Cities were choked with pollution. Urban areas were forced to ship their waste products to remote areas, or faced being buried in them. People were getting sick as a result, never mind the impact on the quality of life. That scene isn’t from the early 21st century, but instead harkens back a hundred years earlier. It’s recognizable nonetheless. But the culprit was not coal smoke, or oil slicks, or power plants. It was the horse.
The horse was America’s engine, and it was killing us. There were millions of horses, producing manure that, despite our best efforts, piled high and sickened water supplies. They needed fuel too, creating a crisis in shipping hay and storing it away from vermin. Their bodies too (for we worked them hard) became an eyesore and a health hazard. Concern for their wellbeing may not have been so high as it would be now, but in retrospect it cannot have been a picnic to be at the center of industry and commerce in that age.
Conditions were so bad that the world’s largest cities held a summit. An answer had to be found, or progress would be halted and civilization returned to the Stone Age. But so hopeless were the conclusions that the gathering ended after just three days, its delegates returning home in despair.
Salvation came, but not from the source most might guess. It was not the result of a hard-fought campaign by dedicated volunteers or new regulations aimed at curbing pollution. It came from the marketplace—specifically, from a range of new products arising from technical innovation: in a word, the automobile.
Whatever we think of them today, the automobile arrived as a white knight, which needed no horse. It required no hay and left no visible waste behind. It radically improved urban conditions and made modern distribution systems possible, brining unimagined goods and services to those who otherwise may never have seen them.
It was a trade not without its costs, as we have seen. In fact, we’re now coping as a society with the impact of that change and looking for another solution. Indeed, the green movement is looking to correct many of the apparent excesses of the industrial age, as well it should. Among its tools are dedicated volunteers seeking to alter public opinion and even create new regulation to bring about change. Undoubtedly those will be a part of the solution.
Yet one can’t help but wonder if the greatest impetus for change will once again come from the marketplace. It doesn’t have to be hard; just look at the market and, instead of seeing what’s there, look for what isn’t. As in the old drawing, a candlestick becomes two faces, and you wonder how you ever missed it. Some of the worst problems have been solved not with angst but with insight—an answer arrived at after a sudden shift in the perceptual field.
Such insights turn markets on their heads, and in the process they change the world.