As a species we can be a pretty gloomy bunch. Capable of brilliance but just as likely incapable of seeing almost the blinding obvious.
These days we are seemingly doomed on a whole host of issues. Climate change, the break down of civil cohesion, over population, mass immigration on a biblical scale. Pollution, Brexit pretty much every thing really. We may as well give up now.
This isn’t a new phenomena, we have always been doomed for as far back as history goes. Almost without exception, nothing is ever as bad as first imagined and the doom laden naysayers generally base their assumption on the constant that nothing else will change. These predictions don’t have to be negative, plenty of less doom-laden ideas seem laughable such as the idea that the world would only ever need a handful of computers.
Perhaps it is because making such predictions requires a certain mindset of logic and statistics that these very people are less equipped than many other to the actual problems rather than way lyrical about how insurmountable they have become. Namely a lack of creativity or independent thinking.
It’s worth bearing this in mind when we are repeatedly told how bad things could get if things don’t improve but history also proves that we are ingenious at creating solutions when things get really pressing. A great example of this occurred just over 100 years ago and is so far away from life now that you’d be hard pressed to ever imagine it. Namely the great horse-manure crisis.
Nineteenth-century cities depended on thousands of horses to function. Horses then were like electricity, gas or the internal combustion engine. Everything depended on horses and all transport, whether of goods or people, was drawn by horses. The bigger and more sophisticated the city was the more horses there were.
In the closing years of the 19th century London had 11,000 taxis, 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. London was in the worst position but a similar situation was developing across all the major cities of the world.
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. Each horse also produced around 2 pints of urine each day and to make things worse, the average life expectancy for a working horse was only around 3 years. Horse carcasses therefore also had to be removed from the streets. The bodies were often left to putrefy so the corpses could be more easily sawn into pieces for removal. Aside from the smell, the health implications were enormous. Civilisation was dependent on the horse but the horse was now beginning to poison the people.
In 1898 the first international urban-planning conference was 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.
The problem did indeed seem intractable. The larger and richer that cities became, the more horses they needed to function. The more horses, the more manure. 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. Crazily, all these horses had to be stabled, which used up ever-larger areas of increasingly valuable land. And as the number of horses grew, ever-more land had to be devoted to producing hay to feed them (rather than producing food for people), and this had to be brought into cities and distributed—by horse-drawn vehicles. Let alone what you do with all the manure, no doubt taken away by more horses. Just as today, we were all doomed.
Fortunately for us and entirely unpredicted by the experts, we are in no way up to our eyes in horse manure. Thanks to the ingenuity of the first motor car manufacturers of over a century ago, a radical solution was found and as a civilisation, we were no longer shackled to the horse in the city and vast tracts of land could be repurposed.
Even today people who know of the Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894 refer to it to remind people how even an impossible problem can be overcome, given a new approach to solving it.