“Extinction Rebellion.” Yes, it’s a real organization with radical views. Some women are paralyzed by fear of the future. For them, human-created climate change is real and most likely irreversible.

After hearing a lecture by a representative of Extinction Rebellion, Blythe Pepino changed her desire to have children:

“I realised that even though I wanted to have a family at that point, I couldn’t really bring myself to do it,” she says. “I had to say to [her live-in partner]: ‘I don’t know if I can do this, considering what we know – if there isn’t a political will to fix this, we really don’t stand much of a chance.’”

Pepino [who’s 33] … found that other women – especially those in climate-conscious circles – were struggling with the same question, but were “too afraid to talk about it” for fear of judgment or ridicule. The US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gave voice to their concerns … pointing to the increasingly dire scientific consensus and widespread government inaction: “It does lead young people to have a legitimate question: is it OK still to have children?”

When people are pushed to live consistently with their worldview assumptions, all kinds of revelations come to light. Toni Vernelli was sterilized at age 27 to “reduce her carbon footprint” and “protect the planet.” ((Natasha Courtenay-Smith and Morag Turner, “Meet the women who won’t have babies—because they’re not eco-friendly,” (November 21, 2007).)) That was 12 years ago. If pressed, I wonder if Vernelli would decry antibiotics and peace talks to avert war. While I am saddened that she will never experience the joys of having a child, I am thankful that her “genetic footprint” stops with her. In fact, it might not be a bad thing to encourage more environmental extremists to go under the knife.

Such dire predictions have a long history. Paul Ehrlich pronounced that the end was near because of population growth. Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb sold millions of copies. “The first sentence set the tone: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over.” And humanity had lost. In the 1970s, the book promised, “hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.” No matter what people do, ‘nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.” (Smithsonian) There never would have been a Brexit vote since, according to Ehrlich, “England will not exist in the year 2000.” (NY Times)

The second half of the 1960s was a boom time for nightmarish visions of what lay ahead for humankind. In 1966, for example, a writer named Harry Harrison came out with a science fiction novel titled “Make Room! Make Room!” Sketching a dystopian world in which too many people scrambled for too few resources, the book became the basis for a 1973 film about a hellish future, “Soylent Green.” In 1969, the pop duo Zager and Evans reached the top of the charts with a number called “In the Year 2525,” which postulated that humans were on a clear path to doom.

Actually, this song is much more optimistic that the predictions made by Ehrlich and AOC. Earth continues to at least 9595.

Some French towns are encouraged that the horse is making a comeback. The hope is that horse travel will lessen pollution.

“French towns worried about fuel prices, pollution and striking transport workers need look no further than the horse. Horses are a possible alternative for vehicles such as school buses and refuse trucks, say groups eager to pick up on global concerns about eco-friendly transport.” ((Brian Rohan, “Horses pitched as alternative transport for France,” Reuters (November 21, 2007).))

Although the following was written in 1977, its conclusions are equally valid today. Are these people nuts? Do they have any idea what life was like when the mode of transportation was by horse-drawn carriage?

In some respects, the car—often identified by the ecolobby as the chief villain of growth—has led to less pollution, since a 1972 United States study shows that the average-size car emits 6 grammes of pollutants per mile, while a horse emits 600 grammes of solid and 300 grammes of liquid pollutants per mile. ((Paul Johnson, Enemies of Society (New York: Atheneum, 1977), 91–92.))

Horses are constantly expelling pollutants, even when at rest. Most of us drive our cars to work where they sit for eight or more hours.

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. The late Dixy Lee Ray (1914–1994), the 17th Governor of the U.S. State of Washington and Washington’s first female governor, recalled 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.” ((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.))

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 horsepower 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. ((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.))

“Writing in the Times of London in 1894, one writer estimated that in 50 years every street in London would be buried under nine feet of manure (Davies, 2004).” ((Stephen Davies, “The Great Horse-Manure Crisis of 1894."))

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.” ((Tarr, The Search for the Ultimate Sink, 325.))

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 unforeseen 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 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.” ((Tarr, The Search for the Ultimate Sink, 326.)) 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.”

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 solutions to today’s technological problems. Biodiesel, an 80–20 blend of diesel and vegetable oil, is being experimented with in school buses. ((Mary MacDonald, “3 Cobb school buses try soy diet to trim pollution,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution (December 31, 2002), B1.))

Coal is being used to create a liquid fuel so clear “you’d swear it was water.” ((Byron Spice, “Clean liquid fuel from coal possible, but it’ll cost,” Pittsburgh Post Gazette (December 23, 2002).)) It’ 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.

We should draw two lessons from this. First, human beings, left to their own devices, will usually find solutions to problems, but only if they are allowed to; that is, if they have economic institutions, such as property rights and free exchange, that create the right incentives and give them the freedom to respond. If these are absent or are replaced by political mechanisms, problems will not be solved.

Second, the sheer difficulty of predicting the future, and in particular of foreseeing the outcome of human creativity, is yet another reason for rejecting the planning or controlling of people’s choices. Above all, we should reject the currently fashionable “precautionary principle,” which would forbid the use of any technology until proved absolutely harmless.

Left to themselves, our grandparents solved the great horse-manure problem. If things had been left to the urban planners, they would almost certainly have turned out worse. ((Davies, “The Great Horse-Manure Crisis of 1894."))