Sunday, December 13, 2015

Unintended Consequences:

Why We Don't Get it Right the First Time

I repeatedly hear of problems in our industrialized society that, when you think about it, are really the unintended consequences of decisions we made, sometimes a long time ago.  We don't set out to pollute the environment, put poisons in food, or cause needed suppliers to go bankrupt, but somehow, we do it.  And we keep doing it.  And it takes a very long time to recognize what we've done, and even longer to fix it.

One such instance just came to my attention recently.  Tests of wells in the San Joaquin Valley, described as the richest farm region in the world, are showing uranium levels that exceed safety standards.  The reason:  "a natural though unexpected byproduct of irrigation, drought, and the over-pumping of natural underground water reserves." [emphasis added]

Another instance that has been much in the news lately is how unregulated electricity markets are failing to put appropriate values on all the benefits (and shortcomings) of alternative forms of electricity generation, including reliability, lack of greenhouse gases, etc.  The result is leading to the shutdown of nuclear power plants and their replacement by natural gas plants that put more carbon into the atmosphere.

I could cite many other examples, and I could include ones from all areas of society.  Every time one of these cases comes up, we all rant about the stupidity of the decisions that led us to these predicaments.  Sometimes, the decisions are conscious ones, like laws to fix some problem that we have noticed; other times, they are passive ones, like doing more and more of what has seemed to be successful.

In most cases, the laws or the decisions seemed rational at the time.  I am always particularly struck by the fact that many of our problems stem from the fact that, in small amounts, pollution or poisons are often of little consequence.  When we had only a handful of cars on the road, the emissions from cars were an inconsequential addition to the atmosphere.  And cars were convenient, so we added more and more cars...until we suddenly noticed that they were a huge source of pollution.

Other problems stem from the fact that we don't seem to look at the big picture when we make decisions.  Perhaps we can't figure out what the big picture is.  When we make changes to the electricity marketplace--putting auctions in place, giving various kinds of financial incentives to some forms of electricity generation, we look primarily at an immediate objective--increasing the use of solar and wind power, for example.  We don't look at the broader ramifications--impacts on existing power generators, impacts on grid stability, impacts on long-term reliability, and more.

There is no perfect solution to this problem.  I could cite numerous examples from our everyday lives that follow the same pattern and just chalk it up to human nature.  However, when the consequences become very large and significant, such as when they impact the environment, our food or power supply, or other critical parts of civilization, we somehow need to start thinking longer-term and more globally.

There are several hurdles we face.  One is to identify what the potential problems are well in advance of when it becomes apparent that they are going to be problems.  This is a huge hurdle.  In the earliest days of automobiles, when they were a plaything of the very rich, and there weren't many roads, and everyone still had horses or lived near where they shopped and worked, who would have predicted how ubiquitous cars would become.  A second problem is to sort out what is real and important from the voices of special interest groups on all sides of the spectrum.

I think scientists and engineers can play an important role in attacking these two problems.  Scientists and engineers are not the only ones, of course, who may have insights, but they have the knowledge and the capability to analyze situations and perhaps identify potential problems early on.

A final challenge is to convince policy-makers to act in a timely fashion.  Since every decision affects someone's special interests, convincing policy-makers to act before there is a crisis is perhaps the biggest challenge of all.  After all, every decision that is made affects some individuals or organizations negatively.  Cutting the use of fossil fuels may encourage the development of nuclear power and renewable energy, but it adversely affects coal miners, a huge transportation infrastructure, and fossil plant operators.  

Failing to act in a timely manner on any new challenge, of course, means that we will face risks to our health or our environment again and again, although perhaps from a different technology, or by a different part of the infrastructure, or to a different element of the environment.  This reminds me of the old saying, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results."  It seems to me this saying applies even if it isn't literally the same thing, but rather, the same behavior in a different situation. 


1 comment:

  1. "A second problem is to sort out what is real and important from the voices of special interest groups on all sides of the spectrum."

    It's especially important to work out the large-scale impacts ahead of time, because the special-interest groups are in no way prevented from doing so and can use propaganda to push self-serving agendas that are otherwise opaque to the public until the consequences become too big to ignore.  At that point those interests are entrenched and likely have a revenue stream which allows them to lobby to keep their favored position.

    We see this today with wind and solar.