Ethanol: a study of unintended consequences
As recently as two years ago, ethanol was considered by many to be the solution for this country’s reliance on imported oil. Ethanol can be produced domestically, and it costs no more to make a car that runs on ethanol than it does to make a car that runs on gasoline. Following Brazil’s example with sugar cane, farmers began converting their corn crops into ethanol for use in automobiles.
Like this 2006 story from 60 Minutes, not many people were considering some of the downstream effects of using food crops for other purposes. The Earth Policy Institute provides a good example how ethanol has been a victim of the “law of unintended consequences” through two of its articles, separated only by time and events. In 2005, the institute praised efforts to promote ethanol.
Agricultural residues, such as corn stalks, wheat straw, and rice stalks, are normally left on the field, plowed under, or burned. Collecting just a third of these for biofuel production would allow farmers to reap a sort of second harvest, increasing farm income while leaving enough organic matter to maintain soil health and prevent erosion. The agricultural residues that could be harvested sustainably in the United States today, for example, could yield 14.5 billion gallons of ethanol — four times the current output — with no additional land demands.
The organization does not hold this opinion today. Earlier this year, the Earth Policy Institute called ethanol production “the beginning of one of the great tragedies of history.” This opinion is fostered by the unintended consequence of the popularity of and demand for ethanol. The prices of food worldwide are sharply increasing.
From 1990 to 2005, world grain consumption, driven largely by population growth and rising consumption of grain-based animal products, climbed by an average of 21 million tons per year. Then came the explosion in demand for grain used in U.S. ethanol distilleries, which jumped from 54 million tons in 2006 to 81 million tons in 2007. This 27 million ton jump more than doubled the annual growth in world demand for grain. If 80 percent of the 62 distilleries now under construction are completed by late 2008, grain used to produce fuel for cars will climb to 114 million tons, or 28 percent of the projected 2008 U.S. grain harvest.
Moving father down the chain of cause and effect, rising prices of food staples are “translating into social unrest.” Across the world, protests and demonstrations are increasing. While originally studying Brazil’s success with ethanol, these consequences were not anticipated.
Unintended consequences in your life
On a more personal level, the law of unintended consequences is present. Often, unintended consequences arise as a result of ignorance, error, or immediate gratification. Using credit to fund purchases beyond the level of affordability can have unintended consequences, fueled by ignorance. In this case, the consequence can be a lifetime of debt. Certainly this was not the predicted outcome when signing up for the first credit card offer. Immediate gratification can result in unintended consequences when dealing with credit as well.
The decision not to fund an emergency plan can have unintended consequences. Without the obligation to create an emergency fund, you have more cash available for spending — even if all you spend money on are necessities. But all other things being equal, it’s easier to divert $10 a week to a high-yield savings account now than it will be do scrounge several thousand dollars for vehicle repair, a hospital bill, or emergency house maintenance later, if you don’t have a buffer.
Here’s another example. Let’s say you have two job offers. One offer includes a $100,000 annual salary, long hours, responsibility, and growth prospects. The other offer is a $60,000 annual salary and a more manageable work-load, and a more enjoyable and emotionally fulfilling career. Many people will take the $100,000 salary, no questions asked, and “learn to deal” with the feeling.
There could be unintended consequences to this decision. Yes, you may move up the corporate ladder faster, but perhaps the stress will take a toll on your health. The high-powered career and resulting stress may knock a decade off your life span, providing you with ten years less to enjoy with your family. The desire for more money, more recognition, even more freedom, satisfies immediate gratification, one of the causes of unintended consequences.
What can you do to prevent unintended consequences?
Not all unintended consequences can be avoided. Many smart economists never expected the increased demand of ethanol to cause a deathly stampede in Chongqing, China.
No matter how much you go over a decision, considering its effects, it’s unlikely you’ll think of everything. It might help to staying away from instant gratification and short-term satisfaction that conflicts with long-term growth. Educate yourself about your situation so you can make your decisions as complete as possible.
Taking the example of the first credit card with the consequences of years of debt, when signing up for the card. you might have known you’d be in debt. The knowledge may have only been on a superficial level. The number of years it may take to pay back your debt at a particular interest rate and a particular monthly payment is a piece of information that will help you understand your decision on a deeper level. It may be this deeper knowledge that prevents unintended consequences.
Updated June 23, 2014 and originally published April 17, 2008.