How Unsolvable Problems Solve Themselves

Lessons we can learn from the Great Manure Crisis of 1894

The word “change” comes up a lot. Whether it’s popular uprisings, important elections, or the work of great leaders, great turning points in history always seem to be marked by great events. Its tempting, even romantic, to think of change in terms of sweeping political movements.

We just love it when change comes in great forward strides. Big popular omelets made out of dramaticly broken eggs. Politicians, rebels, terror organizations, anarchists, even protesting masses will all try to take credit for change, but when it tanks, they quickly deny responsibility. It’s just as easy to believe it one way or the other. But hark! I hear the people rising in the streets. Great leaders with great ideas. Is that not the change we have been waiting for?

Before you get out there all worked up into a frenzy, and do something crazy like join a protest, political movement, or vote emotionally, lets all just try to remember what happened back in the Great Manure Crisis of 1894.

Poop Problems

The what? In the late 19th century, the cities of the world also lived in interesting times. Business was booming, industry was growing, and people were flocking to cities in droves. Most people couldn’t really complain. They lived far better then the generation before them, with better access to work, shelter and education than ever before.

But there were problems. One of them in particular, the grand boulevards had become a quagmire of manure. More people, more horses. No real system to get rid of it. It was a serious problem. They didnt called it the Great Manure Crisis of 1894 for nothing. Just think of the health problems that come from a deepening foundation of animal waste throughout a major city. In some cases cities were killing more people than they were making. This was a cause worth fighting for.

Up to their knees in it.

Citizens protested,  people were blamed, committees were formed, plans were put into effect, but ultimately there was not much that could be done. Naturally this became a major political issue. It was a time when anarchists were blowing stuff up much the same way terrorists are doing it today. And for the same reasons.

Politicians made promises, radicals made threats, and frankly the whole thing got completely out of control. And as long as certain people were making money off the situation, it was an unsolvable problem. Both the hordes of angry protesters and the powers that be had one thing in common. They wanted their solution to win. Even though nobody had a viable solution at all.

Poop Solutions

The real solution came unexpectedly many years later.  The automobile was invented. Yes, the maligned car. There was no way of foreseeing the environmental effects 100 years later, so at the time it was a welcome relief to widespread pestilence. Horses were phased out, and the manure went with it. And while this new thing brought new problems, the manure problem simply disappeared. A problem that had caused itself had solved itself.

Or had it? One thing is for sure. The invention of the automobile, and all of the other innovations that led to it had nothing to do with massive protests or government programs, or even the manure problem. The scientists and entrepreneurs spent no time marching with radicals or forming committees. They were busy trying to improve their tiny role in the world. The glory goes to those who in their own simple ways, scorned tradition, questioned truths and took risks, for better or worse, whoever they were. The demonstrators, political radicals and politicians all did a great job. But seriously, what was accomplished? Even the global crisis itself have long been forgotten, except for this anecdotal reference. Hard to believe with a name like that.

We too live in such times. In the midst of prosperity and new technology, those who shouldn’t really complain are marching in the streets with real problems. Legitimate problems. Institutions that were once the backbone of the country have created their own quagmire. The values once held are no longer self-evident.  I dont want to delve too deeply into the rhetoric. Im here to step back from the madness. The fundamentals are the same. In cities all over the world, citizens have brought their anger to their governments, and in turn governments have stood defiant. Both want their demands to be met. Neither of them have a reasonable solution.

The people want to control the means of production?

Big hurtful words are used to describe both sides of the issue, and the ambivalent are stuck with the question. March with oppressed, or stand for order? Those are your only choices. Whatever you choose, it’s the least you can do. No really, it’s the least you can do. Choosing a side in this issue is just slightly more than doing nothing. Because neither of them have got the solution. Not even compromise is a solution, except maybe an end to the chaos. Anyone who claims to have the solution is lying.

Sadly, the automobile has already been invented. Besides, in the last hundred years it has given us a whole other set of problems. But it sure came in handy when it did. I wonder what is being cooked up to solve this one, whatever it happens to be. But, hey, that’s not my job.  So stop looking to me or anyone else for the magic bullet. Because there is no such thing as magic, and bullets kill. All I know is it wont be easy. The car took an entire generation to replace the horse. This is not for the impatient. Its not the kind of thing that will break up a roaring street protest.

Doing Nothing

I’m not saying do nothing. In fact I’m saying stop doing nothing. You want to really help? Find a place in your world that needs to be improved and do it better. That’s how we got the automobile. No one person did that. No matter what the history books say. Sorry Henry Ford, that was a collective effort. Not an act of revolution, not even an act of humanity. As long as we all concentrate on making our own world more efficient, more interesting and more accessible, we are off the hook. There is no magic in this world. Nobody is smart enough to solve big problems, but we can all solve the small ones.

How disappointing is that? You were expecting something a little more enlightening? All you got here was platitudes about be good to thy neighbour. But if you are still tempted to latch on to a radical and exciting political movement, you have come by it honestly. Despite the promise that you would be participating in counter-culture, you are in fact doing what you have been told to do. Your education has taught you that every question has an answer, there are no unsolvable problems, and when you are uncertain ask the authorities. Got a problem? Raise your hand. Not answering a question gets you the same results as answering it incorrectly, so you have to say something. So you choose one of the answers provided. Banging on pots is important, but it will accomplish about as much as you would expect banging on pots to accomplish.

The innovations that replaced big problems like manure, with newer, better problems like the automobile did not come from choosing one of the answers provided. They were pro-active, not re-active. They came from questioning answers rather than answering questions. You want to help? Find another answer. Or better yet, write a better question. In the meantime, get out there and bang some pots.

For me, I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.” ― Neil deGrasse Tyson

Moral dilemma