Climate Change, Poverty and The Great Horse Poo Debate of 1898

Horse manure was a global problem until cars came along. Fossil fuels and climate issues are a huge problem until… renewable energy? Solar power? Wind farms? … Can we collectively solve problems when in all likelihood the problem is already solved we just don’t know it yet.

Horse manure was a global problem until cars came along. Fossil fuels and climate issues are a huge problem until… renewable energy? Solar power? Wind farms? … Can we collectively solve problems when in all likelihood the problem is already solved we just don’t know it yet.

One of the reasons I don’t like writing blog posts for other people is that they don’t respect my humble opinion half as much as I do. ie. they delete the post willy nilly. *grumpy face* This article was posted on the ActionAid site back in December 2009. I don’t want to lose these thoughts, and as we were talking about it the other day *ZEITGEIST ALERT*  I thought I’d repost them up here. For posterity. Whatevs that means… by the way, very odd to read stuff from 4 years ago. I never go back and read old stuff. I should do it more often. Or mebbe not.

TITLE: Climate Change, Poverty and The Great Horse Poo Debate of 1898


Hmmm. “climate change” – does anyone NOT have an opinion? Even if it’s “I wish they’d shut up about climate change” it’s still on our radar, in a big way. We have the time and education and resources to debate the issue in the pubs, loungerooms, bars, gyms, and on Twitter. If we want to. Our choice. Yet not every country has the luxury of being able to stop and discuss global issues at a local level.


Some people are not in urban Australia, paying $3.08c carbon offset for your business flights interstate, and paying an arm and a leg for the new eco-friendly lightbulbs. Those people might be forgiven for thinking the whole climate issue belongs to those who “consume” – rich countries, fat cat companies & governments. For those that are not “consumers”, who live hand to mouth, well, how can climate change be under their control?

But here’s a question: those facing true poverty hardly consume enough to have a carbon footprint, right? At the moment 76% of the world’s resources are consumed by the richest 20% of the planet – 1.6 billion (1/4 of humaninity) live without electricity. And even if every developing nation placed their entire population in factory work, who are we to tell them “no, don’t, you’ll speed up climate change”? Yet how can we sit idle while the world goes to hell in a hand basket? Hardly seems fair does it?

A problem that doesn’t have a solution. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.


Talking of problems without a solution: when I think of Copenhagen and the world’s leaders schmoozing and planning, looking for an agreement on how to deal with climate control issues, it reminds me of the great horsepoo debate of 1898. What’s that, I hear you say? I’m glad you asked:
* Nineteenth-century cities depended on thousands of horses for their daily functioning.
* All transport, whether of goods or people, was drawn by horses.
* London in 1900 had 11,000 cabs, all horse-powered.
* There were also several thousand buses, each of which required 12 horses per day, a total of more than 50,000 horses.
* Similar figures could be produced for any great city of the time.* (The Freeman)

London, England, 1898. Was the UK a developing country?? Or a developed country – for the time? Your call. It’s all semantics to me…
* The problem of course was that all these horses produced huge amounts of manure. A horse will on average produce between 15 and 35 pounds of manure per day. Consequently, the streets of nineteenth-century cities were covered by horse manure. This in turn attracted huge numbers of flies, and the dried and ground-up manure was blown everywhere. In New York in 1900, the population of 100,000 horses produced 2.5 million pounds of horse manure per day, which all had to be swept up and disposed of. (The Freeman)

Why am I talking about horses and horse poo? Because the first international inter-urban planning conference was held in New York in 1894, bringing together world leaders and problem solvers. If major cities were going to be, in 50 years, under nine feet of manure the conference attendees believed that the world was in major …. doodoos. And – although the conference was meant to run for ten days – they closed the doors after only THREE days. Everyone shook their head – they could see no solution to the major problem of the day. The world sits down to think yet fails to find a way through.

But of course the problem that had no solution, simply went away. Or at least, we replaced it with other things – innovation, motor cars, carbon emissions, climate change. Yay for us.

Innovation may not come from middle America Ford and or European Daimler this time round. Our problems without solutions may be solved by Harish Hande of Selco Solar Light, Bangalore, India

Poverty is the greatest threat to our environment. The poor use some of the most inefficient technologies and polluting fuels – not because they are cheap but because they don’t have a choice.

Today’s debate on the climate change treaty is seen as between the developed world and the developing world. It has led the rich in developing countries to hide behind the poor and the poor in developing countries to be short changed. The reality is we all have a vested interested in getting this treaty right – rich and poor.

We have before us a wonderful and unique opportunity – to implement climate change solutions that will also reduce poverty, like affordable solar energy systems. My social enterprise, Selco India has provided 112,000 solar home systems to low income households and institutions. We ensure that the systems are affordable by partnering with microfinance organisations that provide small loans. We have also set up a pilot fund to guarantee the deposits on solar systems for very poor families. Nothing can compare with the thrill of someone switching on a light for the first time and knowing how this can change their life!

I don’t know: Is this a developing/developed nation issue? Or are those terms relevant to the time and problems facing those nations at that time? Can we solve problems with a Bali road map and a conference? Will the problem simply go away? Be swapped for another problem? Or will new technologies, social entrepreneurship, microfinancing (peer to peer loans) from unexpected quarters save our skins?

My personal opinion? Solve poverty, solve inequity. Allow nations that don’t have legacy infrastructure to leapfrog into a new more sustainable age, even if they overtake us. And if we rely on Copenhagen to solve our problems, we’ll be under 50 feet of horse manure in no time at all. What say you?

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One Comment

  1. Great piece Laurel.Complexity Uncertainty Chaos. Needing different approaches to problem/solution mode. Gathering/enabling the wisdom of crowds in a way that enables our personal purpose (social enterprise) make money (food and shelter) have fun (belonging/love) save the world (self-actualisation) Maslows human motivation all neatly wrapped up as Social Enterprise. multiplying effect from local to global impact.

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