watching our changing world? — About solar storms.
  5. California’s past megafloods – and the coming ARkStorm.
  6. It’s the Anthropocene! But natural threats will still kill millions unless we act soon.
  7. Three things to know about asteroids, certain death from the sky (eventually).
  8. Geologists warn us about dangerous volcanoes. Will we spend pennies for warnings?

27 thoughts on “Hopeful news for us from the Horse Manure Crisis of 1894

  1. You mention two errors, doomster scenarios and ignoring other solutions. I would add a third, the failure to match proposed remedies to the alleged problem. The problem with climatism is not only the doomster diagnoses, it is the prescription in response.

    For example, the world is emitting 37 billion tons of CO2 a year. China is doing north of 10 billion of that, and rising. The green movement claims this must be lowered to zero, but in any case below 10 billion. So their solution is to reduce emissions of the West – North America, Europe and Australia, while leaving all other countries free to increase at will. It is infra dig to propose that China reduce. If you do it in any public forum you will be greeted with a barage of buts, and not one greeen advocate will admit that it is necessary.

    But, but, they are installing lots of wind, their historical emissions were low. Their per capita emissions are then said to be the key indicator and claimed to be low, and when you point out they are at EU levels, you are met with the largely false ‘but’ that they are for exports so do not really count. All refusing to accept the fact that the old industrialised West is now doing less than 25% of global emissions So if you really are trying to cut global emissions in half or by three quarters, you cannot get there without ‘developing world’ actual tonnage reductions. Not that China is developing world any longer.

    Wind and solar are similarly ineffective prescriptions, I don’t believe any country has lowered its total emissions in tons by installing them.

    And they call skeptics denialists!

    Its like a man in New Jersey who claims to have to be in Manhattan this afternoon, and to be desperately trying to get there, but insists on taking trains headed west, and calls everyone who points out that they are going away from Manhattan and not towards it, deniers.

    1. re: China, I think the real crux is “Not that China is developing world any longer” – I remember clearly reading (with no clear consensus) about the big problem that China and India, at least, had serious objections to the idea that as nations they had to stop their economic development and be poor forever. Now both of them are relatively affluent and interested in cleaning up their act. Hopefully the technology will be good enough that a similar transition in Africa will be less of an impact – and then we’ve run out of large poverty-stricken regions.

      As for any country lowering their total emissions in tons through the installation of solar and wind, I think you would be technically correct (the best kind!) but it was not until the last ten or twelve years that non-hydroelectric renewable power was feasible, really, at all; The biggest driver in lowering carbon emissions has been the shift from coal to gas.

    2. SF,

      “As for any country lowering their total emissions in tons through the installation of solar and wind …”

      You appear to have missed this from the post (bold added):

      “They also make a second error: ignoring other solutions. Most obviously, the development of new energy sources (or large improvements to existing sources, such as solar). That is an odd oversight, since rapid tech innovation has been the story of the past 3 centuries.”

      Solar and wind are interruptible sources, which require backup sources. Advocates usually give the cost without including the cost of the back-up system (and the cost of upgrading the grid to handle large amounts of fluctuating inputs). That is one reason wind is 6.3% and solar 1.3% of US elec gen in 2017 — with subsidies. But who can say what is possible over the next 40 years?

    1. Shelley,

      “we only see horses on reservations nowadays.”

      And near the homes of rich people. In the Bay area, it seems that half of their daughters take riding lessons. I suspect that is significant, but I don’t know how.

  2. Please forgive this rather long response. Seems to me that there is a synergy between your fine article and the poem below.

    The Ambulance Down in the Valley Joseph Malins (1895)

    ‘Twas a dangerous cliff, as they freely confessed,
    Though to walk near its crest was so pleasant;
    But over its terrible edge there had slipped
    A duke and full many a peasant.
    So the people said something would have to be done,
    But their projects did not at all tally;
    Some said, “Put a fence ’round the edge of the cliff,”
    Some, “An ambulance down in the valley.”

    But the cry for the ambulance carried the day,
    For it spread through the neighboring city;
    A fence may be useful or not, it is true,
    But each heart became full of pity
    For those who slipped over the dangerous cliff;
    And the dwellers in highway and alley
    Gave pounds and gave pence, not to put up a fence,
    But an ambulance down in the valley.

    “For the cliff is all right, if you’re careful,” they said,
    “And, if folks even slip and are dropping,
    It isn’t the slipping that hurts them so much
    As the shock down below when they’re stopping.”
    So day after day, as these mishaps occurred,
    Quick forth would those rescuers sally
    To pick up the victims who fell off the cliff,
    With their ambulance down in the valley.

    Then an old sage remarked: “It’s a marvel to me
    That people give far more attention
    To repairing results than to stopping the cause,
    When they’d much better aim at prevention.
    Let us stop at its source all this mischief,” cried he,
    “Come, neighbors and friends, let us rally;
    If the cliff we will fence, we might almost dispense
    With the ambulance down in the valley.”

    “Oh he’s a fanatic,” the others rejoined,
    “Dispense with the ambulance? Never!
    He’d dispense with all charities, too, if he could;
    No! No! We’ll support them forever.
    Aren’t we picking up folks just as fast as they fall?
    And shall this man dictate to us? Shall he?
    Why should people of sense stop to put up a fence,
    While the ambulance works in the valley?”

    But the sensible few, who are practical too,
    Will not bear with such nonsense much longer;
    They believe that prevention is better than cure,
    And their party will soon be the stronger.
    Encourage them then, with your purse, voice, and pen,
    And while other philanthropists dally,
    They will scorn all pretense, and put up a stout fence
    On the cliff that hangs over the valley.

    Better guide well the young than reclaim them when old,
    For the voice of true wisdom is calling.
    “To rescue the fallen is good, but ’tis best
    To prevent other people from falling.”
    Better close up the source of temptation and crime
    Than deliver from dungeon or galley;
    Better put a strong fence ’round the top of the cliff
    Than an ambulance down in the valley.

    s/The Ole’ Buzzard

    1. Thanks for posting that. It’s quite apt.

      Of course, we have so many potential threats, most of unknown probability and results. So our problem is allocating resources among them. Each has its advocates screaming that their problem is the One True Problem, to which we should apply great (or even unlimited) resources. Allocations tend to be done by responding to the most compelling stories told with the loudest voices.

      This is quite mad, and will not end well for us. For example, among the highest probability threats (already happening) with the largest impacts is the mistreatment of the oceans. Yet its not sexy. No political group benefits from addressing this problem. So it is barely on our priority list.

    1. That’s been a common observation going back to the Founding. I doubt much has changed. Rather, each generation rediscovers this.

      Politics and statecraft are, like making sausage, not pretty.

    1. (1) “We’ve replicated toxic Sargasso Seas of effluent and plastic”

      Fake news, propaganda. See Are we “choking the ocean with plastic”? Tracing creation of a myth. There is a problem with dispersed floating garbage, mostly near the coasts. The potentially far more serious problem is plastic microparticles. They decay eventually, but there are large and increasing volumes of them in the ocean.

      (2) “How $21 Trillion in U.S. Tax Money Disappeared. “Full Scope Audit” of the Pentagon”

      A clickbait headline, typical of “Global Research.” The problem is that DoD does not have adequate accounting systems. That does not mean that the money was misspent. It’s mad to say that the money “disappeared.”

      This is a distinct problem from the issue you mention, how to allocate resources between domestic needs and defense. GR blurs that distinction because it produces propaganda. As does DoD. Because that’s what the American people want, as pigs like swill.

  3. Larry,

    Was the cow methane crisis of the early 1980s was like this in predicting doom, gloom, and the destruction of the ozone layer? I remember bits and pieces of it when I was a child, especially with some TV sitcoms using it as jokes in their series.

    1. Der Maiden,

      I don’t recall that one, and a quick search of Google doesn’t show anything (but it’s difficult to find something that old w/o a reference). Would be interesting to see.

  4. Larry, you say “But who can say what is possible over the next 40 years?”

    Think we have seen enough of wind and solar to be confident they are not going to replace conventional on any scale without a step change happening to electricity storage.

    That is impossible to forecast. It might happen, but there is little sign of it yet. We are moving down the experience curve with lithium, but a far greater breakthrough will be needed than any we have seen yet.

    The problem with the activists view of this is that they advocate moving to wind and solar before any evidence that that breakthrough is going to happen or is even possible.

    The general fallacy underlying this is the wishful belief that we can reduce carbon emissions without making any material changes to how we live and work and play and produce, just change the technology we use to generate electricity in the direction of wind and solar, and change the engines in the cars and trucks to run on batteries. Leave the structure of suburbs, highways etc just as they are now. So LA will look the same, the traffic will be the same, just the cars will be electric.

    This is a prescription and prediction that seems most unlikely to work and come true. The onus of proof is surely on anyone who advocates it. And what is striking is that in the clamor to implement, we see no worked out scenarios showing how its to be managed. Or even real quantification of what breakthroughs in battery tech and storage will be needed to make it possible.

    Its the flip side of advocating remedies that do not cure the alleged problem. The only way you can do it is to refuse to consider specific implementations and their efficacy.

    On fusion, agreed. This does show signs of getting there and changing the rules of the game. At least for electricity generation. Probably not for cars and trucks!

    1. George,

      “Think we have seen enough of wind and solar to be confident they are not going to replace conventional on any scale”

      Wow. Nostradamus lives! I doubt you have the necessary PhD’s to make that forecast.

      Also, “on any scale” is meaningless. They are already replacing conventional on some scale (8% of US electric gen in 2017), which is impressive given the long-lifetime of elec gen equipment and the few years these have been feasible for large-scale use.

      “At least for electricity generation. Probably not for cars and trucks!”

      As battery tech improves, cars and trucks will use electricity. As a fuel, it is much cheaper than gas or diesel.

    2. George First said: “Think we have seen enough of wind and solar to be confident they are not going to replace conventional on any scale without a step change happening to electricity storage.”

      The article below states that there are no fundamental changes in storage technology needed for renewables. {Ed: if we make massive use of pumped storage.}

      No Huge Energy Storage Breakthrough Needed For Renewable Energy To Flourish” at CleanTechica.

      Wind and solar have also grown rapidly in the past few years, which supports that contention.

      There’s no clear “winner” in this race, just a bunch of alternatives. As indicated in one of the other articles, technologies like wind and solar can actually complement one another and be used together.

    3. Ray,

      Thanks for posting links to those articles. The growth in solar and wind has been impressive, and there remains great potential for them to grow much more — in favorable areas.

      The CleanTechnica article is misleading. It points to pumped storage as the magic bullet to make interruptible sources useful on a larger scale. The problem has never been the technology. The problem is the cost. The cost of the backup is part of the solar/wind cost, and usually pushes it above economic levels.

      The Futurist does not appear to understand how commodity cycles work. Boom and bust. Underinvestment – prices rise- too much investment – prices drop, repeat. It is bad even when the cycle is annual, as with most grains. It is much more severe when the investment cycles are decadal, as in energy.

    4. Larry Kummer said: “The problem has never been the technology. The problem is the cost. The cost of the backup is part of the solar/wind cost, and usually pushes it above economic levels.”

      https://www.researchgate.net/post/Pumped_hydro_storage_and_a_better_use_of_wind_energy2

      If you scroll down to Mehdi Hedayatpour’s comment, he mentions taking advantage of existing power grid flexibility and storage options. Since it’s taking advantage of already-existing infrastructure, that would help minimize the cost. As you noted, the growth in wind and solar has been impressive, in spite of all the naysaying.

      The Futurist does not appear to understand how commodity cycles work.

      The Futurist has expressed a desire for consistently high oil prices, in order to encourage investments in alternative energy sources. To me that implies that the site authors do in fact understand how boom and bust cycles can slow progress.

      It is bad even when the cycle is annual, as with most grains.It is much more severe when the investment cycles are decadal, as in energy.

      That’s why there’s a futures market, both for grains and energy sources.

    5. Ray,

      (1) “Since it’s taking advantage of already-existing infrastructure, that would help minimize the cost.”

      The relevant point is that massive increase of interruptables would require new back-up capacity, per every expert I’ve seen. The existing grid cannot handle interruptable’s share of over 10% -15% (estimates vary widely, since it is difficult to model).

      (2) “To me that implies that the site authors do in fact understand how boom and bust cycles can slow progress.”

      The post you cited quite clearly shows that the author does not understand how commodity cycles work. The explanation of recent oil price movements is largely wrong.

      Also, boom-bust don’t slow progress. More often they accellerate progress, as investments in the boom phase are uneconomic — but build useful infrastructure that prudent investors would not do until the future. That’s been the case since the Great Railway Boom of the 1840s to the Internet Maddess of 2000.

      (3) “That’s why there’s a futures market, both for grains and energy sources.”

      What does that mean? Futures markets don’t temper boom-bust cycles (some believe their magnify them). For mineral markets, the cost of long-term hedging is prohibitive – so they have little effect on infrastructure investments (i.e., it’s not economic to hedge for a significant fraction of mining and refining infrastructures’ life). Which is why there are big profits at the top, and bankruptcies at the bottom.

    6. Larry Kummer said:
      The relevant point is that massive increase of interruptables would require new back-up capacity, per every expert I’ve seen. The existing grid cannot handle interruptable’s share of over 10% -15% (estimates vary widely, since it is difficult to model).

      I’d settle for a modest increase in interruptables, which gives us time to improve the economics of storage. Which I expect will continue.

      The post you cited quite clearly shows that the author does not understand how commodity cycles work. The explanation of recent oil price movements is largely wrong.

      How so? His main point that oil can’t climb above a certain price without it being subject to displacement from alternative energy appears to be largely accurate.

      Also, boom-bust don’t slow progress

      You were the one who cited it as an issue, not me.

      What does that mean? Futures markets don’t temper boom-bust cycles (some believe their magnify them)

      They provide a form of insurance for factors beyond human control. I don’t know if they magnify them although I suppose that’s possible. But that could be true for any form of insurance.

    7. Ray,

      Me: “Also, boom-bust don’t slow progress

      You: “You were the one who cited it as an issue, not me.”

      I said that boom and busts were natural aspects of commodity cycles. I did not say that they “slow progress.”

  5. Thorium looks like a promising alternative energy.

    https://www.technologyreview.com/the-download/608712/a-thorium-salt-reactor-has-fired-up-for-the-first-time-in-four-decades/

    I think the title’s a bit misleading; in the body of the article it says they’re running tests, not generating power for commercial use.

    Fission’s big problem is the amount of dangerous waste generated. Using fusion as a waste scrubber (as opposed to an energy source) may be one way of dealing with it. Article is from 2012, so I’m not sure how much is actually going on here.

    https://sej.stanford.edu/fusion-disposal-nuclear-waste

  6. In 1960, when I was sure that the future energy source was nuclear, I even thought it was fusion, but realised I wanted a computer that could do the algebra. So,fortunately, I chose a career in system and later applications software. I have also learned as an amateur in the subject, that the fast neutrons of fusion are very very difficult to deal with, and quite good at making radioactive waste after all.
    But really, folks fission IS the new technology, and both MSR and IFR fast neutron breeders produce very little, quite short lived, easily managed waste.
    That is because the energy density of nuclear sources is millions of times that of chemistry.
    So whereas we will have vast amounts of waste concrete from wind driven machines, and in the USA an annual quantity of toxic solid waste at 130 million tons, the annual spent fuel, most of it wasted U-238 that a fast neutron reactor can consume, amount to a mere 25 hundred tons.

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