A World Where the Consequences Are Better With Us

In his 2007 book entitled The World Without Us, Alan Weisman plays out the scenario of Earth should humans suddenly disappear. It’s a great premise for exploring human impact from our very beginning as a species. It’s also a great cautionary tale about how important it is to pay attention to unintended consequences in all our decisions.

In a very straightforward style, Weisman recounts a human history of decisions that later get us into trouble. So many big animals became extinct because they were easiest to track. Plastics were breakthrough products and now the residue is breaking down our landfills and oceans. Animal and human waste increased agricultural production and now this practice has concentrated toxic chemicals in the soil and food chain. And in a perfectly ironic example of unintended consequences, the DMZ between North and South Korea provides safe habitat to the almost extinct red-crowned cranes. If the countries are peacefully reunited, this no-man’s land will become the next frontier for developers.

We do it all the time--make a decision that looks good for its time and purpose only to discover later that we failed to anticipate any downside of a very compelling opportunity. Systems thinking is a lot harder to do than its proponents want to admit.

At least for the environment, we typically do have processes that force us to look at the consequences of a change. These environmental impact processes work best when they follow the precautionary principle. This principle requires those taking an action to prove even in the face of uncertain science that no harm will be done to the public or the environment.

In our other decision making processes, we need something comparable to keep us from overlooking potential harm to the stakeholders who may not be present when we evaluate a major change. When companies reorganize, quite often they move with strategic speed and too little compassion for the changes they are unleashing in the lives of their employees. When governments set new policies and priorities, they may do a great service for one constituency while inadvertently harming another. This is especially true when resources are limited and the needs are great.

No leader or group of leaders can think of everything. That’s why we need open processes like public hearings, stakeholder summits, town hall meetings and free speech for special interest groups and unions to give us a 360-degree, decades-long view of the impact of our decisions. Then, just maybe, we have a shot at writing a human history where the world is better with us than without us.