In the late 1800’s, during Walter Breuning’s youth, there were 200,000 horses living in New York City. Each horse produced 24 pounds of manure a day. New York City had a serious horse shit problem.
the streets were “literaly carpeted with a warm, brown matting . . . smelling to heaven.” (link)
The problem was piling-up. City blocks, serving as collection areas for the manure, became thirty foot high mini-mountains. Planners couldn’t even conceive of a solution.
When the world’s first international urban-planning conference was held, in 1898, it was dominated by discussion of the manure situation. Unable to agree upon any solutions—or to imagine cities without horses—the delegates broke up the meeting, which had been scheduled to last a week and a half, after just three days.One commentator predicted that by 1930 horse manure would reach the level of Manhattan’s third-story windows.
Then the problem disappeared. Along came electricity and the automobile and horses were relegated to Kentucky. This story has been told again and again (perhaps you are even wondering why I am repeating it). Most recently it is told in SuperFreakonomics as a comparison to the global warming problem.
“Just as equine activity once threatened to stomp out civilization, there is now a fear that human activity will do the same. . .Uncertainty has a nasty way of making us conjure up the very worst possibilities. . .Technological fixes are often far simpler, and therefore cheaper, than the doomsayers could have imagined.”
I recommend the book, and/or the blog. I can’t recommend the movie since I haven’t seen it.
If you are a regular reader of this blog then you are by now familiar with the three themes from this story. If you are new or if you were one of those kids that quickly flipped to the back of the book for the answer key, the three themes are:
- Confidence in the directionality of technological progress
- Skepticism of irrational fear
- Skepticism in our ability to plan progress and a belief in emergent order.
I recognize that there are those that think this a Pollyanna view of the world. Perhaps it is even naive. But think about what it is you do everyday (other than those of you who stand on the roof tops and shout “stop”). Aren’t you out there making tiny turns on the ratchet in the direction of better? And if you aren’t . . . then get busy!