Breakthrough Dialogue 2020: Intended Consequences
The specter of unintended consequences is utilized promiscuously across the ideological spectrum. Conservatives and libertarians use it to caution against social engineering and economic interventions. Environmentalists offer the same cautions against interventions that would manipulate, engineer, or intervene in natural processes.
And yet, there is no less agency involved in deciding not to intervene as deciding to do so and, often, no less hubris either. Acts of omission can be every bit as consequential as acts of commission. And if there is hubris in imagining that the best laid plans will unfold exactly as anticipated, there is hubris too, in imagining that more study, deliberation, and regulation might avoid consequences that by definition, are unknown or highly uncertain.
Concerns about unintended consequences, too, are often proxy for concerns about who decides and who benefits. But ultimately someone must decide and there will almost always be winners and losers. Avoiding intervention because decision processes are imperfect or the distributional consequences are unknowable brings risk and consequence as well.
In the end, there are counterfactual problems all the way down. Every action, and every inaction, puts the world on at least a slightly different course than its alternative.
But we view the consequences of acts of commission differently than acts of omission. To act is to own the future as one we have chosen. Inaction and precaution allow us to absolve ourselves of a kind of responsibility.
In reality, unintended consequences are the exception, not the rule. Mostly, bridges don’t fall down and crops mostly don’t fail. For every iconic tale of things gone badly awry, there are countless cases where things go exactly as planned. Indeed, over the last century or so, better science, engineering, technology, and institutions have made the world a radically safer place for most people.
At this year’s Breakthrough Dialogue, we ask what it is that we fear when we fear unintended consequences and what it would mean to recognize that mostly, we get things mostly right. What do we mean by intent and consequences? How should we think about actions that turn out exactly as planned but appear to have been unwise and ill conceived in hindsight? How might we be better, and more honest, about interrogating our intentions rather than the unknowableness of the future? What can we learn from things that go right? From bad outcomes we successfully anticipated and avoided? From both the happy accidents and co-benefits that have come with taking responsibility for the future? How, ultimately, might we recognize the limits of our knowledge and foresight and still, in the end, decide to act?
Planning for a Three-Degree Future
- David Wallace-Wells
- Bjorn Lomborg
New analysis suggests that business as usual emissions over the rest of this century will most likely result in around 3 degrees of global warming, as opposed to 4 or 5 degrees, as many have long feared. At the same time, it is also clear that absent geo-engineering or removing vast quantities of carbon from the atmosphere, limiting warming to 1.5 degrees celsius, as many activists now demand, is not remotely plausible and that stabilization at even 2 degrees of warming remains enormously difficult. In a future in which the range of temperature outcomes appears much narrower than many have long imagined, what are the consequences of 3 degrees of warming likely to be for human societies? Does it matter whether we succeed at keeping temperatures closer to 2 degrees than 3? What factors are likely to determine how well human societies adapt to the hotter climate that we almost certainly will leave for future generations and what will the consequences be for ecosystems and biodiversity? Is there a non-apocalyptic framework for thinking about climate risk, mitigation, and adaptation and if so, what does it look like?
Is the Food System Broken?
- Tamar Haspel
- Rachel Laudan
It has long been an article of faith in many quarters that America’s food system is broken. Large scale monocrop agriculture dominates the landscape. Pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and animal waste contaminate waterways and poison wildlife. Twinkies and Big Macs have contributed to an obesity epidemic even as “having it your way” apparently does not include having a full service supermarket in many low income communities. And many workers throughout the food system struggle to earn a living wage. Yet it is also true that American food is historically abundant, affordable, and diverse. US farms turn out to be remarkably land, water, and nitrogen efficient in comparison to other nations, a product of decades of technological innovation and productivity improvements. A food system that once required most of the nation’s population to support subsistence levels of consumption today employs less than 2% of the nation’s labor force while allowing most people to pursue better life opportunities outside of the agricultural sector. If America’s food system is broken, one must ask “compared to what?” In this plenary session, we ask what it would mean to improve America’s food system without reinventing it? What can we change and which features of the food system are inseparable from the basic requirements of social and economic modernity? What are the trade offs between environmental sustainability, food costs, labor standards, and public health?