In March, President Trump vowed that he would put an end to what he characterized as the “war on coal” by rolling back Obama-era regulations on the industry. He blithely assured his audience that such changes would present no problems for the health and safety of the country: “We’re going to have clean coal, really clean coal … And we’re going to have safety, we’re going to have clean water, and we’re going to have clean air.”
This pledge, however, depends upon a dubious premise. For carbon-based power sources to become “clean,” their gaseous waste product, carbon dioxide, must be captured and stored cheaply, safely and permanently. This is an enormous, difficult, politically fraught task — one without precedent in the modern era.
Indeed, the last time Americans confronted a similar challenge of large-scale energy waste management, they rethought their entire transportation system to avoid dealing with it. Americans gave up on horsepower — the energy source that propelled 19th-century travel — because it is far easier to decommission dirty power sources than to clean up after them, something President Trump would be wise to keep in mind.
Popular history frames the 19th century as the era of steam power. But during this period, North American cities actually relied almost exclusively upon horses to move people and freight from place to place. For this reason, equine populations could exceed 600 per square mile in large cities, leading to streets strewn with urine, excrement and the carcasses of abandoned horses — over a thousand of which died annually in New York City alone during the 1870s.
American efforts to store horse waste on a mammoth scale were disorganized and dangerous. Cities paid “dirt carters” — mostly new immigrants — to transport horse carcasses and manure to garbage dumps, where they were processed into fertilizer. But this work was expensive and inefficient — particularly after the cheap commercialization of chemical fertilizers made such processing unprofitable. Faced with such inauspicious head winds, businesses and cities often simply left horses and their manure on the streets.
Snarky 19th-century commentary provides rich, if unpleasant, accounts of this manner of waste disposal. One paper in Fort Worth, reported that the buildup of 25 years worth of horse excrement in city thoroughfares meant that “when these streets are drying up, there is a sickening smell, which invariably brings on typhoid fever and diphtheria.”
This claim of adverse health effects was far from hyperbolic. A 1909 Bureau of Labor report revealed that workers in the horsepower industry suffered disproportionately from lung diseases such as consumption (what we now call tuberculosis) and asthma. These illnesses caused 25 percent of all deaths in the four key horsepower occupations — nearly double the rate of the normal population.
Sick workers were one thing, but when the horses themselves fell ill, it could paralyze commerce and snarl travel. A little less than 150 years ago, what came to be known as the “Great Epizootic” (epizootic being a widespread animal disease) shut down transportation networks across North America. Initially, the need for continuous city transit options forced many sick horses into service, but when these exhausted animals began to die, wagon and omnibus owners suspended their work. Desperate for an alternative power source, businesses scrambled to enlist teams of oxen, bulls and even human workers to pull omnibuses and wagons around cities.
Coupled with the rising human health crisis generated by horsepower, the “Great Epizootic” sparked widespread debate concerning its terrible costs. As the New York Times reported on Nov. 1, 1872: “What will be the effect of even a temporary withdrawal of the horsepower from the nation is a serious question to contemplate.” Because horses were necessary to transport coal to locomotives and farm produce to cities, the paper feared that “[p]anic will seize the community.”
Debates about the economic and epidemiological dangers of the “Great Epizootic” suggest that it slowly, but inexorably, catalyzed rethinking the American transportation system so that it produced fewer waste management problems. On Oct. 31, 1872, the editors of The Nation wrote that “industrial and commercial dependence on the horse” had been so naturalized that “little or no thought ha[d] been bestowed on its dangers.” They therefore suggested that “we ought to be thankful that the present epidemic has brought us face to face with the startling fact, that the sudden loss of horse labor would totally disorganize our industry and our commerce, … would plunge social life into disorder, would threaten the lives of hundreds of thousands of human beings.”
A few decades later, alternatives to horsepower emerged and were quickly adopted, ending this perilous over-reliance on one energy source. The shift to reliable steam-driven cable cars, electric trolleys, electric subway systems and gasoline-driven automobiles had begun, leading to steep declines in the employment of animal drivers and the conversion of most stables into garages.
In the 21st century, the tangible waste products of a horse-powered transportation system have disappeared from our streets. But the problems of energy waste storage continue as we confront the challenge of how to make coal clean. How we power not only our cars but also, in the case of coal, our homes and businesses produces thousands of metric tons of carbon dioxide every year.
A year after the “Great Epizootic,” a New York Herald editorial complained that the streets of the city were “so deeply covered with a compost of ashes, garbage, manure, and other decaying animal matter that the question will not be, can we pursue our ordinary vocations? but, can we live?” As we consider President Trump’s plans to expand “clean” coal and to roll back fuel economy standards for automobiles, the questions posed in the editorial remain: Can we not only work but also live in an environment suffused with the waste products of dirty energy? And if we cannot, should we go about trying to store our waste or should we instead retire coal as we once retired horses for the benefit of ourselves and our planet?