Many of the things we do, in the hopes of achieving a particular result, come back to surprise us with unintended consequences. Sometimes those consequences are negative, sometimes positive, and sometimes so strange we find it difficult to believe there’s even a connection.
It’s great when those unexpected consequences are positive – like with the development of Viagra, which began in the lab as a treatment for high blood pressure – or with the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone, which resulted in a boom in the beaver population. That happened because with wolves roaming the countryside, elk could no longer stay by water holes in the winter. As a result, willow stands recovered and the beavers had more food. And in turn, whole other species have done well, including eagles, coyotes and bears.
On the other side of the coin are those unexpected consequences that are negative – like the US offering support to Osama bin Laden during the 1980s when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Little did we know we were creating one of our greatest enemies.
Another example is the introduction of kudzu into the southeastern US as an ornamental plant and to prevent erosion. Now it’s one of the most invasive species in the country. See also Africanized honeybees, pythons in the Everglades and rabbits in Australia for examples of invasive species that were brought to an area for one purpose but ended up a major nuisance because they did something unexpected – namely, thrive.
The third kind of unexpected consequence is the strange one, the one that seems to defy all logic – like making football helmets better than the old leather ones used in the early days of the NFL. One would assume that concussions would be greatly reduced by better helmets. One would be wrong. NFL players (and younger players in high school and college) feel invincible with these fancy helmets and thus seem more inclined to engage in risky behavior that increases the odds of a concussion.
Or look at abstinence-only sex education, which has been shown to increase teenage pregnancy rates compared to comprehensive sex education and even compared to offering no sex education at all. I don’t think we fully understand why this is, but it’s a bizarre result.
Why is this important?
Because we need to understand that every relatively major action we take will result in an unexpected consequence. It may not happen for some time, so we might think we’ve accomplished what we desired without an unexpected effect, but eventually something we didn’t foresee will occur.
For example, when we found out how efficient oil was as a fuel source and began burning it instead of wood or coal, no one would have predicted it would lead (in part) to planetary climate change.
It’s not just actions but inaction that can result in unintended consequences. I’m not talking about small acts like picking up a piece of litter or choosing not to do so – although there are unintended consequences to small actions as well – because the unintended consequences of such actions are generally so small as to go unnoticed.
We cannot be blamed, for example, for not knowing how much damage we would be doing by burning fossil fuels. We didn’t have the knowledge to understand the consequences of our actions. But now we know – those of us who don’t live in denial, at any rate – that if we do nothing, the Earth will continue to warm. We don’t know how rapidly it will become catastrophic, but we know it will eventually become so for our species.
So far, the problem doesn’t seem unmanageable, so many of us believe it’s not a big deal to wait for it to become problematic before we act. Unfortunately, it may then be too late. Trying to contain the effects of centuries of industrialization in a few short years may not be possible.
It seems likely that an unexpected consequence of global warming will be that we will suddenly experience a seismic shift in the atmosphere, much like those that occur in the tectonic plates beneath us. Pressure builds, occasional small earthquakes relieve the pressure for a short geologic time and then – Wham! – a monster earthquake strikes.
We haven’t seen that yet from our atmosphere, so we don’t believe it’s likely to happen, but one thing that’s certain is that unexpected consequences occur all the time and we’re terrible at predicting them – that’s why we call them unexpected.