Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Law of Unintended Consequences Revisited

I heard a news story the other day that somewhat surprised me, though I've reached an age at which nothing should surprise me when it involved government. Nevertheless it did take me back a step as it once more illustrated one of my favorite laws, the law of unintended consequences.

For those not familiar with it, the encyclopedia defines it like this:

“The Law of unintended consequences holds that almost all human actions have at least one unintended consequence. Unintended consequences are a common phenomenon, due to the complexity of the world and human over-confidence.”

Exanples of this law in action are legion, especially in situations where modifying behavior is attempted. Prohibition is one well-known example. Small-time suppliers of booze were put out of business, but the demand was such that organized crime (gangsters) owned the market.

Charlie Wilson's War illustrates another example. We armed the Mujaheddin to help them fight the Russians, but in the end the weapons we supplied them with were later used for other purposes, not to our liking. The same happened in Latin America when we armed General Noriega. And at one time we chose to supply Saddam Hussein in Iraq to fight Iran whom we decided were bad guys.

Well, the news story that captured my attention this past week had to do with wind farms. By wind farm we mean large collections of giant wind turbines designed to generate power by means of the wind. The idea of clean, renewable energy is a wonderful concept that does seem to have benefits, but I've long noticed a some issues with it, three in particular.

1) Location, location, location
The first issue with wind farms is that the best locations are often on bodies of water where sea meets land and (aha!) there is a lot of wind. The problem is, most waterfronts have become populated because not only does wind like the waterfront, people like it, too, and build homes there. Wealthy people especially like the view a waterfront affords. Putting wind farms here will very possibly decrease their property values. (I am guessing based on an article I read in Harper's long ago about the importance of a view in the Catskills for a certain rich and famous newscaster.

2) Not in my back yard
Similar to the first but different. Currently we have power lines criss-crossing the landscape in every part of the country. We have a gazillion electrical appliances and devices and certainly need the power. But if we want our electricity delivered by wind power, we'll need to add still more electical power lines, because the locations where wind is most powerful are different from the locations of our current power generators.

3) It's not for the birds
Finally, and this one leads into the story i wanted to share, wind farms are not really very friendly to birds. Hundreds of thousands are being killed annually as they fly into those big propellers.

For years the push has been on for renewable energy, much of it subsidized by our taxes, and most with good intentions. Our government has also spent years going to great lengths to protect endangered species. And when the two collide -- wind energy industry and endangered species -- the government has to make a decision as to what's really important.

Last week a decision was, in fact, made. The government fined Duke Energy Corporation one million dollars for killing 14 eagles and 149 other birds at one of its Wyoming wind farms. The company said they "deeply regret" having killed the eagles.

In a study of turbines used since 2008, there have been 67 bald eagles killed. According to the news story cited here, no company has ever been fined for killing birds. Until now.

It will be interesting to see where we go from here.

For more numerous other examples of Unintended Consequences visit Google Answers.

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