Why horse manure makes me feel so much better

I am not really much of a political animal. On most issues I find myself in a minority, and I am sceptical about received opinion. I am suspicious of experts.

Actually, that’s only partly true. When I was operated on for the removal of prostate cancer, I was glad that the knife was yielded by someone who knew what he was doing. Likewise, when I fly, I am glad that the aircraft was constructed by experts. Expert engineers, doctors, dentists, builders, plumbers, electricians? Yes, please.

But experts at defining details of the past? Experts at predicting the future? Experts at reconstructing the traffic system in my home city? Experts at economics? Politics? Statistics? Not so sure.

Economists and statisticians in particular seem to suffer from a certain delusion, because they tend to forget that human beings are involved. Kenneth Boulding, himself an economist but also a poet, a mystic and a Quaker, observed: “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on for ever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”

And yet many companies and by extension government activities seem to regard continual growth as the only road to success. Can you imagine anything more idiotic than demanding that police hand out an ever-increasing number of speeding tickets to demonstrate their efficiency? Or a school required to demonstrate continual improvement in its results?

We should be able to rely on scientists. But in many areas they are prey to a kind of conservatism that will not accept any challenge to basic beliefs. As Tolstoy put it, “most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.”

Does it really make sense to believe that the forces we see at work in nature now have always been the same and will never change? You might be surprised to discover how much science is based on this assumption.

But what I really want to write about is horse manure, because it sums up my political outlook.

I know what you’re thinking, but you may be interested to know that in 1898 the world’s first international urban planning conference was baffled by the problem of horse manure.

In those days, of course, traffic was horse-drawn, and more deadly than motorised traffic is today – which is a bit of a shock if you happen to think that cars are a massive social evil. (Some people do.)

There were the usual problems with people getting run over (rather a lot of them, incidentally), but there were other less obvious drawbacks – like the disease carried by flies found in horse manure.  Worst of all, though, was the sheer bulk of it. The manure, that is.

In 1894 The Times estimated that by 1950 every street in London would be buried nine feet deep in horse manure. Another expert at the same time reckoned that by 1930 the horse droppings would reach Manhattan’s third-storey windows.

No-one could see any way out. They thought they were all doomed, rather as many people today think we’re doomed for different reasons.

What could possibly save them? Something completely out of the blue and which no-one had foreseen. The internal combustion engine.

The point, though, is that this was unforeseen and out of the blue. No expert had predicted it. How could they? And yet they were making confident predictions that the world they lived in was doomed.

I have heard it said that, looked at this way, motor cars have saved millions of lives.

Less importantly, they have shown that experts in certain areas don’t know what they’re talking about. Literally.

So I am not a political animal. I am an optimist.