Most economic, technological, and political decisions routinely ignore major negative impacts. They often “externalize” social and environmental costs on disadvantaged people, taxpayers, ecosystems and future generations. So when determining policy, developing technology or establishing prices, take due account of downsides as well as upsides, both proven and potential.
Related: 4 Big Empathy, 7 Checks on Extreme Inequality, 10 Commons, 17 Deep Time Stewardship, 27 Full Spectrum Information, 34 Life-Enhancing Enoughness, 40 Nature First
Going deeper …
This is an edited version of the video on this page.
I should note right up front that “cost” and “accounting” are words biased towards numerical financial forms, but that they also cover things that have non-financial costs and that need to be “accounted for”.
In our working definition for wisdom in the public domain we seek to take into account what needs to be taken into account for long-term broad benefit. In full-cost accounting we try to do that, too, looking at both the benefits and costs of any product, service, policy, program, etc. Sometimes we have to translate essentially non-monetary and even non-quantitative phenomena into quantitative financial terms so that money-oriented minds can take them into account.
But an important part of this is to look at the downsides of such things. The idea that you would just look at the upsides of things means that you are not taking into account what needs to be taken into account. There are going to be downsides in practically anything that are going to mess with the benefits you see in your policy or in your economic decisions.
I see this a lot in technology and technological development. Promoters say a particular biotech or nanotech innovation is going to increase the crops, or it is going to solve some medical problem, and they don’t take into account what happens if this thing, for example, gets loose in the environment or is used for some destructive purpose.
I ran across an article recently about a bacteria genetically engineered to eat up the plastic in garbage dumps, and this is going to solve a lot of our dump problems because all these plastics are going to get eaten up. I found myself wondering what if that bacteria gets loose, and suddenly all the plastics that we have and use every day are getting eaten up by this bacteria. There’s no discussion of that – not even a mention of it – in the mainstream article in TIME magazine, which just applauds how this is a really brilliant ecological innovation. This kind of one-sided hype is endemic to so many dimensions of technology development.