Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

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)


  1. I believe you meant sand castles at "low tide".

  2. I had read about the problem of horse manure. Hence I was quite surprised when I saw this old movie clip: It was taken from the side of a tram/street-car moving down Manningham Lane — one of the busiest streets in Bradford, Yorkshire, England in the year 1902. It shows that all transport, apart from the trams themselves, is horse-drawn. But the streets are quite clean.

    I recall that during my boyhood we still have a few horse carts on our street. People would compete to shovel up the manure because it was such good fertilizer.

    And I love those Edwardian clothes — even the poorer people seem to be well dressed and respectable.

  3. There were also horses that often dropped dead in the (New York City) streets, sometimes getting to the point that they didn't get taken away for days. I recall the book where I read it being reputable, but now I'd like to double-check it, as well as the motives behind the original source.

    And not to say that cars have been a solution at all, but that I don't think going "back" to horses would be a panacea either. We need way smaller cities. There's no way a city like modern-day NY, which has spent the past 100 years building vertically, could deal with the amount of horses its population would now need to maintain itself.

    ...although then again, perhaps they could set up biogas digesters feeding off of horse manure to power all the elevators. ;)

    1. There are several pictures from that period of dead horses in the street and of piles of manure accumulating. Sometimes, it certainly happened. But I think that the very fact that people took pictures of these situations means that they were somewhat exceptional; a little like our heavy snowstorms or floods.

  4. We actually DO have a manure problem today from livestock on factory farms.

    1. Manure is a great resource. I refer you to the book "Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind"

  5. "We need way smaller cities."

    And we'll get them, when we have way fewer people, which will happen with or without our cooperation.

  6. I wish there were horse manure in the streets. Such a wonderful resource for growing fgod!

  7. "but you'd better prepare for it".

    Ah, but how to prepare for the future. If one lives in a city, there are not that many alternatives to contemporary life. My solution- "Get thee to a sunnery", namely, a place where the sun is the primary source of energy. Look for grass and trees rather than concrete and asphalt; there's the spot.

  8. The horse manure 'problem' in London was being dealt with just fine; by treating it as a resource. The same specialized Thames (sailing) Barges -Stackers- that brought hay from farms to feed the horses of London returned with loads of manure for the farms where it was needed so they could continue growing hay.

  9. I think the intellectual value (and the scientific value) of reciprocal mud slinging (or horse manure raising, or slinging) by both "sides" continues to be next to useless….(in fact worse than useless)

    This below is what I would consider the basic minimum for a rational discussion including (of course) also discussing or debating a minimum of actual real and specific scientific points of contention.

    It is from five years ago and its title is "Is the climate debate over?. I think it was not over 5 years ago and I don't think it is over now and in particular since the scientific points in the debate below (and several other ones) have not been addressed and resolved properly by the latest IPCC round. (nor by others) Naturally there are those who will continue to say that "The Science is Settled" so that we can now proceed with our pet political agendas. If it is so settled why not then discuss openly with a minimum of honesty and precision and specificity some of the specific points that so called skeptics say are NOT settled and publicize the results? And I do not mean by having Lord Monckton square off with Al Gore even though just that would help. . (and incidentally Al Gore has intelligently refused)

    The ones in the youtube below are only a few.

    What then also happens when "Science is placed in the Public Square" (as it has been and continues to be) is discussed below.

    Naturally anyone can contest with evidence and facts and/or scientific analysis or even just rational counterarguments anything said in either or both of these two videos. Assertions and polemics make little difference.

    Personally I do not think the Paris CoP has thrown into disarray the "anti-science" party. For one thing the CoP was a political event and not a scientific one. Secondly there are plenty of "anti-science" people on both sides of the two "debates". (the political debate AND the scientific debate) Hopefully what it has done is increased the determination of the "pro science" parties on both sides of contested issues to resolve issues on the basis of real science (and not junk science) and certainly not politics.

    I do not take seriously what the New Yorker writes nor do I take seriously many of the people attending the Paris CoP or those who support certain "certain" conclusions. Moreover I think general historical analogies to horses and their manure are worthless.

    1. Max, I beg respectfully to disagree. It is wrong to chase after the lesser trolls who infest web comments. But when you have an article on a major news outlet, such as the National Review, then you have not only a duty to respond, but also a chance to ride on their own broadcasting power. It would be best to respond on an outlet of comparable broadcasting power, but, lacking that, even a niche blog such as Cassandra has a certain penetration with the opinion leaders.

    2. Yes Ugo, I agree the National Review has put forward a fairly stupid and fairly troll like argument full of holes. But saying or exposing that does not address whether there are or there aren't other more valid arguments against the CoP or some of its conclusions. I do not see the CoP as representing "science" nor mounting an attack or a critique of it as being something only an "anti-science" party would do. I think plenty of scientists and "pro science" parties think the proceedings and the conclusions left a whole lot to be desired. And not because it is not binding. I attached the two links because I think they represent a more sensible discussion about the science itself. Actually the first one is about some of the science and those aspects that are not settled and the second about how science gets manipulated in the public arena. Maybe because I couldn't care less what the National Review says since it is probably in disarray about a lot of subjects. But many arguments put forward by presumably more scientific journals or institutions (e.g. NASA and NOAA just to name a couple) seem just as wrong or flawed or poorly argued though for different and probably far more serious reasons. The horse manure thing and analogy is a joke and I don't think anyone half way intelligent would take it seriously. Have a look at those two links when you have time or maybe you've seen them already. I am becoming far more skeptical about some of the presumably "settled science" than I was earlier. I would be far more interested in your views about what is said in those links than about what the National Review says. All the best, Max.

    3. Max
      Thanks for the video links. I am working on the first one.
      Superficially ‘the debate’ seems well-organised and seems a civil discussion between two credible gentlemen.

      On thinking about it, however, and making a few notes, I think it is a very poor discussion – way too many points are made that are frankly misleading, even if sincerely meant.

      My work in the past meant that I sat in on / observed discussions among eminent scientists trying to assess serious complex issues. Individually these scientists were typically competent in only a few of the relevant issues. My conclusion over 10 years of that kind of thing was that very few scientists can make risk assessments, individually or jointly - but see below.

      The old chestnuts seem to me to be beside the point. In the video there is the usual correct reminder that ‘signals’ are very difficult to discern in a ‘noisy’ environment. I remember 30 years ago published discussion among climate scientists agreeing that unequivocal signals of climate reaction to the already stupendously raised GHG would probably not be visible until into the 21st Century. If I remember correctly, ‘the atmosphere’ has almost no ‘memory’ from year to year. Glaciers and sea-ice, however, for example do accumulate trends. Those climate guys back then seemed to me to be some of the few scientists – the best – who could claim to make real risk assessments.

      Both the interviewer and experts appear to share a viewpoint that takes for granted the power of the modern technological world. In the video the guy from Vancouver thinks that ‘human social order’ can handle the results of the kind of climate change he sees coming. I presume this is the kind of social order in which he lives and does his science, which is built from and depends entirely on continuing large inputs of fossil fuel and on a relatively undisturbed global trade in resources. I can’t prove him wrong of course even if I do not share his perspective. What do you think?

      And what does it matter if the sea rises a few metres, or perhaps a few more than that above its present level? It is only a very small percentage! Such small oscillations and such small excessive levels over present ones, definitely are in the geological record, even during the ‘recent’ 800,000 plus year succession of glaciations, without needing to refer back to past massive ‘events’ like the 100,000 year seriously disturbed carbon cycle at the PETM. (Well, that last one supposes seriously disturbed concentrations of GHG.) Perhaps we should also think about the difference between condensing and non-condensing GHG and their interaction? The most remote geological records give credence to the reality of the key role of non-condensing GHG. Without them, ‘we’ (well, not quite ‘we’) would be on ‘Snowball Earth’, minus water vapour let alone clouds. Nearer the other end of the spectrum of possibilities for atmospheric carbon, however, even a short pulse of hundreds of years – it stays up there - following ‘our’ massive carbon release in excess of the ‘ordinary’ carbon cycling seen in the last two million years, is likely to leave a mark, even if things go back to where they were after that.

      Some of the discussion was fatuous in my opinion. At 400ppm CO2 and rising (and 1900ppb CH4) we may well have already in place the majority of the excess ‘radiative forcing’, but the idea that there is likely no problem because we have not a seen lot happen so far, seems very badly argued. 'We' seem to me to be pretty much 'on schedule'.


  10. It appeared in the National Review…not the New Yorker….but it makes little difference...

  11. 'The horse manure problem', meme came from the yanks of course ...
    A documentary on the history of sanitation in New York city had an unscrupulous street cleaning contractor bribe city officials to keep the contract & pocket the money without doing much street cleaning.
    In winter the muck would freeze, abandoned wagons on the sides of the streets would be piled with frozen muck and people would have to walk on frozen muck.
    I think New York city put up with it for a couple of years then finially got their act together & organized a proper working sanitation system.

  12. Indeed, not only was horse manure not a pollution problem, in Paris at least it was a sufficiently valuable resource that the "maraicheres" were using it around the turn of the 20th century to make the metropolitan region a net EXPORTER of produce.

  13. I think the 'Horse Manure' meme came from 'Freakonomics' and is pretty well attested. I remember being very impressed by it.

  14. I watched a bit of a bbc program about the invention and development of the car yesterday (strangely framed as a positive thing) where it uncritically repeated the horse manure myth, only it was new york that had apparantly suffered the malidy. Even at face value it is a stupis claim considering how valuable manure is to agriculture. This was before artificial fertilizers so all the surrounding farms would pay hansomely for manure to spread on their fields, and there would be businesses working hard to distribute this lucrative material. It even made the claim that the humans did not have the means to move the manure. A ridiculous argument given there were hundreds of horses and carts about, each fully capable of moving tons of manure many miles to where it was required. The very problem they posed held the solution. But of course there was never a problem in the first place because manure is considered a valuable material. People even went so far as to sail off to remote islands to dig up and import seabird excrament. So i dont think horse manure in cities would have gone unnoticed as a business opportunity.



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)