Unintended Consequences

I grew up in a steel town (see also here) in the 1960s and 1970s. My Dad worked at Atlas Steel, and I was proud to work there for a couple of summers when I was 18 and 19. At the time, it was nearly unique in the range and quality of specialty stainless steel it produced in the Western Hemisphere (there was a competitor in South America).

Today, the factory no longer exists.

It’s part of the Walmartization of the modern world: We are so addicted to low prices, that we don’t realize the unintended consequences of a simple-minded mania for buying the lowest-priced items. Walmart has rolled in, and the mom-and-pop hardware stores have died off. And local industries die off as well.

The Walmart directors and their ilk become billioinaires, certain Chinese industrialists become billionaires, while millions of peasants are dispossessed and forced to migrate to cities to become low-wage cogs in the machine. Valleys are flooded, landscapes are destroyed, societies crumble.

The Chinese one-child policy is having an unintended consequence: For cultural reasons (which I am intimately familiar with, because the traditional Italian peasant culture of my ancestors also valued males over females) many Chinese families are finding ways to ensure that their one child is male (selective abortion, for example). A generation of this has lead to an imbalance in the male/female ratio for people of marrying age, to the extent that there is a serious shortage of prospective wives.

We humans do short-sighted things over and over, preferring the simplistic solution that turns out to have unintended and often harmful consequences. We introduce animals into habitats to solve certain problems, not realizing that they have no natural predators, and therefore they end up creating havoc (also see, for example, here, here, and here).

Ecosystems are complex, and meddling with them in our bumbling, simplistic ways has usually resulted in disaster. In the early 20th century, praire farmers in Western Canada crusaded to eradicated coyotes, who were killing their farm animals. The unexpected consequence of the extensive killing of coyotes: explosion in the rodent population, and devastation of farm crops the following year.

We overuse pesticides to increase quality and quantity of harvests. The unintended consequences: Creation of pesticide-resistant strains of pests, poisoning of air, water, and other species, explosion of cancer in humans.

When will we smarten up? The first step is to understand the root cause of such crazy, short-sighted actions: Greed. All of these actions are taken to increase profits. The economic imperative must change if we are to have a chance at a sustainable civilization. Otherwise, we are doomed.

We continue to “educate” our children in the most simplistic ways, because that is what is easy to test, and we continue to promote students based on mediocre results. What is sorely needed by a world in trouble is education that has considerably more depth and attention to what is truly important. We need graduates that are equipped to think deeply and creatively about the world’s problems, who have significant experience in doing so, and who have been trained to communicate clearly and effectively.

In short, we need a transformation in our education system.


About Santo D'Agostino

I have taught mathematics and physics since the mid 1980s. I have also been a textbook writer/editor since then. Currently I am working independently on a number of writing and education projects while teaching physics at my local university. I love math and physics, and love teaching and writing about them. My blog also discusses education, science, environment, etc. https://qedinsight.wordpress.com Further resources, and online tutoring, can be found at my other site http://www.qedinfinity.com
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