Monday, October 7, 2019

Unintended Consequences:

Good Intentions, Troubling Outcomes

As many of my readers know, I occasionally highlight actions that have been taken or are being considered that have unintended consequences that either undermine the original intent, or that end up trading an improvement in one area for a negative effect on another area.  I perhaps became sensitized to unintended consequences through news items that illustrated the complexity of the energy sector, where replacing one energy source with another has not always yielded the expected benefits.

I recently came across several more examples of the unintended consequences associated with certain decisions or actions, covering some very different areas.  Some report unintended consequences that have already occurred.  Others are forward looking and report on analyses of what might happen, so there might be time to rethink some of the plans and avoid or mitigate the unintended consequences.

The first I found was a study on what could happen with driverless cars when they are not in use, particularly if we move to an economy where we rely on shared vehicles.  Very simply, self-driving cars might stay on the roads and cruise around to avoid paying parking fees!  Clearly, if everyone is left to their own devices, self-interest will rule.  This would increase congestion--possibly a lot--and of course, result in more energy use.  This is a potential scenario that should be addressed before things get out of hand, so the very recognition of the potential problem may avert it, but it is the kind of thing that we do need to think about proactively as new technologies emerge.

The second issue I came across is a harder one to address.  It argues that environmental regulations to protect ecosystems can result in greater carbon emissions.  Here, the problem is that protecting ecosystems may have prevented the development of hydroelectric dams, so power needs have been met by fossil-fired power plants.  In this case, it appears that decisions have been made in some cases, so reversing the problem may be more difficult.  However, the evidence should provide a wake-up call for future preservation efforts.  In particular, when addressing the needs for ecosystem preservation, planners need to look holistically at all the needs of the community and how they can be met.  

Another issue I read about involved the potential for efforts at gender equality to have negative effects for some women.  This report, in Nature magazine, comes from the UK and refers, in part, to something called the Athena SWAN Charter, an initiative designed to encourage and recognize commitment to advancing the careers of women in science, technology, engineering, math and medicine (STEMM) employment in higher education and research.  While this may seem counter-intuitive, the report cites the fact that women make up more than 70% of Athena SWAN champions, a labor-intensive role that takes time away from their research.  

The final issue I want to report about today gave me a laugh, but it may not be funny.  A report in Science magazine tied the legalization of marijuana to potential worsening of air pollution In particular, the article claims that cannabis plants are rich sources of volatile organic compounds that can contribute to smog. There are also concerns about workers' health due to air quality issues.  One recent study suggested the more than 600 indoor pot farms located within Denver could be worsening the city's air pollution, which already violates federal standards. 

The message I draw from all these examples is that almost everything we do has multiple impacts, some good and some not so good.  This includes the many things that we do in an effort to fix some problem, be it gender inequalities or environmental impacts, or to provide society with advanced technological capabilities, like self-driving cars.  This doesn't mean we shouldn't have self-driving cars, or that we shouldn't attempt to address gender inequalities or environmental impacts.  It simply means we need to think more about all the potential ramifications of all such initiatives, and the earlier the better.