Grocott's Mail

The Horse Manure crisis


We may have serious concerns about climate change and the myriad environmen­tal issues facing our small planet. But potential world disasters have been around for a long time.

The Great Horse Manure Crisis of the late 1800’s was not just a city-planning monstrosit­y - it threatened to be a health calamity. What it boiled down to was piles and piles of horseshit. The streets of New York, London, Zurich, Athens and other industrial­ised cities were knee deep in the stuff as can be seen in the 1893 photograph of Bedford, England.

Good manure, you may think: why didn’t they just spread it on the fields and veggie gardens? They did, but the mounds kept mounting. So much so that in 1898 we find historical reports of an Internatio­nal Urban Planning Conference, held in New York, whose main agenda was what to do about horse dung in city streets (see “The Poo Conference of 1898 ...” < horses- and- history/ the- pooconfere­nce-of-1898-the-worldcrisi­s-of-too-many-horse >

Bulk movement of people and goods had increased exponentia­lly with the advent of the Industrial Revolution and as a result, by the 1880’s, there were tens of thousands of horses living and working in European and United States cities.

The estimated number of horses in New York alone was a hundred and fifty thousand. One horse produces on average 10 kilograms of excrement a day, so the city’s production of horse droppings amounted to some forty-five thousand tons a month.

In addition, a draft horse produces up to eight litres of urine per day. This would have added a further 30 million litres per month of urine to the streets. George Waring, who served as New York’s street cleaning commission­er, described Manhattan as “stinking with the emanations of putrefying organic matter.”

As in today’s media, sensationa­lism sells. Commentato­rs predicted that by 1930 horse manure would reach the level of Manhattan’s third-story windows and, in 1894, the Times of London forecast that by the middle of the following century, every London street would be buried under nine feet of manure.

Fears were expressed that the unsanitary conditions would lead to a public health crisis: flies, rats, stink, disease, plague. In respect of the horse poo conundrum, the internatio­nal Urban Planning conference, failed to come up with a solution. There was certainly a horse poo problem, but we will never know the depth of it.

Nonetheles­s, the crisis did pass, but it was not due to regulation or government policy. Instead, it was creativity, innovation and entreprene­urship.

From Nikola Tesla’s developmen­t of alternatin­g current technology and the optimisati­on of the internal-combustion engine, entreprene­urs such as Karl Benz, Henry Ford and Louis Chevrolet innovated ways to move people and goods around.

So by 1912, cars outnumbere­d horses in New York, and in 1917 the city’s last horsedrawn streetcar was taken out of service. Visions of cities drowning in excrement had not materializ­ed. The mountains of horse manure were probably removed or compacted and structures built for noble pursuits were firmly secured on their foundation­s of feces.

So was the Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1898 just a good business-school story, or can it be seen as a metaphor for humans being saved by ingenu- ity and creativity? The Benz’s and Fords pursued an agenda of narrow self-interest. The by-product of their egoism spawned a different world.

New industries and profession­s sprang up – tarred and paved roads, fuel, rubber, paint suppliers and automotive industry workers.

There were negative consequenc­es too. Horse numbers dropped dramatical­ly and horse breeding became a specialise­d activity. Enduring profession­s such as farriers, feed suppliers, saddlers and carriage makers faded. There is never an absolute ‘win-win’ situation in human endeavour.

Moreover, perhaps stereotype­s should be revisited?

For example, were whales saved from extinction by the progressiv­e environmen­talist movement, or the creative capitalist­s of the 19th century? At the height of the whaling industry, some thousand ships harvested whales, mainly for the rich oil rendered from their carcasses.

Whale oil had long been used for lighting and in the production of soap and candles. However, the increasing population numbers and advances in whale-trawler technology almost sounded the death knell for these placid giants of the ocean.

Then in the latter half of the 19th century, John D. Rockefelle­r’s Standard Oil Company began mass production of a petroleum distillate called kerosene (paraffin) as a replacemen­t for whale oil in lamps. Standard Oil also optimized petroleum wax production. Meanwhile, the sons of William Procter and James Gamble (founders of the Procter and Gamble business empire) successful­ly commercial­ised novel vegetable oil processing techniques. These vegetable oils were an economical substitute for animal fat in soap manufactur­e.

Can the innovator, creator, and entreprene­ur save humanity from the seemingly impossible challenges of climate change, food production, pollution and overpopula­tion?

According to the Steve Meyrick of Memphis Meats, a San Francisco crowd-funded biotech company, a solution to most of our planet’s ills could be less than a decade away. In March this year, the company announced the viable production of poultry from regenerati­ve chicken and duck stem cells. This is as revolution­ary as the invention of the internal combustion engine.

Convention­al animal agricultur­e, according to several peer reviewed studies (such as Smith, Bustamante et al, (Agricultur­e, Forestry and Other Land Use), accounts for some 50 percent to global greenhouse gas emissions with a footprint of up to 45 percent of the earth’s arable land and uses a third of the planet’s fresh water.

These authors give animal agricultur­e as the leading cause of 90 percent of Amazon rain-forest destructio­n, species extinction and habitat destructio­n.

In comparison, depending on the product, a 2011 study by Philip Thornton, Mario Herrero, and Polly Ericksen, (“Livestock and Climate Change,” Internatio­nal Livestock Research Institute.) concludes, “cultured meat involves up to 45% lower energy use, 96% lower greenhouse gas emissions, 99% reduced land usage, and 96% lower water consumptio­n”.

Combine this with renewable energy resources, energy storage and the growing electric vehicle industry and the implicatio­ns for humankind are both positive and astounding.

Imagine a world without innovation and free enterprise? Entreprene­urs and Creatives are both imperfect and virtuous in selfish ways. Yet the inconvenie­nt truth is we may owe them infinitely more than the envy and bitterness of their egalitaria­nminded critics.

Spare a thought to Procter and Gamble’s novel 1800’s soap bar. Their advertisin­g spend subsidized the production of early 1930’s radio drama production­s. The colloquial term soap operas ultimately originates from poor immigrants.

In searching for a better life in the USA more than 150 years ago, their products not only cleaned the feet of your ancestors. They contribute­d to the greatest technologi­cal and financial empire of the modern age.

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