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ANDERSON: Climate change and the Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894

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May 08, 2019 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


"Apocalypses don't happen very often. They tend to be separated by tens or even hundreds of millions of years." — Dale Jamieson

PART ONE

Forecasting a very bad time for humanity is a very old game, beginning in the European world at least as early as the coming of Christ and quite likely long before.

Prior to the 19th century these nasty events were generally attributed to God, who would become fed up with His creation and knock us all about in retribution for sin, although shortly after the Enlightenment, end-time stories began to include natural perpetrators like sunshine and asteroids.

In the 19th century, as technology and science and the industrial revolution made Man the central actor in his own drama, human-caused disasters became the rage. The first global warming scare came in 1858 after the first trans-Atlantic cables were laid and a scientist named Giovanni Donati supposedly discovered that the cables were acting as enormous electromagnets, pulling the earth into the sun. At the current rate of acceleration, he surmised, Europe would become tropical in 12 years, the entire earth would be dead soon after, and the whole man-made mess would be punctuated by the earth falling into the sun.

The story turned out to be a hoax, but it caught the attention of many and dominated the headlines for weeks. Man's activities could be dangerous indeed.

The ‘Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894’ struck later in the century, involving the mathematically precise discovery that using the current mode of transportation, at the current rate of production, the streets of London would be under nine feet of horse manure within 50 years. This was no hoax, occupying as it did centre stage in 1898 at the world’s first international urban planning conference in New York and leading urban planners to believe that cities would eventually become uninhabitable. Apparently the internal combustion engine came along just in time to save doomed urbania.

It was only in the late 20th and early 21st centuries that more seriously existential predictions, allegedly backed by “science,” grew in scope to become terminal to humankind, firing the imagination of both politicians and the public.

There are of course periodic lesser apocalii hovering around the mediasphere vying for attention from time to time: peak oil, popular around the turn of the millennium just before the world became awash in new discoveries of oil; depletion of resources, made famous in the 1972 Club of Rome report that breathlessly announced resource depletion and associated economic collapse by the end of the 20th century; and the ozone hole, the scare de jour of the 90s that, at least according to futuristic Hollywood movies of the day, would force us to slather on blue sunscreen if we were foolish enough to venture outside.

And of course Y2K, in which technology developed for the wrong century would do us in if we were in an elevator or airplane at midnight on December 31, 1999. But other than outliers like an arbitrary asteroid strike, they are generally second tier apocalii, bad enough to make life miserable for sure, but not enough to cause extinction.

Nuclear winter, the population bomb, and climate change are the great man made apocalyptic scares of our era, even though two of them have receded into background noise at the moment in favour of the more malleable and comprehensive “climate change,” a phenomenon in which causation of human agency is not only an unfalsifiable thesis (meaning it can be neither proven false nor proven correct), but fits every conceivable narrative.

If it floods, it's climate change. If it droughts, it's climate change. Rain, snow, sunny days, hurricanes, annually calving ice caps, forest fires, pine beetles, the inconveniently non-existent extinction of polar bears, and even the Syrian civil war have variously been blamed on the effects of climate change. Everything proves it and it's all very, very bad.

To make it even more thrilling, its own extremists can fairly easily turn it into the end times by means of pseudo-scientific-sounding babble, with such horridly Brobdingnagian consequences as “cascading tipping points” and “climate feedbacks” leading to a “runaway greenhouse effect” and “hothouse climate state” which will turn earth into a Venus-like planet, stripped of its atmosphere, swirling with ghastly nastiness in a fiery Danse Macabre.

It's the perfect apocalypse!

— Scott Anderson comments and analysis from a bluntly conservative point of view.


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