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When cars and coal were eco-saviours

No more horse manure: a Ford Model T in 1923. Bettman/Getty

When the automobile was invented at the end of the 19th century, says Ed Conway on Substack, it was hailed as an “environmental triumph”. The streets of London and New York had become “engulfed” in manure from horses pulling carriages; officials worried that the cities would “soon be completely covered in excrement”. So cars resolved what was “fast becoming a public health nightmare”. Today, of course, it is the internal combustion engine that is the environmental menace. The solution became the problem.

The same is true of coal. Until the 18th century, the main fuel used in steel-making blast furnaces was charcoal – effectively baked wood. This required vast amounts of timber, which prompted widespread concern that England would be completely deforested. In “one of the very earliest environmental panics”, the government set limits on how many trees could be cut down, decimating the country’s iron industry. The crisis was only resolved when an ironworker in the Midlands worked out that steel could be made using not charcoal but coal, something England had plenty of. And as it was with cars, this solution – burning coal – went on to become a problem. It’s easy to imagine the same happening today. We’ll develop a whizz-bang new technology to curb carbon emissions, only to find, decades or centuries later, that it has created a different environmental crisis. In the words of the late American historian Melvin Kranzberg: “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.”