Unintended Consequences

3 comments August 12th, 2008at 07:50am Posted by Eli

Longish story in today’s NYT Science News about the need to examine our Bold Technological Solutions to make sure that they don’t create even greater problems, especially as our technology becomes more and more powerful.

Last year, a private company proposed “fertilizing” parts of the ocean with iron, in hopes of encouraging carbon-absorbing blooms of plankton. Meanwhile, researchers elsewhere are talking about injecting chemicals into the atmosphere, launching sun-reflecting mirrors into stationary orbit above the earth or taking other steps to reset the thermostat of a warming planet.

This technology might be useful, even life-saving. But it would inevitably produce environmental effects impossible to predict and impossible to undo. So a growing number of experts say it is time for broad discussion of how and by whom it should be used, or if it should be tried at all.

Similar questions are being raised about nanotechnology, robotics and other powerful emerging technologies. There are even those who suggest humanity should collectively decide to turn away from some new technologies as inherently dangerous.

“The complexity of newly engineered systems coupled with their potential impact on lives, the environment, etc., raise a set of ethical issues that engineers had not been thinking about,” said William A. Wulf, a computer scientist who until last year headed the National Academy of Engineering. As one of his official last acts, he established the Center for Engineering, Ethics, and Society there.

Rachelle Hollander, a philosopher who directs the center, said the new technologies were so powerful that “our saving grace, our inability to affect things at a planetary level, is being lost to us,” as human-induced climate change is demonstrating.


[R]esearchers working in geoengineering say they worry that if people realize there are possible technical fixes for global warming, they will feel less urgency about reducing greenhouse gas emissions. “Even beginning the discussion, putting geoengineering on the table and beginning the scientific work could in itself make us less concerned about all the things that we need to start doing now,” Dr. Light said. On the other hand, some climate scientists argue that if people realized such drastic measures were on the horizon, they would be frightened enough to reduce their collective carbon footprint. Still others say that, given the threat global warming poses to the planet, it would be unethical not to embark on the work needed to engineer possible remedies — and to let policy makers know of its potential.

Okay, let me just interject here: People are going to be overly complacent about climate change – or at least their own personal responsibility for it – no matter what the scientists and engineers do, so I would strongly recommend focusing solely on whether the technical fixes will work and if they will have unintended consequences.  We can’t afford not to.

[S]ome emerging technologies will require political adjustments. For example, if the planet came to depend on chemicals in space or orbiting mirrors or regular oceanic infusions of iron, system failure could mean catastrophic — and immediate — climate change. But maintaining the systems requires a political establishment with guaranteed indefinite stability.

As Dr. Collins put it, the political process these days is “not well designed to handle issues that are not already in a crisis.”


Bill Joy, a founder of Sun Microsystems, cited the bomb in a famous 2000 article in the magazine Wired on the dangers of robots in which he argued that some technologies were so dangerous they should be “relinquished.” He said it was common for scientists and engineers to fail “to understand the consequences of our inventions while we are in the rapture of discovery” and, as a result, he said, “we have yet to come to terms with the fact that the most compelling 21st-century technologies — robotics, genetic engineering and nanotechnology — pose a different threat than the technologies that have come before. They are so powerful they can spawn whole new classes of accidents and abuses.”

He called it “knowledge-enabled mass destruction.”

I am a huge technology fan, and fascinated by science fiction and The Future, so my default attitude is usually “Do it!  Go go go!”, but the more far-reaching our technology becomes, the easier it is to upset the Earth’s delicate balance.  Ecosystems are particularly susceptible, where slight changes can cause one species to die off, dwindle, or migrate away, allowing harmful species to take over, or killing off other dependent species, like the coral that need algae to survive.

It’s a sticky wicket, because if we haven’t already passed the point of no return on atmospheric carbon, we are very very close, and I just don’t see any political will for the radical changes needed to pull us back from the brink.  A bold technological solution may be our only hope – but how can we be sure that the cure isn’t worse than the disease?

Entry Filed under: Environment,Science,Technology


  • 1. woody  |  August 12th, 2008 at 9:11 am

    The Precautionary Principle.
    I am not so much a fan of unbridled ‘science.’ I think that any and all technological ‘advances’ should be framed within it. I do NOT believe that “because we can” is a sufficient warrant to tinker with the fundament of the universe…
    I am also of the opinion that “unintended consequences” are often not ‘unintended’ at all, but merely made invisible by their perpetrators…especially if there’s a buck in it.
    I admit I am a bit of a Luddite. So sue me…

  • 2. Eli  |  August 12th, 2008 at 11:19 am

    A Luddite who has more blogs than I do…

    One of the perpetual dangers of technological “fixes” is that the “fix” then requires more “fixes” to deal with the unintended consequences of the original fix.

    It’s like taking medication to deal with the side effects of the medication you’re taking to deal with the side effects of the medication you’re taking to treat your actual ailment.

  • 3. Eli  |  August 12th, 2008 at 11:20 am

    It’s also a lot like self-medicating without knowing squat about chemistry or medicine.

Contact Eli



Most Recent Posts




August 2008
« Jul   Sep »

Thinking Blogger

Pittsburgh Webloggers

Site Meter

View My Stats *