The Breakthrough Dialogue is one of the single most important things we do around here: we bring together our network, new friends, and critics, and talk about important environmental challenges facing our world today. This year, we're thinking about intended consequences.
The specter of unintended consequences is utilized promiscuously across the ideological spectrum. Conservatives and libertarians use it to caution against social engineering and economic interventions. Environmentalists offer the same cautions against interventions that would manipulate, engineer, or intervene in natural processes.
And yet, there is no less agency involved in deciding not to intervene as deciding to do so and, often, no less hubris either. Acts of omission can be every bit as consequential as acts of commission. And if there is hubris in imagining that the best laid plans will unfold exactly as anticipated, there is hubris too, in imagining that more study, deliberation, and regulation might avoid consequences that by definition, are unknown or highly uncertain.
Concerns about unintended consequences, too, are often proxy for concerns about who decides and who benefits. But ultimately someone must decide and there will almost always be winners and losers. Avoiding intervention because decision processes are imperfect or the distributional consequences are unknowable brings risk and consequence as well.
In the end, there are counterfactual problems all the way down. Every action, and every inaction, puts the world on at least a slightly different course than its alternative.
But we view the consequences of acts of commission differently than acts of omission. To act is to own the future as one we have chosen. Inaction and precaution allow us to absolve ourselves of a kind of responsibility.
In reality, unintended consequences are the exception, not the rule. Mostly, bridges don’t fall down and crops mostly don’t fail. For every iconic tale of things gone badly awry, there are countless cases where things go exactly as planned. Indeed, over the last century or so, better science, engineering, technology, and institutions have made the world a radically safer place for most people.
At this year’s Breakthrough Dialogue, we ask what it is that we fear when we fear unintended consequences and what it would mean to recognize that mostly, we get things mostly right. What do we mean by intent and consequences? How should we think about actions that turn out exactly as planned but appear to have been unwise and ill conceived in hindsight? How might we be better, and more honest, about interrogating our intentions rather than the unknowableness of the future? What can we learn from things that go right? From bad outcomes we successfully anticipated and avoided? From both the happy accidents and co-benefits that have come with taking responsibility for the future? How, ultimately, might we recognize the limits of our knowledge and foresight and still, in the end, decide to act?