The Wisdom of Manure

I have two pictures of New York on Easter Sunday. In 1900 there are only two automobiles visible. By 1913 there are only two horse-drawn carriages to be seen. What makes this dramatic inflection point noteworthy? A conference was convened in 1898 with representatives from New York, London, and Paris to discuss a looming crisis that threatened the very viability of these great metropolises. The luminaries of these great cities came together to find an answer to a problem that was literally burying their cities. It was manure. As the Industrial Revolution drove the concentration of populations around factories and factories concentrated around transportation hubs, the great Western cities grew. And the medium of transportation for both people and goods was the horse. Bigger populations needed more horses. Lots of horses. Steven Davies described the problem:

Nineteenth-century cities depended on thousands of horses for their daily functioning. All transport, whether of goods or people, was drawn by horses. London in 1900 had 11,000 cabs, all horse powered. There were also several thousand buses, each of which required 12 horses per day, a total of more than 50,000 horses. In addition, there were countless carts, drays, and wains, all working constantly to deliver the goods needed by the rapidly growing population of what was then the largest city in the world. Similar figures could be produced for any great city of the time.

The problem of course was that all these horses produced huge amounts of manure. A horse will on average produce between 15 and 35 pounds of manure per day. Consequently, the streets of nineteenth-century cities were covered by horse manure. This in turn attracted huge numbers of flies, and the dried and ground-up manure was blown everywhere. In New York in 1900, the population of 100,000 horses produced 2.5 million pounds of manure per day, which all had to be swept up and disposed of (Davies 2004).

That first international urban planning conference was scheduled to last ten days. The conferees canceled it after only three. They had no answer for the manure. No one at the time saw the implications of the “horseless carriage.” It changed everything. Seemingly overnight the impending death-by-manure of the West’s great cities was averted (Flowers 2015; Johnson n.d.).

So, staying with our stalking horse, what does our experience with manure suggest for the future of the environment? I am not an environmental scientist nor do I play one on TV. But I would submit that the consequences of the coming societal and technological inflection points that we have reviewed are not being accounted for in the current mainstream environmental “conventional wisdom”(Jarzebski et al. 2021).


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