The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

What Would the World Be Like Without Automobiles?

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"ArtIm:

Great pains are being taken to rid our air of exhaust pollutants. This is certainly a good thing. But compared to the donkey and horse, the animals Jesus and Paul rode (Matt. 21:7; Acts 9:4), the automobile is a non‑polluter. Dixy Lee Ray (1914–1994), former governor of the State of Washington, recalls that as a child, the world in which most Americans lived “was a very smelly place. The prevailing odors were of horse manure, human sweat, and unwashed bodies. A daily shower was unknown; at most there was the Saturday night bath.”[1] Indoor plumbing was a luxury. Only a few main streets were paved, usually with cobblestone or brick. Automobiles were few and far between. Long-distance travel was by rail. Refrigeration was unheard of. If you wanted to get around, you had to have literal horse power and the pollution that went with it.

Sanitary experts in the early part of the twentieth century agreed that the normal city horse produced between fifteen and thirty pounds of manure a day, with the average being something like twenty‑two pounds. In a city like Milwaukee in 1907, for instance, with a human population of 350,000 and a horse population of 12,500, this meant 133 tons of manure a day, for a daily average of nearly three‑quarters of a pound of manure per person per day. Or, as the health officials in Rochester calculated in 1900, the 15,000 horses in that city produced enough manure in a year to make a pile covering an acre of ground 175 feet high and breeding sixteen billion flies.[2]

The horse population of Chicago was 83,000, and this was after the automobile and electric streetcar had caused a decline in the number of urban horses. In 1880, the cities of New York and Brooklyn had a combined horse population somewhere between 150,000 and 175,000. As one can imagine, keeping the streets clean was a major problem. Some suggested that epidemics of cholera, smallpox, yellow fever, and typhoid were caused by “‘a combination of certain atmospheric conditions and putrefying filth,’ among which horse manure was a chief offender.”[3]

The cost of keeping the streets clean was expensive. Some cities tried to recoup the cost by selling the manure for fertilizer. This caused another unforseen problem since collecting manure was more profitable than collecting regular trash. Daily refuse often remained in the streets along with the leftover manure. What they wouldn’t have given for a good ol’ garbage truck and a landfill back then.

Streets turned into cesspools during inclement weather. Women with long skirts suffered the worst of it. Dodging street cleaners was another hazard. There was no relief during the summer when people had to endure breathing pulverized horse manure. Modernized roads were of little help. “The paving of streets accelerated this problem, as wheels and hoofs ground the sun‑dried manure against the hard surfaces and amplified the amount of dust.”[4] And there was the problem that the Atlantic Monthly described in 1886 to the theater-going public in New York City as “dead horses and vehicular entanglements.”

What would Jesus have done if confronted with the new technology? Would He have endorsed the mass production of the automobile when it was first introduced to the American public knowing that it was a polluter? Actually, Jesus would have said little. He would have allowed common sense and market forces to determine how the new technology would be used. He most certainly would have welcomed the elimination of dead horses and horse excrement from city streets since sanitation was a big part of biblical law (Ex. 29:14, 34; Deut. 23:13–14). Jesus would have supported “popular journals such as Harper’s Weekly, Lippincott’s Magazine, and The Forum, as well as specialized periodicals such as American City, Horseless Age, Motor, and the Scientific American” which “were filled with articles extolling the automobile and the motor-truck and disparaging the horse.”[5] Scientific American noted that motor vehicles left no litter as compared to the horse. Disease carrying insects and organisms were virtually driven from the city with the advent of the automobile.

How would Jesus have reacted to the claim that stables, blacksmiths, street sweepers, buggy makers, feed lot owners, and saddle, bit, and bridle makers would be put out of business if the automobile became commonplace? Thousands of people lost their jobs because of the advent of the automobile, but many more jobs were created. Advances in technology have always been criticized because of the impact that they might have on the future, including worker displacement. About twenty years ago “executives of IBM got together the biggest academic and intellectual mandarins they could find . . . to discuss the question of the long-term implications of the computer for American society. After a week of discussions the experts threw up their hands and said they couldn’t possibly foretell the range of impacts the computer would have in even the short run.”[6] The author implies that if we can’t know all the ramifications of a new technology that we should dispense with its development.

No one can foretell the future. Advances in technology make for a better world, even when the downside is noted and made part of the equation. Walking, horseback, muleback, camelback riding, and sledding were the standards in transportation for millennia. Boats and ships made sea travel possible. The invention of the steamship, trains, automobiles, and airplanes made it possible where even overnight delivery is the norm. Then came the fax machine. But now the computer sends a message across the world in seconds. If you needed masses of information, you had to go to a research library and spend months sifting through boxes of stored documents. Today, with a few keystrokes using Google, anyone can find almost anything. Where you once needed an operator to make a call, we now have direct dialing on hand-held cell phones. Who could have imagined such things? MPs downloads have replaced CDs which replaced cassette tapes which replaced 8-tracks which replaced reel-to-reel tapes which replaced the Edison Cylinder Phonograph. Watch the movie Edison, The Man (1940), starring Spencer Tracy, if you want to get an idea what life was like in the late nineteenth century and to see how much it’s changed for the good since then. The computer has nearly replaced the typewriter which replaced copyists which replaced clay tablets which replaced not-so-accurate oral communication. Those who cannot or will not adapt to the latest technological advances are left behind.

So the next time someone insists that we would do better by scrapping modern technology and buying horses or donkeys, you can paint a picture of what life was like in the streets before Henry Ford’s “horseless carriage.” The next wave of invention will come and provide better solutions to today’s technological problems. Coal is being used to create a liquid fuel so clear “you’d swear it was water.”[7] It’s technological challenges that spark inventive genius. If innovation is always going to be challenged because of the inevitability of downside issues, we might as well curl up in a ball and die.

Endnotes:

[1] Dixy Lee Ray with Lou Guzzo, Trashing the Planet: How Science can Help Us deal with Acid Rain, Depletion of the Ozone, and Nuclear Waste (Among Other Things) (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1990), 14.
[2]
Joel A. Tarr, “The Horse—Polluter of the City,” The Search for the Ultimate Sink: Urban Pollution in Historical Perspective (Akron, OK: University of Akron Press, 1996), 323–324.
[3]
Tarr, The Search for the Ultimate Sink, 325.
[4]
Tarr, The Search for the Ultimate Sink, 326.
[5] Tarr, The Search for the Ultimate Sink, 328.
[6] Kirkpatrick Sale, Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution (Lessons for the Computer Age) (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1995), 209.
[7]
Byron Spice, “Clean liquid fuel from coal possible, but it’ll cost,” Pittsburgh Post Gazette (December 23, 2002).

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