The Law of Unintended Consequences

There is a law that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will [1]. It is the Law of Unintended Consequences -
"There is no solution so good that it will not cause a problem."

Think I'm kidding? Take a few examples from history [2]:

A) Lead plumbing. The Romans were great engineers. They built roads that crossed the (known) world, they built aqueducts that brought water hundreds of miles across deserts, and they built a system of law that still governs us today. They also developed the modern plumbing system, based on lead. Lead is a handy little substance. Highly malleable, easily mined, it turned the water sweet and it had a great antiseptic effect on the water is carried [3]. The problem was that that same antiseptic effect was also killing the citizens of Rome through lead poisoning. Though Rome did not fall because of her plumbing, it certainly stood no more certainly with it in place. Rome slowly poisoned itself by making one simple, easy, and wrong choice in the plumbing.

B) Car brakes. Brakes on early cars were bad. Actually, awful would be a better description. That's why Bugatti built his cars to go – because they could not stop. In the early models, drivers were safer if they sped up to avoid an accident, rather than slowing down to reduce the damage. There wasn't as much traffic [4] and the speeds were relatively slow (under 20 mph for the most part), so speeding up was safe. In order to encourage that behavior, the gas pedal was placed lower than the brake pedal, so that a driver could slip off the brake and jump onto the gas. Fast-forward to today, when brakes are great and speeds are three times higher [5] – and brake pedals are still designed to encourage you to go fast to get out of an accident. So a simple engineering design choice becomes standard and we all pay the price [6].

C) Gasoline. Back in the mid 1800's, whale oil was running scarce, and people were in a panic – what would they use to light their homes at night? Then Gesner invented a process that distilled "rock oil" (now known as petroleum) into kerosene. An industry was born overnight. One of the side-effects of Gesner's process was a light, easily flammable substance that was too dangerous to use in lamps. Because it was cheaper and more plentiful than alcohol, the early car designers decided to use  this "gasoline" [7] to power their horseless carriages – after all, the car was a luxury item that few could afford, so there should never be a shortage of this stuff, right? Fast forward to today, when there are more than 1.2 billion cars. The world demand for gasoline is estimated at 30,660,000,000 barrels each year, and is expected to grow at 1,200,000 barrels per day. We can't go on, the oil must run out – and yet we can stop either, not without catastrophic consequences.

Now let's move onto one "solution" [8] that is being hailed in today's papers – desalinization. There is no doubt that we are running out of potable water. The Colorado River is so oversubscribed that little more than sludge makes it to the end of the river. Aquifers are being depleted at record rates [9]. Obviously another source must be found [10]. And we have it in desalinization [11], the process of removing the salt and other contaminants from the water to make it safe to drink. But what are you going to do with those contaminants that you've just removed? Store them on site, ala Kazakhstan crude? No, that's too dangerous; we'll toss them into the world's toilet – the ocean!

Never mind that the Gulf of Mexico, where this particular experiment is taking place, is already over-polluted and is the source of a large percentage of our food. Never mind that brine in high concentrations is a poison that will kill sea life. [12]. These folks need water and are willing to do whatever it takes.

At least until the Law of Unintended Consequences catches up. And then they'll tell us that nobody could have foreseen this.

On that day, I want you to join with me in a giant shout of "WE TOLD YOU SO!"


[1] Geek points for the original quote and source!

[2] Insert obligatory Santayana quote here.

[3] Though, of course, the Romans wouldn't have phrased it that way; they thought that disease was carried by odors. That's why the fever common to swamps was called "bad air" – malaria.

[4] Though I am reminded of the (possibly apocryphal) tale of the only two cars in Kansas City having an accident.

[5] Which means that the amount of energy, and thus damage, in an accident is nearly TEN times great. Energy goes as the square of the speed, so upping the speed limit from 55 to 75 increases the damage and injuries in an accident not by 36% but by nearly 90%.

[6] Microsoft, anyone?

[7] Frequently sold under the brand name of Petrol.

[8] Pun intended
[9] An unintended consequence of the "green revolution" that allowed all of us to be fed, BTW…

[10] The alternative of finding better ways of using the water we have seems to have escaped the notice of most of these idiots  politicians.

[11] Let's hope that the other widely hoped-for solution of dragging icebergs around never makes it to fruition; that would speed up sea-level rise like nobody's business, both directly (through water melting off the berg) and indirectly (through the burning of fossil fuels to tow the damn things).

[12] And never mind that they can use the brine solution to generate electricity!

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