Brandon Kiem in Nautilus:
In the annals of transportation history persists a tale of how automobiles in the early 20th century helped cities conquer their waste problems. It’s a tidy story, so to speak, about dirty horses and clean cars and technological innovation. As typically told, it’s a lesson we can learn from today, now that cars are their own environmental disaster, and one that technology can no doubt solve. The story makes perfect sense to modern ears and noses: After all, Americans love their cars! And who’d want to walk through ankle-deep horse manure to buy a newspaper? There’s just one problem with the story. It’s wrong.
For a recent telling, you can turn to SuperFreakonomics, the best-selling 2009 book by economist Steven D. Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner. The authors describe how, in the late 19th century, the streets of fast-industrializing cities were congested with horses, each pulling a cart or a coach, one after the other, in some places three abreast. There were something like 200,000 horses in New York City alone, depositing manure at a rate of roughly 35 pounds per day, per horse. It piled high in vacant lots and “lined city streets like banks of snow.” The elegant brownstone stoops so beloved of contemporary city-dwellers allowed homeowners to “rise above a sea of manure.” In Rochester, N. Y., health officials calculated that the city’s annual horse waste would, if collected on a single acre, make a 175-foot-tall tower.
“The world had seemingly reached the point where its largest cities could not survive without the horse but couldn’t survive with it, either,” write Levitt and Dubner. A main solution, as they portray it, came in the form of cars, which, compared to horses, were a godsend, their adoption inevitable. “The automobile, cheaper to own and operate than a horse-drawn vehicle was proclaimed an ‘environmental savior.’ Cities around the world were able to take a deep breath—without holding their noses at last—and resume their march of progress.” To Levitt and Dubner, this historical turnabout teaches that technological innovation solves problems, and if it creates new problems, innovation will solve those, too.
It’s far too simplistic an interpretation. Cars didn’t replace horses, at least not in the way we usually think, and it was social as much as technological progress that solved the era’s pollution problems. As we confront our current car troubles—particulate and greenhouse gas pollutions, accidents and deaths, wasteful swaths of the landscape dedicated to automobiles—these are lessons we’d do well to recall.