Navigating the law of unintended consequences

As LUC would have it

by Geoff Olson

Let’s hear a laugh for the man of the world
Who thinks he can make things work
Tried to build the New Jerusalem
And ended up with New York
Ha Ha Ha…
– Bruce Cockburn, Laughter

Murphy’s law snarkily asserts that if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong. The law of unintended consequences is its close cousin. LUC crops up with a maddening regularity; it’s not a bug in reality, it’s a feature.

Roadways and bridges added to transit routes draw greater numbers of vehicles, returning commute times to their original length. Digital devices meant to be timesavers have turned out to be time vampires, compelling us to chase work e-mails at home or on holiday. Computer algorithms used in “high frequency trading” on stock exchanges amplify uncertainty in the market, as pokey humans try to keep up with the unpredictable effects of their digital spawn.

Back in the nineties, US Naval Research invented encryption methods to protect US intelligence communications online. Within a decade, computer scientists were using the same methods to create The Onion Router (TOR) software, named for its multiple layers of encryption. TOR was used by activist groups like WikiLeaks, which invited whistleblowers across the world to securely post information exposing corporate and state corruption.

As Edward Tenner wrote in his 1997 book, Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences, “Sometimes things can go right only by first going very wrong.” And vice versa. It wasn’t long before TOR was exploited by criminals to anonymously buy and sell drugs, weapons and stolen identities through “dark web” sites, using the newly hatched digital currency, Bitcoin.

Of course, the Internet itself was spawned by the US military-industrial complex, as was solar panel technology, first conceived for use on US spy satellites.

LUC is particularly evident in the realm of power politics. A recent example is the fallout from the US-NATO program of regime change in Ukraine. Western-supported fascist elements overthrew a corrupt, but democratically elected, government, an event that ethnic Russians in the region correctly interpreted as a coup.

After Crimeans voted yes in a referendum for federation with Russia, the US and EU slapped sanctions on Putin’s state for its “invasion” of Crimea and support of the pro-Russian resistance in Ukraine.

In response to western economic sanctions, Russia has signed on to the world’s largest energy deals with China. BRICS nations, including Iran and Turkey, are now falling into the orbit of this giant economic bloc. Not the consequence the US was looking for.

The short-term goal of the west is to bleed the economies of Russia, Iran and the socialist petrostate of Venezuela, by flooding the global market with cheap oil. The long-term goal is to destroy a Sino-Soviet alliance and to make Russia capitulate to the US petrodollar and surrender economically and militarily to the US-UK-Israel axis.

This high-stakes chess game with hydrocarbons is sending shock waves throughout the global economy and the resulting political-military tensions may threaten a Third World War.

Combine the predictably depressing behaviour of human beings in groups with the nonlinear, natural forces of the biosphere and LUC goes into overdrive.

“The total system we call the biosphere is so complicated that we cannot know in advance the consequences of anything that we do,” observed author Michael Crichton in the foreword to his 2002 novel, Prey. “That is why even our most enlightened past efforts have had undesirable outcomes – either because we did not understand enough, or because the ever-changing world responded to our actions in unexpected ways.”

Consider the ambiguous history of “cap and trade.” Tribal people with some of the world’s smallest carbon footprints were displaced after General Motors and two other companies purchased 50,000 acres of Brazilian Atlantic forest, between 2000 and 2002. GM’s reason: the companies wanted to offset the emissions of their SUVs in a test case of nature preservation – and the indigenous people were no longer welcome on the land bought up from under their feet.

This form of carbon credit shell game, which does nothing for overall emissions, is not unusual (for more appalling examples, see the 2012 film, The Carbon Rush). Rolling Stone correspondent Matt Taibbi has predicted cap-and-trade will become the next commodities bubble after shale gas. If he’s proven right, the banksters will be literally pulling profits from thin air.

“The fact that the biosphere responds unpredictably to our actions is not an argument for inaction,” observed Crichton. “It is, however, a powerful argument for caution, and for adopting a tentative attitude toward all we believe, and all we do… We think we know what we are doing. We have always thought so. We never seem to acknowledge that we have been wrong in the past, and so might be wrong in the future. Instead, each generation writes off earlier errors as the result of bad thinking by less able minds and then confidently embarks on fresh errors of its own.”

From genetically modified organisms to proposals for climate-altering “geoengineering,” you can always count on technocrats to promote supposedly planet-saving schemes that conveniently turn a nice profit while introducing entirely new problems.

The road to hell on Earth is paved with good intentions (and grand inventions). Enthusiasts for the American pseudoscience of eugenics believed enlightened breeding programs would hatch taller, smarter, healthier and whiter human beings. We know how well that project went with The Third Reich. Similarly, followers of Karl Marx believed the state would wither out of existence after a global communist revolution. Today, the nation-state is not withering from Marxist-Leninism, but rather the “creative destruction” of corporate capitalism, which compromises the ability of elected representatives to set national objectives.

Even though they were quite prepared to kill one another – and did, in great numbers – Nazis and Bolsheviks regarded themselves as rational people, embracing science over superstition.

It would be nice to believe that given enough time, science and reason will eliminate all our problems. But we will choke on our exponentially growing infoglut in the effort to attain absolute knowledge.

Taoists held that all things have the seed of their opposite within them. This is summed up in their yin-yang symbol, with its black and white forms flowing into one another, a dot of negative space in each. It’s a nice graphic shorthand for a mercurial truth that has dogged every empire from the Aegean to the Potomac and every human heart from the cradle to the grave.

“Chaos happens. Let’s make better use of it,” said Edward Tenner in a 2011 Ted Talk. At the dawn of a new year, I wish you all good LUC.

image © Stuart Miles

1 thought on “Navigating the law of unintended consequences

  1. Lucid and wide ranging analyis of where we’re at and where, if we’re unlucky, might go. Would love a translation of the LUC acronym though.

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