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The Unpredictable Harm of Good Intentions

  • While attending a conference whose theme was "How do we improve the lives of one billion people?", i started noticing that all the problems that we want to solve today are problems that we created yesterday. For example, pollution.
  • We created most of them with good intentions. For example, our goal was not to pollute the environment but to give people electricity, cars, TV sets, etc.
  • Whatever we are doing now with good intentions are we sure that we are not creating problems that one generation from now people will need to solve?
  • For example, one panelist proudly told the audience how her company is giving computers to Amazon tribes so they can connect to a website of satellite images and check deforestation in their area: doesn't that also allow the tribe's children to go online and become rapidly westernized, and therefore doesn't that speed up the process of wiping out the local culture, traditions and values? It may or may not help Amazon tribes stop deforestation, but it might increase the westernization of those tribes which in turn will make those tribes eager to adopt a Western lifestyle which in turn will make them eager to cut down their own forests and turn them into modern cities. That computer connected to the World-wide Web may stop the illegal logging but may also induce the local tribes to do the logging themselves.
  • This paradox of causing harm when we offer help seems to be an inherent feature of human civilization and progress. The side-effects of our actions are always unpredictable. When people began eating a more varied diet than the original hunter-gatherer's diet of roots, grains, berries, leaves and nuts, it was not obvious to foresee that the new diet would cause heart attacks, diabetes and strokes. When houses of concrete began replacing the primitive huts of Haiti it was not obvious to imagine that someday an earthquake would demolish those concrete houses and kill 200,000 people. When cars began to replace horses and allowed people and goods to travel much longer distances in much shorter times, it was not obvious to predict that exhaust fumes would cause deadly pollution and that oil would lead to wars.
  • It is always a lot easier to imagine the positive, desired consequences than the negative, unwanted consequences. A few generations later we set up research institutes and organize conferences to solve the problems that have been created by those unwanted consequences and that affect hundreds of millions of people.
  • Instead of "How do we improve the lives of one billion people?" wouldn't it more important to hold a conference on "How do we make sure we don't screw up the lives of one billion people"?
Proof-edited by Alexander Altaras