Monday, January 11, 2016

Climate Change and the Horse Manure Catastrophe

One of the reasons of the success of the motor car in replacing horses was that cars didn't leave solid waste behind. It would take almost a century to understand that the exhaust of motor vehicles is way more toxic and polluting than anything that the rear of a horse could produce. (Above, 1898 car ad). 

The success of the Paris climate conference may have been only partial, but it has surely thrown into some disarray the anti-science party. For instance, at the National Review, they haven't been able to criticize the Paris agreement with anything better than the old canard of "the horse manure catastrophe," (see here for the origin of the story). Their recent piece on this subject is titled "Why Climate Change Won’t Matter in 20 Years" and it is penned by Josh Gelernter. It contains nothing new, but it is a slick and well-written piece that deserves some attention.

The central argument of the text derives from the horse manure pollution problem in the 19th century. Gelernter cites Michael Crichton and says,
What environmental problems would men in 1900 have predicted for 2000? Where to get enough horses, and what to do with all the manure. “Horse pollution was bad in 1900,” said Crichton. How much worse would someone in 1900 expect it to be a century later, with so many more people riding horses?"
From here, the text goes on listing the many changes that we have seen since that time and arguing that, today, it is impossible to predict what technology will be like in a hundred years from now, and that even 20 years from now climate change will not be a problem anymore.

The way the text is written, Gelernter argument seems to stand; but if you examine it in detail, it becomes a sandcastle at high tide. Basically, the example of the horse manure is stretched way beyond its importance. Chricton was probably correct when he said, "Horse pollution was bad in 1900," but there is no evidence that anyone considered it a catastrophe in the making or extrapolated it to the remote future: there was no such a thing analogous to our IPPC, say, an IPMC (International Panel on the Manure Catastrophe).

Then, horse manure may have been offensive for the delicate noses of town dwellers, but it never was toxic, never destroyed the ecosystem, and it could always be swept away by a sufficient number of people armed with brooms. The exaggerated importance given to this story may derive from a factoid that you can easily find in the web that states (in various slightly different versions) that "Writing in the Times of London in 1894, one writer estimated that in 50 years every street in London would be buried under nine feet of manure." I have been trying to find the source of this statement, but it doesn't seem to exist. It is, most likely, just a legend, as indicated by the vagueness of the attribution to "one writer" as the author.

Apart from exaggerating the importance of manure pollution, the whole argument of the National Review article stands on a very shaky logic. The first problem is that, even though cars seemed to be much cleaner than horses, it would be discovered later on that the emissions at the exhaust pipe of a car are way more dangerous than anything that could come out of the rear end of a horse. And people armed with brooms can do nothing against gaseous pollution. Seen in these terms, cars are a classic case of a solution that worsens the problem: one can only shiver at the thought of what the next technological "solution" against car pollution could bring to us. (and there are already concerns that the catalytic converters of motor cars may do unexpected damage to human health)

The other problem with Gelernter argument is a fundamental logical fallacy. It basically says, "there were pollution problems in the past. These problems don't exist anymore today. Therefore, the climate change problem of today will not exist anymore in the future" This is a fallacy of over-extrapolation, known, sometimes, as the "turkey fallacy". Imagine you are a turkey; then you observe that humans have been feeding you every day since the day you were born. So, you extrapolate to the future and you conclude that humans will keep feeding you forever. Then, thanksgiving comes.... So, the fact that we were able to solve some pollution problems in the past (or, at least, that we believe to have been able to solve) doesn't mean we'll always be able to solve all of them.

Apart from the shaky logic, the interesting feature of Gelernter's piece is how extreme it is. It is faith-based from top to bottom: the whole argument is a hymn to technology that will solve all problems as it has always done in the past. In the spectrum of the current visions of the future, it stands at the opposite end of Guy McPherson's "near-term human extinction," (NTE). Both imply that you should do nothing to prepare for the future. Both allow no "plan B," in case the future turns out not to be the one assumed to be.

That's reckless, to say the least. There are surely ways that could make human generated climate change an obsolete problem (including major technological innovations, but also, for instance, a nuclear war). But there are also plenty of chances that climate change could turn out to be a major, unmitigated disaster, as it is already. So, if you don't want to face the destiny of turkeys for thanksgiving, you'd better take a flexible stance and avoid getting caught in the traps generated by opposite extremes. The future often surprises you, but you'd better prepare for it.

(h/t Alex Sorokin)


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)