Love Canal dioxins. The Minamata mercury spill. PG&E’s leak of Chromium VI into Hinkley, CA groundwater. DDT. PCB’s. Other endocrine disruptors. The Bhopal Union-Carbide methyl isocyanate leak. Acid rain. Three Mile Island. Chernoybl.
Whew! What a tragic list! And like all cautionary tales, these deserve a bit of serious reflection. To start, note that each is iconic. To hear these words is for those of my generation to recall specific events and circumstances, sometimes even people: Rachel Carson. Erin Brocovich. No further explanation or recounting of the details is necessary. They’re forever hardwired into our brains. Are you younger? Even if you’ve only heard these stories after the fact, chances are you’ve been deeply affected.
Second, none of us looking at this list thinks it’s by any means exhaustive. We could easily come up with another half dozen or more cases…the Cuyahoga River fire, the ozone hole, code-red air quality days and driving restrictions in urban areas, eutrophication/dead zones in coastal waters, the red tide, the BP oil spill. [Ok, I’m done. But you can easily come up with another six or more if you’re so inclined. Give it a try.]
Third, these problems often grow in scale. Consider acid rain. Ever heard of Ducktown, Tennessee? Or the London pea-soup and the Great Smog of 1952? In Ducktown, open roasting of high-sulfide copper ores dating back to the 19th century produced acidic deposition that killed much of the local vegetation. A hundred years later, the hillsides there still show the effects. The London smog was initially thought to be nothing more than a visibility event, but soon afterwards, public health officials discovered it had led to 4000 excess deaths and 100,000 respiratory cases. [More recent research puts the death toll above 10,000.] In these and other cases, the solution at first appeared to be higher smokestacks. These released acidic pollutants above the lower boundary layer and dispersed them over larger regions, at concentrations seemingly so low as to pose a minimal threat. At the outset, it seemed to work! All appeared well and good, but decades later, the same problems started cropping up again – but this time on a regional-, not a local scale. The cure proved worse than the disease.
Fourth, none of these events was intentional. Some readers may view those responsible for these tragedies in a harsh light. In some if not most of these instances individuals or groups attempted to cover up these problems as they started to surface. In many cases, people and corporations were found negligent – sometimes criminally so. Canadians still aren’t thrilled with the U.S. government for the ten years of acid deposition research which delayed policy action on our side of the border. But these are not willful acts of terror. No one set out thinking “how many people can we kill? How much fear can we trigger?” In general terms, these were/are unintended consequences of efforts that were intended to benefit not just the governments and companies involved but also the larger public.
Fifth [and as bad as all these events were, this is our focus here], events like these are not a thing of the past. More are in our future.
How do we know?
We know because in each of these cases, the problem was imbedded, though hidden, in an innovation, a new idea, a social change. In each instance, the unintended consequences lagged the introduction, often by many years. And recall that the pace of innovation is accelerating. So, if we believe that persistence is the best forecast, or that the best indicator of future behavior is past behavior, we have reason to be concerned about the future.
No one denies that innovation has brought extraordinary benefits to humankind. We expect current innovation to do the same. Information technology undergirds virtually all human activity today. Genetically modified crops are a vital component of our hopes and strategies for feeding a ten-billion-person world. Biotechnology holds forth the promise of ending the tragedy and suffering occasioned by disease. Nanotech is the portal to similar opportunities. Billions of us are in the business of harnessing these technologies for individual and public good. And there’s no turning back. If we fail in this effort, the outlook is dire.
Furthermore, there are a huge number of unintended consequences that are beneficial. The transistor was invented at Bell labs in part to develop a replacement for vacuum tubes, because these kept burning out. No one foresaw the subsequent development of integrated circuits, the proliferation of cellphones (almost 5 billion and counting). At the time the laser was invented, many saw it as a curiosity. Aspirin appears to offer medical benefits extending beyond headache relief. So far, the good surprises overwhelmingly outnumber the bad. We should press on.
But the pace of change is outstripping our ability to anticipate secondary problems and nip them in the bud. While IT assumes greater control of critical infrastructure – our electrical grid, water supplies, transportation, even our financial system, health care, and sewage – we’re vaguely aware of growing vulnerability in that cyberspace. Even as we realize phoning and texting while driving reduces auto safety just as much as alcohol, auto manufacturers are introducing more web access, including facebook, into cars, in effect, turning cars into entertainment centers. Psychiatrists and other physicians are warning of the public health consequences of the digital age (obesity, lack of exercise, stress, all sorts of web-enabled psychological disorders). EPA is struggling to get its arms around nanotechnology regulation. And all these social and technical changes are beginning to interact with each other in unexpected ways. These problems promise to get worse before they get better. We can’t ignore these things!
The human race is on a roll. In a short period of time – short compared with the time required for the emergence of unintended consequences – we have accelerated the pace of science and technology, and social change. Therefore acute, highly-localized pollution episodes, and other crises, have been hardwired in our future. So, brace yourself when you open your morning newspaper. Or turn on the TV. Or check out that news website.
In the next post, a look at the fourth prediction: that the future will feature scarcity and declining margins.