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Doctrine of Unintended Consequences

Back in the late ’80’s I was a horrible money manager, mostly because I kept forgetting to write down the checks I had written in the checkbook register. About that time, it became feasible (from a cost standpoint) to use checkbooks with the automatic copy pages in them. So I converted from the old-style plain checks to the ones with the automatic copies. While it didn’t solve all of my financial problems (especially my propensity to not want to know how much money I didn’t have when I suspected I was broke) it did eliminate the problem of not remembering what I wrote checks for and how much they were. So, in that respect it was a problem solved (through technology, at a very basic level).

Fast forward to today, a beautiful Saturday afternoon in the Ratlands. It is about 72 degrees, overcast, with a nice breeze and rain on the way. Pretty much a perfect day in my book. But, am I outside smoking a cigar and enjoying the weather? No. I’m inside burning up the motor in my paper shredder. See, the unintended consequence of having permanent copies of all the checks you write in the little pads that no longer have checks in them is that you have permanent copies of all the checks you write in the little pads that no longer have checks in them. You can’t throw them away, they have your account number on them. I haven’t found a viable way to burn them. So, here I sit, tearing the copies out of the pads (which go back to 1988) a few at a time and feeding them into my shredder.

In retrospect, I would have been better off excersizing a bit more discipline and being a bit more accountable for my financial actions, but at the time it seemed like a perfect solution. Much like the Montreal Protocol. Back in 1989 we were worried about the hole in the ozone layer. Choloroflourocarbons (CFC’s) were being used in aerosol sprays, refrigerators and air conditioners. (They basically eat away at the ozone layer of the atmosphere which allows more UV rays to reach the surface of the earth which is expected to cause more cancer.) So, a number of “forward thinking” countries got together (189 at last count) to reduce and eliminate the use of CFC’s. Since CFC’s are also greenhouse gases, this should have also helped with the global warming problem.

Except it didn’t. The folks who put together the treaty never imagined that the substitutes for CFC’s, which have worked to help repair the hole in the ozone layer, would be worse greenhouse gases than the CFC’s they replaced.

In fact, the volume of greenhouse gases created as a result of the Montreal agreement’s phaseout of CFCs is two times to three times the amount of global-warming carbon dioxide the Kyoto agreement is supposed to eliminate.

I’m not trying to argue whether global warming is real. Or, whether man contributes to it. But, if the planet is getting warmer, the Ocean shouldn’t have lost a significant amount of heat recently. Probably. There are all sorts of possible explanations as to why that would have happened. Some people say that the reduction in smog (we do have a cleaner atmosphere than we did a few years back) is cooling the planet by letting heat radiate out into space.

In spite of the strident voices in the anti-industrial environmental movement, we really don’t have a clue how our atmospheric system works. Yes, we can sort out bits here and there. But we really don’t know how the whole thing fits together. Climate is such an intricate balance of a multitude of variables. While we may be able to figure out how some of the variables impact each other, we don’t have a grasp on the whole system, and in this case, the whole is very much more than the sum of its parts.

Should we work on eliminating pollution? Absolutely. Cleaner is better. Less crap in the air would be a good thing. Will that solve the global warming problem (assuming it exists and it is really a problem)? Who knows. I don’t, and neither does anyone else. And anyone who tells you that if we do X to the environment, Y will happen and there will not be any unintended consequences that mask or alter the desired result is either intellectually dishonest, deluded, stupid, or lying to mask another agenda.

My point is simple. We should work on cleaning up the environment because as technology becomes available, we can. Cleaner is better. What we should not do is jump into drastic remedies for problems we don’t understand and for which we have no clue as to the unintended consequences. Or else, figuratively speaking, we are all going to end up spending a lot of beautiful afternoons shredding our solutions to old problems.

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