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Wait, Was That Supposed To Happen?

On Intended Outcomes and Not So Intended Outcomes



Have you noticed that when people, i.e. individuals, groups and governmental agencies, decide they are going to “fix a problem” it frequently leads to outcomes that may be different from what was anticipated? This activity generally falls under the “Law of Unintended Consequences” for which there may, in addition to the intended outcome, be some other potential outcomes. There may be an additional benefit or windfall, there may be a negative or detrimental side effect, or the problem may just become worse. It is also possible, especially when governmental agencies are involved, that the problem they are trying to “fix” doesn’t currently exist.

In case you have not heard of the “Cobra Effect” it fits very nicely into the category of unintended consequences. When the city of Delhi, India was under British colonization, the English Commander at the time became concerned about the great number of poisonous cobras present in the area and decided to offer a bounty for each cobra that was killed, making the cobra skin a valuable item. He, unfortunately, failed to take into account the ingenuity of the Indian populace who then found it profitable to raise cobras for their skins. But once the scheme was recognized, the bounty was discontinued so that the cobra farmers, finding their “crop” now useless, released them back into the city creating a cobra population that now was many times greater than the original numbers.

In the 1920s, in an attempt to control the consumption of alcohol and eliminate the many businesses that were involved in the production and distribution of alcoholic products, the United States Government, in all its wisdom, passed the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, better known as “prohibition.” While it was illegal to produce and distribute alcoholic products, consumption of them within a home was permitted and there were other exceptions such as for medical and religious purposes which led to a great increase in the number of prescriptions written for alcohol and in the number of people who claimed to be Ministers and Rabbis. When prohibition began there were about 800 bars operating but by the time it was over there were about 4,000 speakeasies located around New York City alone. It was apparent that it is not so easy to control social behaviour.

The 1840s in Europe proved to be a very dangerous time to be having a baby. Between 1841 and 1846 the number of maternal deaths was approximately 2,000 for every 200,000 births and by 1847 had increased to 1 in 6 deliveries. The deaths resulted from a condition known as Puerperal Fever and it seemed that even the best hospitals were unable to find the cause until Dr Ignaz Semmelweis joined the staff at Vienna General Hospital. It took a while for him to sift through the data surrounding the problem but it was a chance event that provided him with the solution. In the more advanced hospitals there the physicians and medical students, all worked in the labs doing autopsies and would then leave there to go to the wards to assist in the treatment of patients. A professor friend of Semmelweis was accidentally cut by a scalpel during a training autopsy and then, after suffering a series of illnesses ultimately died after exhibiting symptoms similar to those of Puerperal Fever. It was interesting, and certainly unintended, that while the medical staff was doing the autopsies to learn more about illnesses and the causes of death so they could save thousands of lives in treatment, they were instead caused thousands of deaths because they failed to properly wash their hands after the autopsy.

Certainly not a new story but one that truly points out how what is thought to be the best-laid plans can come back to bite! When trying to solve the malaria problem that was rampant during the early 1950s amongst the Dayak people in Borneo, the World Health Organization (WHO) set about having the thatched roofs of the people’s homes sprayed with copious amounts of the chemical DDT. As a result of this action malaria-carrying mosquitoes were annihilated and the number of cases of malaria was actually reduced. However, the chemical also successfully killed off the parasitic wasps that eat caterpillars that survive on thatch and which were unaffected by the chemical. Without the wasps, there was a dramatic increase in the number of caterpillars and the people’s roofs began to fall in on them. But, to make matters worse, the insects that had been killed by the DDT were then eaten by gecko lizards who began to reel from the effects of the DDT and, since they were thus incapacitated, were quickly caught by local cats who ate them and the cats died. Without cats to control the rat population, the rats flourished and now the Dayaks were subjected to the many diseases that rats are known to carry, such as the plague and typhus.

It is really hard to believe what came next in the attempt to correct all the problems created by the first “solution” to the problem. Enter “Operation Cat Drop!” With rats now rampant throughout the roofless Dayak homes, WHO decided it was time to resupply cats to the remote villages in Borneo and to do so WHO arranged to have about 14,000 cats of every degree of age and range collected from coastal towns, placed in parachute-borne crates and dropped in the interior uplands with help from the Royal Air Force. The cats, after getting settled in began to do their job of getting rid of the rat population. This incident points out that mankind really does not understand the intricacy of lifeform interconnections within the environment or the potential negative ramifications of interfering with them.

There is just not enough room to chronicle all examples of the well-intentioned actions of so many people, groups or governmental agencies (again especially government regulators) that just do not turn out the way they were originally intended. So how does this happen?  Many of these actions have obviously not been adequately or thoroughly thought through before being introduced as the solution to some problem. In some cases, there is an offer of a solution to something that might (could possibly, maybe, etc.) become a problem down the road and must be headed off now. There is also a problem with voters who are not willing to investigate or consider that there may be other consequences when they vote for a policy that sounds like it would really do something good.

There is little doubt that what has been happening as it relates to Unintended Consequences will most likely continue to happen. Why? Because the average person is not likely to take the time to determine if what is being proposed is all that it seems to be and perhaps because those proposing the action may just have an agenda which is more important to them than determining if anything could possibly go wrong!

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