Unintended consequences

Every time I visit a Third World country, I'm impressed by the resourcefulness of humans; how an ice-cream bucket will gain new life as a scoop for grain or rice bags become raincoats for hipster tourists' children.

I'm sure when those at Raleigh sat down to design their bicycle chains, they'd never have predicted the links being used as the feet in scrap-metal statues of the Predator in Vietnamese knick-knack stores.

Unintended uses for products abound: old beer cans are also fashioned into children's toys, colourful bottle tops are used in floor mosaics and car tyres are stacked to form retaining walls.

Closer to home, I bet the manufacturers of mannitol, an obscure diuretic, probably didn't foresee their product being embraced by drug dealers as a cutting agent for cocaine and heroin.

I've grown to love the "unintended" because it speaks to us of the fruitlessness, unpredictability and beauty of humanity's attempts to control our world.

Perhaps my favourite example is the moulded plastic side mirrors on cars and how they've inadvertently become one of the favourite habitats of spiders.

No matter what country you visit you can walk the streets and see filigrees of webs festooning mirrors, testament to the unintended arachnid-friendly-genius of car engineers.

Of course, the unintended can also be disastrous as illustrated by this country's history with the cane toad and rabbit - animals introduced with best intentions that have now become destructive pests.

Equally calamitous from a cultural perspective was our infamous 10BA 150 per cent tax break for film production in the 1980s. Designed to stimulate our movie industry it produced some of the greatest turkeys known to turkeydom.


But I'm being optimistic.

While it may be difficult to find positives in the furious stand-off between North and South Korea - the ironically named Demilitiarised Zone between the two countries (actually one of the most heavily militiarised locations on earth) has now become a flourishing refuge for increasing numbers of Asiatic black bear because humans can't get at them.

The sacking of Hindu temples by Muslim invaders led by Mahmud of Ghazni 1000 years ago was probably not a glorious event from the Indian people's perspective, but some monetary historians claim the immense amount of looted gold put into circulation kicked off one of the first global economic booms.

The 2004 Boxing Day tsunami devastated Aceh in Indonesia but it was also instrumental in ending the 29-year-old civil war between the Free Aceh separatist movement and the government, who signed a peace deal in 2005.

As we've lately discovered, Lance Armstrong's use of steroids and HGH during his career actually may have been the cause of his famous cancer but there's no denying this unintended affliction and his subsequent recovery inspired millions of sufferers they can also beat the disease.

The "Law of Unintended Consequences" is thus almost perfect in its inability to be anticipated; it is the leering face of chaos.

The 18th-century Scottish economist Adam Smith called it the "invisible hand" that guides the butcher, baker, and brewer to produce our dinner, not out of altruism but self-interest.

In that regard, it'll be interesting to see now how the US - still to ratify the Kyoto Protocol to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases - will react to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy last month.

Days after it tore through the north-east of the country, Bloomberg's Businessweek magazine bore the cover-line "It's Global Warming Stupid", leaving little doubt the publication believes it's in America's self-interest to start taking that issue seriously.

If not, I know where they can get some cheap raincoats.

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