Breaking the Law of Unintended Consequences

No disease is incurable. No injury is too severe to be reversed. We simply lack the knowledge necessary to cure the disease or heal the injury. I believe humans have the capacity to cure—and even to eliminate—every disease. I think we have the potential to repair even the most severe damage to the body and the mind. But we have yet to muster the wherewithal to overcome our lack of knowledge. If we were collectively to decide that absolutely nothing deserved our resources and our sheer will more than curing disease, that objective would consume every resource and every ounce of energy until the objective had been met. We would ignore political battles, space exploration, imperialistic adventures, the “war on poverty,” and securing our borders against imaginary invasions. We would do whatever we had to do cure disease. Or heal injury. Or whatever else we decided to do. Hell, we probably could overcome the limitations of physics if we decided to find a way to travel faster than the speed of light.

But we have never had the blind will to abandon everything else in favor of an enormous, impossible, unreachable goal. Except when we have done almost exactly that. Perhaps the Manhattan Project did not pull out ALL the stops, but it illustrates the sort of accomplishment we are capable of reaching when we devote enough resources. Roughly $2 billion ($23 billion in 2020 dollars) was invested in the Manhattan Project, according to research and investigative calculations performed by Louis Johnston and Samuel Williamson. More than 130,000 people were involved in the project, which led to the development of two types of atomic bombs, among various other outcomes.

Perhaps we have been unwilling to spend invest our human and financial resources so heavily since then (except, perhaps, for ongoing military and space exploration expenditures) because of the outcome of the Manhattan Project. Up to 215,000 people were estimated to have died as a direct result of the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The Manhattan Project may have led to the end of World War II, but it also ushered in an era in which the potential annihilation of the human race is ever-present. Maybe we are afraid of unleashing the potential for cataclysmic unintended consequences if we were to embark on an even more ambitious undertaking.

My confidence in humankind’s capabilities has skyrocketed and then shriveled dozens of times in my lifetime. About nine years ago, the Manhattan Project factored heavily into a post on this blog (a post entitled Singular Solutions), in which I expressed a desire to see the creation of what I called a “Global Solutions Initiative,” which would identify and then tackle the twenty most pressing matters facing humankind. I suggested pulling out all the stops to accomplish the objectives the initiative would develop.  I ended that post with two sentences that still represent my feelings about humankind’s capabilities: “I do have faith in science and technology.  I am not sure how much faith I have in humankind to take appropriate advantage of them, though, without mucking up the world in the process.

In the presence of your Satguru, knowledge flourishes; sorrow diminishes; without any reason joy wells up; lack diminishes, abundance dawns and all talents manifest.

~ Sri Sri Ravi Shankar ~

If only the magical thinking that leads to such confidence in goodness were based on reliable experiences and realistic expectations. But we constantly turn to “hope,” in the fervent desire that “hope” will lead to a better future. Baseless hope, though, is a more tolerable experience than the certainty of skepticism.


If I can sustain my stamina and my energy today, I will do more painting. And cleaning. And dreaming about what might be. And I’ll daydream about riding around soon in a friend’s newly purchased dually pickup, which is outfitted to pull a fifth wheel trailer. The idea of driving a huge diesel-powered truck pulling a huge home on wheels is frightening to me, a little like driving a semi rig after a lifetime of driving nothing larger than a Smart car. Better to paint than to imagine that sort of experience!


Time to launch into the day.



About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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