How Unintended Consequences Rule Our Everyday Lives

What do rabbits in Australia, digital communications and financial independence have in common? The answer: they all provide examples of unintended consequences.

The year: 1859. The place: Victoria, Australia. An excited English gentleman by the name of Thomas Austin has just received a special cargo: 24 wild rabbits from Europe. At last, he’ll be able to devote his weekends to his lifelong passion of rabbit hunting.

He releases the rabbits in his grounds at Barwon Park, intending to give a few breeding pairs to friends and establish small rabbit colonies for hunting. A decade later, he could scarcely have imagined the consequences.

The conditions, you see, were ideal for breeding. Flat areas of ground vegetation, the milder Australian climate and the absence of natural predators meant the rabbits could breed all year round. And as the population of rabbits grew exponentially, the damage was telling.

First, the ecological damage became apparent. The rabbits feasted on native plants, rapidly leaving behind barren land and moving across the flat Australian landscape to more fertile spots to continue their relentless reproduction. The depletion of natural vegetation led to soil erosion and devalued agricultural land. Decreased vegetation also increased competition among native animals for their primary food source.

Then there was the economic cost. Through depleted pastures, rabbits wreaked economic havoc on Australian wool production. To begin to address the crisis, the Australian government offered a bounty for every rabbit killed. They swiftly withdrew this offer when they realised that millions of bounties could bankrupt the state – and would barely keep pace with rabbit reproduction.

Don’t be fooled by appearances!

In 1901, the government ordered the construction of a rabbit-proof fence, stretching from the North to the South of Australia. The idea was that it would protect Western pastures from Eastern rabbits. When it was completed in 1907, it stretched 2,023 miles – about 8% of the circumference of the planet. A Chief Inspector, along with four sub-inspectors, was hired to patrol the fence and look for holes through which rabbits could make their way West.

But it was too late. Thomas Austin’s original 24 rabbits had bred with other rabbits, devouring vegetation and moving efficiently through land which seemed tailor-made for them. According to records, by 1926, a population of 10 billion rabbits infested Australia. Since their introduction, one-eighth of all mammalian species became extinct.

What Are Unintended Consequences?

Unintended consequences are outcomes of a deliberate action which are not intended or foreseen.

In other words, Thomas Austin simply wanted to hunt a few rabbits on his grounds. He had no idea that the Australian climate was tailor-made for exponential reproduction at the expense of farmers, biodiversity and the wider economy. And he had no idea that 24 rabbits would lead to the construction of a fence that spanned the equivalent of 8% of the circumference of the planet.

As it happens, the population of rabbits reduced significantly in the 1950s via the introduction of the myxoma virus, but a large percentage have now developed resistance to this virus. Nonetheless, the story of the Australian rabbit population illustrates an important point. Decisions driven by a desire for one outcome can lead to completely unexpected additional outcomes – and these consequences clearly aren’t always positive.

The Unintended Consequences in Everyday Life

In fact, the rabbits in Australia are just the tip of the iceberg. When we look around at our everyday lives, unintended consequences are everywhere.

Take the digital communications revolution. When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007, his speech focused on the user interface. A larger screen, touch technology, and that famous home button were the central themes. There was no mention of the notification badges and social media feedback loops that would come to dominate our time and attention over the next decade and more.

Why not? Because he could scarcely have imagined that billions of people would prefer the addictive social pull of a mobile communications device over the social pull of a friend sitting directly opposite. He could scarcely have imagined that those born after 1995 (the “iGen”) would be much more likely to experience mental health problems than their millennial predecessors.

Or take consumerism across the developed world. In the first half of the 20th century, the developed world (and particularly the US) resolved to solve the problem of overproduction by stimulating more consumption. This was achieved through a much greater emphasis on advertising, through changing production from ‘built to last’ to ‘built to break’, but in large part through the emergence of consumer credit (buy now, pay later).

These were, of course, conscious and deliberate actions by the key players at the time. But mass consumerism had unintended consequences down the road. Tools like consumer credit accelerated conspicuous consumption (buying stuff to display our economic power) and our relentless consumption increased environmental pressures. What’s more, as James Wallman persuasively argues in Stuffocation (UK, US), our accumulation of stuff we don’t need is now even impacting our health.

The Unintended Consequences of Financial Independence?

There are countless examples of mass socio-economic and technological changes that have brought about unintended consequences over millennia. That will always be the case. But it’s interesting to consider the idea of unintended consequences at the individual level. Given it’s one of the core subjects of this blog, the financial independence movement is a good place to begin.

Those pursuing FIRE (Financial Independence, Early Retirement) have a clear intention. First, they want to accumulate enough wealth to provide passive income to cover all living expenses (many see 25x living expenses as the magic number here). Second, once they’ve achieved the ‘FI’, they want to enjoy the fruits of their labour in early retirement. The latter is often where the problems start.

Countless early retirees have professed to being totally miserable. Having worked relentlessly to get there, something is missing when they arrive.

My observation is that this follows a conventional pattern. There is a honeymoon period, where they enjoy leaving work behind, travelling and adopting some new leisure activities. Then there is a reflection period, and this is where things get difficult. There is a loss of purpose and a longing for the camaraderie that the work environment brought with it. There’s often even a need to re-establish the routine that drove their pursuit of early retirement in the first place.

Being a miserable early retiree isn’t part of the script; it’s an unintended consequence. The question, then, is how we can make use of this concept to anticipate, accept or respond.

What Can We Do About It?

As I’ve reflected on the idea of unintended consequences, I’ve drawn three important lessons from the concept.

ANTICIPATE: Widen your thinking

Unintended consequences, by definition, are unforeseen. At an individual level, that means anticipation and broad thinking can help us reduce their number. I chose the case of the miserable early retiree above with good reason. Because while it’s often unforeseen by the individual, it’s actually highly foreseeable.

If we broaden our focus, we can anticipate and take pre-emptive action. For early retirees, that might mean establishing a well-planned transition from work to retirement, ameliorating the emotional cliff edge.

ACCEPT: Recognise what you can and can’t control

On the other hand, often the answer to the question I put – what can we do about it? – is plain and simple: absolutely nothing.

We must recognise what we can and can’t control and get on with our lives. We cannot and will not change every future unintended consequence into a predicted consequence. Unintended consequences will always to some extent rule our everyday lives. That’s why we must simply focus on what we can control.

RESPOND: Understand and respond to everyday unintended consequences

As we observe the unintended consequences that rule our everyday lives, there is an important overarching lesson. Recognising unintended consequences helps us to identify the original intention. This can guide our response.

For example, recognising the adverse impact of excessive smartphone usage helps us to consider their original value: supporting our communications and productivity, not hijacking our time, attention and social lives. We can use this as impetus to respond, changing our smartphone habits to better bring us the original value.

You get the idea. Simply heightening our observations around unintended consequences can help us recalibrate our day-to-day habits.

Summary

  • Unintended consequences are outcomes of a deliberate action which are not intended or foreseen.
  • They are an inexorable part of everyday life, with countless examples making up our day-to-day norms.
  • Some can be anticipated through wider thinking, many must be accepted as beyond our control, and some can be used as impetus for a change in our personal habits.

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