Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Law of Unintended Consequences

One of physic’s basic tenets states that every action produces a reaction. It’s a natural law that applies to politics, economics, and many other endeavors, as well; it does not adhere exclusively to physics.

When an action is a known quantity, the reaction it produces is predictable. However, when actions are unknown quantities (as in things that have never been tried before), the reactions often manifest as unintended consequences. Sometimes, actions are so intense that they touch off a chain-reaction of events in which each event produces its own set of unintended consequences. Like a handful of stones cast into a pond, major events cause overlapping ripples that radiate outward, seemingly forever.

Take the invention of the steam engine, for instance. When James Watt patented his design for the first practical steam engine in 1769, he ushered in the Industrial Age, which led to the Machine Age, which in turn gave rise to the Automobile Age. I’m not sure if there’s enough room on the entire Internet to list all of the adverse reactions (unintended consequences) attributable to the automobile’s invention; they are legion.

From the way we build our communities and structure our lifestyles to global warming and war in the Middle East, cars play a pivotal role in shaping and defining our society. Cars brought us more freedom, greater independence, unprecedented prestige, and never-before-known convenience in quantities that guaranteed their ubiquity. Cars brought us closer to everything, even as they made everything unsustainable.

Because of the automobile, people left family farms in droves to begin new lives in cities and suburbs. The popular abandonment of the nation’s farms fueled the proliferation of factory farms and the ongoing expansion of suburban sprawl.

Suburban sprawl gobbles up prime farmland, and the monocrop agriculture practiced by factory farms destroys the environment in numerous ways, not the least of which is widespread pollution caused by farm chemicals—insecticides, pesticides, herbicides, artificial fertilizers, growth hormones, and antibiotics.

Are these end results? Not hardly! They’re only early results that paved the way for more serious consequences that have already befallen us and for others that lie in wait for us in the not-too-distant future.

Our attachment to cars made us lazy and fat and dependent on foreign oil. Cars gave us easier access to medical care, even as they increased our need for medical care. They gave us strip malls and parking lots, rush hours and traffic jams, fast food and drive-in everything.

Despite the rising costs of owning, driving and maintaining automobiles, despite worsening pollution and global warming, despite rising gasoline prices and exorbitant insurance rates, and despite the frustrations of traffic congestion, people are reluctant to give up their cars. Their obsession with cars blinds them to reality while allowing them to maintain an illusion of well being.

Car-addicted people aren’t about to change their ways. At a time when car addicts should be thinking about curbing their addiction and looking at sustainable options, they are, in fact, demanding bigger, heavier, more powerful and less fuel efficient cars in greater numbers than ever before.

Of course, more cars need bigger, better streets and highways, which always seem to invite more cars. Maybe we should just pave America, paint some lines, and call it a day.