Laws of Unintended Consequences

Laws of Unintended Consequences

by Pininvest Analysis

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Because Green policies have relied on science to argue both the credibility and the urgency of environmental protection, they paid little attention to 'unintended consequences' 

While we argue that their ultimate goals cannot be faulted, scientific premises should not be the sole guidelines of policy

If Green politicians remain oblivious of the complex transactional process of easing new production methods and new consumer expectations within the existing framework, their contribution could end up being marginal

Green activists may remain empty handed unless Green politicians discover compromise




Quoting Rob Norton, from his hand-out on 'Unintended Consequences' for the University of Pennsylvania


The first and most complete analysis of the concept of unintended consequences was done in 1936 by the American sociologist Robert K. Merton.

In an influential article titled "The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action," Merton identified five sources of unanticipated consequences.

The first two, and the most pervasive, were ignorance and error

Merton labeled the third source the "imperious immediacy of interest." By that he was referring to instances in which an individual wants the intended consequence of an action so much that he purposefully chooses to ignore any unintended effects. (That type of willful ignorance is very different from true ignorance.) […]

"Basic values" was Merton's fourth example. The Protestant ethic of hard work and asceticism, he wrote, "paradoxically leads to its own decline through the accumulation of wealth and possessions."

His final case was the "self-defeating prediction." Here he was referring to the instances when the public prediction of a social development proves false precisely because the prediction changes the course of history


Considering public policies promoted purportedly in the name of environmental protection, one may wonder whether ‘green’ sensitivities are not sliding into the latest – and most unwholesome – trap of ‘unintended consequences’

Obviously, there is nothing to be gained from the politicized debate about whether ‘climate change is for real’, a skirmish the defenders of ‘business as usual’ are bound to lose

The groundswell of public opinion shows the way and one does not need specialized expertise to recognize our collective living and work patterns will be deeply affected


However, we argue that pushback by a still sizable swath of the voters, if Mr. Trump’s support is for real, should be understood on a different plane

  • Every one of the sources of unintended consequences identified by Prof. Merton applies to Green politics
  • The Green pronouncements – our dire future and the hasty course corrections required – bear the stamp of scientific certainty, branding the entire political discourse as out-of-date


Prof. Merton’s damning pronouncements

Ignorance and error abound, to the dismay of science, amongst politicians in love of grand announcements, especially cheap commitments for when they will be long dead (preferably)

Where scientists will recommend guidelines and set probability-loaded targets of say 2% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, as part of a complex model of interlinked assumptions, political field marshals willfully commit to the number for its own sake

Ignorance all around as the public is left in shady ambiguity about any underlying assumptions


Imperious immediacy of interest – and purposeful ignorance of unintended effects – could be the rallying criticism of many Green proposals

Safeguarding the environment for future generations may be a moral imperative, but the heavy toll on today’s living standards and the deep cuts in powerful industries, such as the car (andcar- parts) manufacturers, should not be ignored in the name of ‘urgency’


Basic values tend to brand Green policies as articles of faith – pronouncements about 'saving the planet' or ‘a better world for our children’ could hardly be disputed and their cultural appeal guarantees crowds of followers

Belief in environmental purpose, and the underlying religious foundation of much of Northern Europe's and America's world view, is all about basic values, never questioning the practical implementation which would somehow distract from noble intent


Self-defeating predictions – the qualifier could hardly be disputed as we do not know when, and in what terms, tomorrow’s world population in emerging countries will request a say at the world’s banquet

And with more immediacy, bleeding hearts driving electrical vehicles may want to consider if their idea of environmental consciousness is shared by the children pushing wheelbarrows and breaking cobalt stones in Congo’s mines

Credit - Fair Planet

Even though Green policies appear to be set up for ‘unintended consequences’, their ultimate goal should stlll not be faulted even though so many warning lights are flashing red….

We argue that environmental policies will be weakened for lack of flexibility and – yes – absence of compromise in setting a steady course to overcome the pitfalls of deeply transformative social acts

It is a more pressing issue for the environmental cause than any strong-worded - or foul-mouthed - political opposition to climate change


The tyranny of science

Technological progress has opened vast – and mostly shiny – venues for nurturing the world’s natural resources and for launching less polluting industries

All for the good, the fortunate conjunction of technological answers and seemingly intractable damage to the living world boosted the credibility of green policies as a way out

However, transformative of the social texture, of the way people interact, of what is allowed and what is not responsible, the assumptions of scientific modeling have been turned into rock-solid founding blocks of political choice


Science – environmental or otherwise – is a careful construct of probabilities and its underlying principles of uncertainty and of relativity are anything but a hothouse of absolute truths

In the grip of political debate however, where assumptions of research will front for definite – and mostly dire – consequences on human health and well-being, and where recommendations drawn from models become definite political commitments, science is indeed recast as ‘absolutely true’


Unwillingly staged as bearer of environmental certainties, researchers are familiar with the intoxicating draw for politicians of the radical science they envision

Rather than buttressing political engagement, scientific premises could mutate into guidelines and principles of policy, launching unintended consequences on a wild ride

Source Audit Insights

If true, our interpretation puts Green policy at risk

  • Scientific truths trap activists into principled posturing since conclusions relying on modeling are a far cry from real life debate
  • As political outsiders, reluctant to shed sincerely held beliefs in the environmental cause, Green politicians are oblivious of the complex transactional process of easing new production methods and new consumer expectations within the existing framework


The environmental challenges, worldwide, calls for large measures of compromise and adaptability, from Paris to New York, Shanghai, Johannesburg and New Delhi

This is hardly the set-up of the revolutionary processes conquering the world and the Greens, primed on the ultimate prize with little thought about implementation, could be at risk of losing credibility and momentum

The environmental policy of the European Parliament we discussed in our ‘Rolling Thunder’ may be a rather extreme case of the temptation to obfuscate some of the less flattering social and economic implications, with politicians acting under the cloud of sanctimonious – and well publicized – intentions

Less likely to make the headlines, the complexity of the decision process and the thoughtfulness in preparing the economy and social interactions to different global priorities may have been privately recognized

But Green activists may remain empty handed unless Green politicians discover compromise, as we hope to discuss in Cars, Europe Nemesis (or maybe not)