Lessons From The Great Horse Manure Crisis Of 1894

It’s interesting to me that some things from many years ago that I remember just vaguely now are things I think today I should remember more clearly — and vice versa: some things from many years ago that I remember very vividly today are things that seem now like trivia I should have long-since forgotten about. One thing in the latter category is an article I read in the Scientific American when I was in college [back then, that magazine was a much more scientifically erudite publication than it is today]. The article was in their “50 [and 60, and 70, and … ] Years Ago” section that contained a brief synopsis of what was notable in each of the stated timeframes. I found it both fascinating and humorous at the same time. As I think back on it today, it brings to mind a lesson I think we can learn from gloomy predictions of the future some people are making today.

The article was about what since has been referred back to by many writers as The Great Horse Manure Crisis Of 1894. Someone back then observed a problem that was getting steadily worse, portending a looming crisis: within a few decades, large cities that depended on thousands of horses for their daily functioning would be anywhere from 2 or 3 feet to 9 feet or more deep in horse manure [because the number of horses their projected populations would require would render their manure disposal methods inadequate].

He even did the math: 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; he even factored in land area and the resulting buildup, removal capacity under current methods, etc. [re: Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, Oxford University Press, 1999].

In 1898 the first international urban-planning conference convened in New York. It was abandoned after three days, instead of the scheduled ten, because none of the delegates could see any solution to the growing crisis posed by urban horses and their output.

Enter Stage Left … A Paradigm Shift

The fundamental problem with most predictions of this kind, and particularly the gloomy ones, is that they make a critical, false assumption: that things will go on as they are [or in the terminology I’ve used on the pages of this site and blogs posted here, they stem from Old Paradigm thinking — see A Major Paradigm Shift Well Underway]. This assumption in turn comes from overlooking one of the basic insights of economics: that people respond to incentives. In a system of free exchange, people receive all kinds of signals that lead them to solve problems. In this case, better manure removal processes were never needed to avoid the crisis because of the invention of the internal combustion engine [the history of which goes back at least as far as 1680, but potential commercial feasibility came about with creation in 1876 of the first modern internal combustion engine by Nikolaus Otto]. The real solution to the manure problem, however, stemmed from conversion of this invention into mass-produced automobiles through the entrepreneurial and capitalistic genius of people like Gottlieb Daimler and Henry Ford, rapidly eliminating the source of the problem [while improving, I might add, the overall quality of life in many other ways].

Lessons And Takeaways

There are two lessons we can learn from this.  First, human beings, left to their own devices, will usually find solutions to problems, but only if they are allowed to; that is [for example], if excessive regulatory burdens do not quell innovation and creativity. Left to political mechanisms, problems will not be as effectively solved [if at all].  Left to themselves, our great grandparents solved the great horse-manure problem. If things had been left to the urban planners, they would almost certainly have turned out worse.

A second lesson we can learn is that those within our elected leadership [in both parties], as well as the appointees of the majority party, who are trying to project how the ideas on which President Trump campaigned will translate into laws under the Old Paradigm need to realize that his modus operandi, brash and unorthodox as it may be, stems from a recognition that the paradigm is shifting.  The traditional politicians still in “Old Paradigm mode” would be wise to ask themselves: 1) What is different about this New Paradigm [as compared to what I think is still the Current Paradigm, but which I may be just now realizing is rapidly becoming the Old Paradigm]? and 2) What changes in my way of thinking do I need to make in order to be successful in it?

Finally, people in the media need to learn that the above logic applies to many [I would argue most] of them as well — i.e., applying Old Paradigm coverage techniques to events unfolding in the New Paradigm simply does not work, and if they continue to try to fit the New Paradigm “square peg” into their Old Paradigm “round hole”, they will find themselves rapidly becoming irrelevant.


img_7026 Charles M Jones

Charles M. Jones

Note. My description in this post of the horse manure crisis was paraphrased from this article: https://fee.org/articles/the-great-horse-manure-crisis-of-1894/.  Some amount of actual text from that article appears here as well. The reason I did not include quote marks in those cases is that the extracted text was rearranged considerably to fit the theme of this post.

Author: Charles M. Jones, PE, CPA

[retired — neither license active]

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