The great manure crisis of 1894

Given the complete lack of global consensus on how to fix the pollution problem, the situation today is far more dire than UK’s Great Manure Crisis ever was


Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint

In the 19th century, London was the centre of the civilized world. As the beating heart of the British Empire, it was a magnet for immigrants and over the course of that century, its population grew from just over a million people in 1800 to close to 7 million at the turn of the century. And as a result, London became one of the largest cities on the planet—and humanity’s first real taste of urbanization.

Towards the end of the 19th century, London was virtually unliveable. The city had 11,000 carriages, several thousand buses and a variety of carts, wagons and buggies—a vehicular density unprecedented in history. And while the challenges of congestion and hygiene are not dissimilar to those we face today—19th century vehicles were horse-drawn and that brought with it a uniquely different set of issues. Horses generate a not inconsiderable quantum of solid waste. The average draft horse produces 10kg of manure per day. As a result, toward the end of the 19th century, the city of London was generating over 20,000kg of horse dung every month. Manure soon began to pile up on the streets faster than it could be cleared away and by the end of the 19th century, London was literally carpeted with a warm, brown matting . . . smelling to heaven. Leaving aside the filth and the smell, this gave rise to numerous other problems like sanitation and the rapid spread of communicable diseases—so much so that residents in the 1890s were literally being killed by the streets they walked on. In 1894, the Times of London predicted that within 50 years, every street in London would be buried under 9 feet of manure.

This was the Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894, an urban catastrophe that, at the time, was the bane of every large city in the world, from New York to Sydney. At the very first International Urban Planning Conference convened in New York in 1898, horse-dung was the only topic on the agenda—and it was such a fraught subject that the conference was disbanded in three days without a solution. At the time, it seemed as if life on earth would end, not due to a collision with a meteor or other cataclysmic events—but under an ever-rising pile of dung.

As we well know, this version of history did not come to pass.

Even as mayors and city planners were struggling to find legal and regulatory solutions to the Great Manure Crisis, internal combustion technologies were silently maturing to the point where automobiles had started to become affordable at scale. By the early 1900s it was cheaper to own a motor vehicle than a horse-drawn carriage and economics eventually ensured that horses were no longer central to the urban transport equation. In just over a decade the number of cars sold in the US rose from 4,192 per year in 1900 to 356,000 in 1912. By 1917, the last horse-drawn streetcar in New York had been retired. What was once thought to be an insurmountable threat to humanity’s existence vanished in little over a decade and the entire incident is now a barely remembered footnote in human history.

We are facing a similar crisis today—albeit one of broader planetary significance. The impact that our indiscriminate use of fossil fuels has and will continue to have on the environment is far deadlier than the problem of equine excreta.

Given the complete lack of global consensus on how to fix the pollution problem, the situation is far more dire than the Great Manure Crisis ever was.

That said we are at a time of great promise. For the first time in history, the price of solar power has dropped below that of power generated from fossil fuels. We are witnessing unprecedented interest in electric vehicles, autonomous cars and other new mobility concepts like the hyperloop for inter-city travel. If ever there was an opportunity for technology to, once again, creep up and pull us back from the brink, it is now.

Or at least that was the case.

During the Great Manure Crisis of 1898, the entire world was looking for a solution. When internal combustion technology presented itself, there were no significant regulatory impediments to its adoption. Today, the most influential government in the world is actively working to dismantle clean tech infrastructure with a stated commitment to support polluting technologies. In the US there is a serious worry that all the investments made in improving EV technologies will be set at naught by hostile regulatory frameworks. Even if clean tech was going to be our technological knight in shining armour, it seems as if it is about to be struck down at the drawbridge. What will save us now?

Rahul Matthan is a partner at Trilegal.

Ex Machina is a column on technology, law and everything in between.

His Twitter handle is @matthan.

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