Mike the Mad Biologist

…and how Levitt and Dubner fail to see that the Manure problem was not ‘solved’, only turned into a new problem that will also require wrenching change. First, the Great Manure Crisis of the late nineteenth century:

The standard horsecar, which seated twenty, was drawn by a pair of roans and ran sixteen hours a day. Each horse could work only a four-hour shift, so operating a single car required at least eight animals. Additional horses were needed if the route ran up a grade, or if the weather was hot. Horses were also employed to transport goods; as the amount of freight arriving at the city’s railroad terminals increased, so, too, did the number of horses needed to distribute it along local streets. By 1880, there were at least a hundred and fifty thousand horses living in New York, and probably a great many more. Each one relieved itself of, on average, twenty-two pounds of manure a day, meaning that the city’s production of horse droppings ran to at least forty-five thousand tons a month. George Waring, Jr., who served as the city’s Street Cleaning Commissioner, described Manhattan as stinking “with the emanations of putrefying organic matter.”

….In the early part of the century, farmers in the surrounding counties had been happy to pay for the city’s manure, which could be converted into rich fertilizer, but by the later part the market was so glutted that stable owners had to pay to have the stuff removed, with the result that it often accumulated in vacant lots, providing breeding grounds for flies.

The problem just kept piling up until, in the eighteen-nineties, it seemed virtually insurmountable. One commentator predicted that by 1930 horse manure would reach the level of Manhattan’s third-story windows. New York’s troubles were not New York’s alone; in 1894, the Times of London forecast that by the middle of the following century every street in the city would be buried under nine feet of manure. It was understood that flies were a transmission vector for disease, and a public-health crisis seemed imminent….

Then, almost overnight, the crisis passed. This was not brought about by regulation or by government policy. Instead, it was technological innovation that made the difference. With electrification and the development of the internal-combustion engine, there were new ways to move people and goods around. By 1912, autos in New York outnumbered horses, and in 1917 the city’s last horse-drawn streetcar made its final run. All the anxieties about a metropolis inundated by ordure had been misplaced.

In Superfreakonomics, Dubner and Levitt argue that a quick technological fix, as was the case with the advent of the internal-combustion engine, can solve the climate crisis. But Dubner and Levitt seriously underestimate the costs of the switch, particularly to certain subsectors of the economy. Horse breeding became a ’boutique’ activity, as the total number of horses dropped. Farmers who grew horse feed lost business (and this was in an era with no price supports whatsoever). Farriers and carriage makers essentially became extinct. A new infrastructure had to be built: paved roads, underground storage for gasoline, and so on. Meanwhile, carriage houses had to be torn down.

Now, I’m not arguing that we should go back to the horse-and-buggy days (Sweet Baby Intelligent Designer, I’m not that curmudgeonly). Of course, the advent of the ICE was a good thing. But imagine if this transition occurred today. Lobbyists would be retarding the transition to the ICE. Well-funded think tanks would develop ridiculous arguments that being buried neck-deep in horseshit is good for us. I’m sure Betsy McCaughey would be leading the charge on that one. We didn’t see massive political involvement, in part, because the government, for better and for worse, in the early 1900s didn’t do that sort of thing.

What I am arguing is that the list of current solutions, which focus on better energy use (and building an 18-mile long tube to pump sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere is less realistic than improving energy use policies–just saying), will hit some sectors hard, even though, overall, we’ll be better off, just as was the case with the Great Manure Crisis. Exurban and suburban houses will be worth less hurting many households (or their lenders), the car industry will take a beating (at least in the U.S.), federal subsidies will flow back from the suburbs and exurbs to cities (and inner suburbs), energy providers to homes will lose revenue, and so on.

The solution won’t be a ‘win-win’ for everyone this time around either.

Comments

  1. #1 Joshua
    November 20, 2009

    Stop messing up their pretty little narrative with your obnoxious facts!

  2. #2 _Arthur
    November 20, 2009

    To spew sulfur 25Km up, the sky tube will have to be *much* longer than 25 Km, because it will be slanted as it gets buffetted by the jet streams.

    I haven’t seen any numbers showing much this tube will weight, how much helium will be required to hold it up, what material will be used to withstand this thousands of tons of tension, how will they deal with the winds, what kind of pump can pump a ton of SO2 25Km up, how will they keep the SO2 liquid, etc, etc, etc.

    L & D are supposed to be economists, but as far as I know, they haven’t even attempted to price their “solution”. The sulfur is available and very cheap right now (because tar sands are carefully de-sulfurized to AVOID SO2 acid rains pollution), but helium is not.
    Helium production cannot be ramped up, so any new huge volume purchase, will drive the prices up, and those prices have already gone way up. Even Wikipedia mentions those price increases.

    Of course, one could cut costs by using hydrogen balloons instead, with an excellent chance of topping the Hindenburg notorious incident. What color is the SO2 flame ?

  3. #3 Trevor
    November 20, 2009

    Wow, Leave-it and Dumber, what a relevant analogy! In fact, I think I’m going to stop brushing my teeth. I’m sure that by the time they get really bad, medical science will be able to provide me with new chompers. After all, we can graft skin and bone now, right? I’m sure teeth are just around the bend.

  4. #4 Art
    November 20, 2009

    The horseless carriage and street car may have been much slower to take over and the transition more traumatic if it hadn’t been for the outbreak of equine influenza in 1872.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equine_influenza

    It swept across the country and debilitated or killed virtually the entire population of horses for weeks. The great fire of Boston the same year was made much worse because the firemen had to pull the equipment themselves. Street car service stopped.

    It wasn’t just that electricity and internal combustion engines had advantages it was the memory and disappointment from when all the horses were sick at once that got people interested in looking for alternatives. It was the complete failure and recognition of dependence on the horse as driver and the centerpiece of a vast interlocking infrastructure that set the stage for the transition.

    It wasn’t as if everything was going along swimmingly in the world of business and industry with horses at their peak when the upstart technology showed up. It was after the existing technology has stumbled, fallen and shown itself to be unreliable that heads turned.

    Generally, people who are satisfied with an existing system are not going to support change. Not as long as the existing systems are serving their needs. It is only after an existing system stumbles or fails to live up to expectations does major change come about. Which is why changes needed to correct global warming and shifts away from fossil fuels are so slow. The present system hasn’t disappointed them. And the pain side of global warming hasn’t shown up yet.

    It will take a shock, on the scale of the equine flu, and a relatively mature technology, as motor vehicles were in the early 1900s to challenge the existing system. Without some massive disappointment with the existing technology, perhaps a protracted oil embargo, electric cars which fail to meet the standard of their gasoline counterparts and the slow pain of carbon taxes aren’t going to get much support.

  5. #5 doug l
    November 20, 2009

    Well, that’s economics for ya. We only have to look at what they did to our current economic situation to get a feel of the kind of connection they have on reality and the consequences. Hey, aren’t they the guys (economists, I mean) that also came up with the cap and trade of carbon to solve a problem that, if the current levelling-off of warming continues might not be needed anyhow? And at what point does cap and trade stop?