Superfreakonomics and the Parable of the Horse Manure — (There is So Much I Don’t Know)

One of my great embarrassments is that there is so much that I do not know.  There’s much that I don’t know that it’s ok that I don’t know, and then there’s more that I don’t know that I should know — but I don’t.  That’s the embarrassing part.

Take the subject of horse dung.  (“Dung” is one of the two words word used by the Superfreakonomics authors; the other is “manure”).  It turns out that horse dung was the crisis of all crises.  In Superfreakonomics, they tell the story of this crisis.  The New Yorker review of this book by Elizabeth Kolbert tells us that:
This story—call it the Parable of Horseshit—has been told many times, with varying aims. The latest iteration is offered by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, in their new book, “SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance.”

Well, it may have been told many times, but I had not read it – or remembered it if I had.  (I don’t know which is worse – not knowing, or not remembering if I once knew it).

It was a whopper of a problem.  Everything was transported by horse-drawn vehicles of one kind or another – people, goods, food – everything.  In cities like New York, the horse dung began to: stink, pile up, overwhelm.  (Read The New Yorker article – the description is pretty awful).

Here’s the book’s description of the problem:
The average horse produced about 24 pounds of manure a day.  With 200,000 horses (in New York), that’s nearly 5 million pounds of horse manure.  A day.  Where did it go?

When there were fewer horses, there was a workable solution.  Farmers would pay for the manure, than haul it off to the farm.  As the problem grew, the farmers could get it for free.  But finally, there was simply too much of the stuff – way too much of the stuff.  And it was a world-wide problem.  Again from The New Yorker article:
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.


In Superfreakonomics, the authors tell:
In 1898, New York hosted the first International urban planning conference.  The agenda was dominated by horse manure, because cities around the world were experiencing the same crisis.  But no solution could be found.  “Stumped by the crisis,” writes Eric Morris, “the urban planning conference declared its work fruitless and broke up in three days instead of the scheduled ten.”  The world had seemingly reached the point where its largest cities could not survive without the horse but couldn’t survive it either.
And then the problem vanished.

You know, of course, the solution.  It was not some government program — it was the new-fangled horseless vehicle.

Now, there is a lesson in this for all of us.  Problems are real.  And serious.  And must be taken quite seriously.  We should search diligently for solutions.  But we never quite know what the solution will be, and then we don’t always know what the next problem will be.

The solution to the horse manure problem was a technological solution – that came seemingly out of nowhere.

The Superfreakonomics guys argue in this book that there will be more unexpected and certainly unusual solutions to new problems.  Their suggested approach to global warming is creating quite a furor, with all sorts of people condemning their book as wrong, inaccurate, unrealistic…  (Their solution is to create some hefty “artificial volcanoes” spewing out volcanic like substance into the atmosphere, which will cool the planet.  Their reason? – conservation, going green, will not do the job. The problem is too big, and it’s too late, for that kind of solution).

Here’s The New Yorker’s concluding remarks, denouncing the book:
To be skeptical of climate models and credulous about things like carbon-eating trees and cloudmaking machinery and hoses that shoot sulfur into the sky is to replace a faith in science with a belief in science fiction. This is the turn that “SuperFreakonomics” takes, even as its authors repeatedly extoll their hard-headedness.

They may be right to condemn the book’s suggested solutions.  But I have this to say.  Pay attention to the deeper issue.  Forget their specific proposed solution; instead look at the lesson.  Yesterday’s problems that were completely overwhelming were solved, in most unexpected ways.  And today’s problems will bring the same unexpected solutions.  (At least, I hope they do).  And then, sad to say, there will be another problem looming right before our eyes.

Superfreakonomics reminds us that innovation is an absolute necessity.  That is a recurring theme in business books, and on this blog, for sure.


I will be presenting my synopsis of Superfreakonomics at the December First Friday Book Synopsis.  Register here.

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