A lot of lessons can be learnt about population control from horse manure

Horsesh–. That’s what came to mind when reading reports of the recent meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences (Pass), convened to discuss “biological extinction” last week. It’s not that the learned scholars were talking horse dung, but that they weren’t.

The Pass has, since its founding in 1994, been charged with surveying the scholarship on contemporary topics in order to be of use to the Church’s pastors and theologians in the application of the principles of Catholic social teaching. In recent years, it has taken a turn towards publicity seeking, as when it invited Evo Morales of Bolivia and American senator Bernie Sanders last year to discuss the 25th anniversary of Centesimus Annus.

This year’s gambit was to invite the completely discredited Paul Ehrlich, the grandfather – if one might use that natalist term – of coercive population control, presumably to show broadmindedness by inviting the Church’s enemies and to generate notoriety by gratuitously sticking a finger in the eye of the Church’s pro-life witnesses.

This year’s meeting of the Pass was little different from any routine gathering of environmental alarmists at the United Nations. Consider the preamble to the meeting, which is standard man-is-a-cancer-on-the-planet boilerplate:

The Global Footprint Network carefully measures our consumption of all aspects of the world’s sustainable productivity, and has calculated that in about 1970 we were using about 70 per cent of the Earth’s sustainable capacity, and that now we are using about 156 per cent. Nevertheless, there are 800 million people chronically malnourished and 100 million on the verge of starvation at any one time… The problems wouldn’t go away if we had another 56 per cent of the Earth to take care of our needs, but we could at least stop eating into the productive capacity of the Earth progressively as the years go by.

Careful measurement indeed. How can we use 156 per cent of something? It means that someone calculates what the Earth can sustain, and then compares it with what we are currently using. The problem is that, as Paul Ehrlich can testify after a lifetime of spectacular predictive failure, figuring out what the Earth can sustain is near impossible, because as the demand for current resources increases, human creativity finds new efficiencies, or alternative methods altogether.

That’s where the horse dung enters. Even casual students of environmental policy know about the primary environmental problem of late 19th-century cities. New York was overwhelmed by the dung generated by some 150,000-plus horses working in the city each day, pulling streetcars, carriages and freight transport. With more than 20lbs of manure per horse per day, New York faced a daily inundation of millions of pounds of manure, coating all the streets and piling up in vacant lots.

In the last years of the 19th century, it was predicted that by the mid-20th century mountains of dung would rise to the third floor of buildings on Manhattan streets. On the other side of the Atlantic, the Times estimated in 1894 that by 1950 every street in London would be buried under 9ft of horse manure. It was an environmental disaster, with billions of flies spreading disease and daily life a constant struggle to avoid the oozing sludge of equine excrement and urine.

The first international urban planning conference was held in 1898, the principal topic of which was the threat of manure. Scheduled for 10 days, the delegates went home after only three, concluding that there was nothing that could be done.

Then the problem disappeared entirely. This year marks the centenary of the last horse-drawn streetcar in New York. Already by 1912, there were more “horseless carriages” than horses in Manhattan, and soon the horses were gone, replaced by electric streetcars and internal combustion automobiles.

The city horse problem is loathed by progressive policymakers, who prefer a regulatory solution which expands state power rather than relying on market-driven technology. The New Yorker even derisively referred to it as the “Parable of Horsesh–”, granting it the contempt it reserves for the Bible.

Yet any environmental analysis driven by alarmist predictions about the future – as the Pass meeting was this year – has to grapple with the Parable of Horsesh–, however messy it might be.

It was not accidental that the Pass papers this year had precious little to say about God as Creator, and man in His image. Once the creativity of man is factored into models, sustainability changes radically. That’s why the Earth today supports seven billion people, more than three times as many as when Paul Ehrlich first pronounced that the “battle to feed humanity” was already over.

The Parable of Horsesh– has striking similarities to the parable Jesus actually tells, about the servants and the talents they invest. Neither got any attention this year. In refusing to talk about horse dung, the Pass condemned their deliberations to remaining just that.

This article first appeared in the March 10 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here