Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Bad Consequences of Doing Good

Most of us subscribe to a form of Karmic causality theory that boils down to the idea that doing "good" things will benefit ourselves and others, whereas "bad" deeds will not only hurt others but also will come back to bite us. Of course, defining what is good or bad is a bit tricky, as the mountain of philosophical treatises on the subject will attest.  But in day-to-day living we seldom analyze our potential actions and their consequences with philosophical rigor, and instead rely on the "I-know-it-when-I-see-it" approach.  This works pretty well most of the time, but there are occasions when doing "good" has unintended and unanticipated negative consequences.  Here are a couple of examples (please offer your own if you wish):

Hijacking on the Hybrid Highway

Driving a car that gets high gas mileage is good.  Using less fuel saves us money and also lowers the negative environmental impacts from producing and burning fossil fuel.  There are other benefits as well, from lessening health problems associated with air pollution to strengthening our geopolitical position through the reduction of our dependence on foreign oil.

Technology has steadily improved the gas mileage of the average internal combustion engine, and has led to the development of hybrid and all-electric cars that use much less gasoline or none at all. Hybrid cars in particular have become increasingly popular even though they tend to be more expensive than comparable gasoline-only models.  To many people's credit, they are willing to spend more to do the "right" thing.

So what could be bad about this?

Well, most states fund their highway construction and maintenance through taxes on gasoline.  As consumption drops, so does the revenue needed to fix old roads and build new ones. High mileage vehicles, particularly hybrids and all-electrics, use less gasoline but contribute as much wear and tear on highways as other vehicles. In a recent USA Today article, Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton says of hybrid and electric vehicles: "The good news is they use less gas. The bad news is they have the same impact as a regular gasoline-powered car, yet provide little or no money for highway maintenance."

A number of states, including Virginia, are coping with this by assessing a yearly fee on hybrids and all-electrics.  In February, Washington joined Virginia and imposed a $100 registration fee for all-electric cars.  Similar legislation is pending in Texas, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Arizona.

It can be argued that this approach really isn't fair, because it seems to discourage "green" behavior, and the mileage gap between hybrids and regular cars has become smaller.  Regardless, states have to come up with some way of  funding highways, perhaps by moving to a usage tax that would apply equally to all vehicles -- you pay according to how many miles you drive, not how much gasoline you use.  Note that going to such a system would remove some of the incentive to own a high-mileage car unless the cost of fuel stays high.  Of course, the ultimate solution may be to reduce the reliance on automobiles altogether. Good luck with that in the USA.

Garbage is Good

Norway is one of the world's top ten exporters of oil and gas. It has abundant reserves of coal.  One thing it doesn't have though, is enough garbage.

Norway is like most northern European countries that are extremely serious about recycling and waste reduction and so the amount of garbage has fallen dramatically in recent years. This is definitely a good thing, right?  Less material going to landfills, reduced need for raw materials, less negative impact on the environment, etc., etc.  Also, these countries have highly developed methods of reducing their dependence on fossil fuels by burning garbage to produce energy -- definitely another good thing.  For example, in Oslo about half the city and most of the schools are heated with energy from garbage (NYT, 4/30/13).

However, all this green behavior has resulted in a shortage of garbage for energy production.  According to a recent NYT article, northern Europeans generate only about 150 million tons of garbage per year, but the incinerating plants can handle more than 700 million tons.

The solution?  Import garbage.  Norway and other garbage-burning countries are shipping garbage from those with abundant supplies.  Sometimes this is a win-win situation.  For example, Naples paid towns in Germany and the Netherlands to accept garbage, helping to defuse a Neapolitan garbage crisis (NYT, 4/30/13.  However, note the problem here.  In the long run this may lower the incentive to reduce garbage production because communities can (a) turn it into energy or (b) sell it or give it to those who do.

The late author Michael Crichton was very fond of exploring the unintended and often very negative consequences of well-intentioned human behavior.  Usually these bad consequences occurred despite careful planning and analysis -- think Jurassic Park or The Andromeda Strain.  Crichton was very good at portraying humans as stunningly and fatally flawed yet arrogantly confident in their planning and in their assessment of the probability of bad things happening from doing good. 

The lesson here is certainly not that we shouldn't try to do the right thing as we understand it, given the facts we have at hand.  Maybe, though we should be a little more humble in touting our "good" deeds as not having a downside.


Coleen Hanna said...

I liked this post. It was fun to read and think about. My example is personal. I brought no children into the world. That's good for reasons already stated by Zero Population Growth. But it's also bad--if everyone did it there would be no continuation of the human race.

Richard Sherman said...

On a larger scale, China is experiencing the consequences of not having children. Their 1-child only policy has both saved the world from a tremendous drain on natural resources and also has allowed them to become the economic powerhouse that they are. However, it is now leading to a shortage of workers and to a disruption in the traditional extended family alternative to eldercare.