My mother, commenting on the unintended consequences of various ill-fated or shortsighted actions, has often remarked, “Well, you can’t do just one thing.”
You go to make bread, in my mom’s case, and you first have to deal with the fact that some mice have taken up residency in your pantry. In dealing with the mice, you are obligated to take everything off the shelves and vacuum. In vacuuming, you accidentally knock over a vase. In cleaning up the vase, you wind up cutting yourself. In bandaging the cut, you drip blood on your blouse. All you wanted to do was make some bread, and you end up with chaos and carnage.
OK, it’s not always that bad. But it does seem that, often, when we set out to accomplish one priority or solve one problem, we unwittingly find ourselves dealing with all kinds of additional steps, side-effects or disasters that come about as the result of our original effort.
And, sometimes, those disasters are far worse than we might have imagined.
The BP Oil Spill brings all kinds of particularly sad and maddening examples to mind. You go to collect some oil from beneath the ocean, and end up creating the worst environmental catastrophe in the earth’s history, simultaneously crippling the economy of an entire region. You try to make things better with “dispersants” and “top kills” and end up inadvertently creating a whole variety of new problems.
Foresight is not a great human strength, and the lack of it is most certainly a common corporate weakness — particularly when it comes to natural systems, which are complex indeed.
Yesterday, with the oil still gushing in the Gulf, I was listening to an oil-expert fellow from North Dakota talk on the radio about how the now-evident danger of offshore drilling makes onshore drilling in areas like the Bakken shale field look very easy and appealing by comparison.
You just drill down a couple of miles, and over a couple of miles, then stick a straw in the ground, pump in a bunch of high-pressure water, bust all that formerly solid shale to pieces (it’s not serving any real purpose, right?) and — voilà! — the oil drops down to where we can suck it out, he explained.
No problem! Easy peasy. Nothing to be concerned about. Except what you might reasonably expect to encounter with drilling into the earth, pumping high-pressure water where it doesn’t belong, breaking up a rocky infrastructure that’s been there since the dawn of time, and causing oil to go where it has not apparently been inclined to go until now.
Plus, of course, the vast array of things you might not reasonably expect at all.
I dunno. I’m not an expert at this stuff. But I think my mom is right about the fact that, generally speaking, “You can’t do just one thing.”
I also think John Muir was right when he said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
So let us all be careful about what we seize, and gentle in
what we do. Let us act thoughtfully — with gratitude for what we receive, with
caution about all we can’t possibly predict, and with humility about what we
don’t yet understand.
PS: The image above was featured in Last Word from April 2005 and includes the John Muir quote that I mentioned. If you’re interested, you can download the PDF here.