On Development and Unintended Consequences
The year is 1947. The place is the Barrens of northern Canada, a half-day plane trip from the end of the railroad track. Two children, five and ten years old, are found in an igloo next to the frozen body of their mother. Their village is deserted—no other survivors are found. The disease, like many that ravaged indigenous societies, was brought to them by the white man. This disease manifested itself as eventual starvation, suicide, or madness to face death by exposure in a desperate attempt to flee the infested village in the heart of winter. It began innocuously, benignly, even beneficially, but then mutated, spread, destroyed. Some call it Progress. Others call it Development. I call it a warning.
For untold centuries, the Inuit had inhabited the area. To say that they had thrived may be an overstatement, but in their frozen wilderness they had survived as a people longer than most countries or kingdoms. They lived the nomadic life of hunters, heavily dependent on their wits and the caribou. They had learned to make oil lamps that burned deer fat, bows from their antlers, clothes from their hide, and most of all, food from their meat. They were the Inuit, or “Mankind” in their own language. To the Cree Indians, they were the Eskimo, the eaters of raw meat. Those who value sustainability and stability call their society marvelous. Those who value change in the name of progress call that same society stagnant. Good, bad, or indifferent, this was their life, perhaps as early as the first Asian who crossed the Bering Strait.
Then, Development happened. In the late 1800’s, a fur trading company reached the area. A single outpost, a thousand miles from nowhere, reached its fingers a few hundred miles further. The Inuit no longer had to depend on the caribou for sustenance—the fur of the arctic fox could provide income. They no longer had to hunt with bow and arrow—the fox hide could be traded for rifles and ammunition. Their subsistence economy changed to a market economy. Their industry of hunting caribou turned to one of trapping fox. Their time was spent not in survival, but in gathering wealth that could be measured in bullets or sea shells, as they saw fit.
The fox hide market took a downward turn. The fur trading company closed up shop. The proprietor of the outpost went into business for himself—a single man controlling the entire fur market for over a thousand square miles. He did well for himself, as capitalists with monopolies tend to. Unburdened by competition, he exploited the Inuit and gave little in return for their furs. The Inuit response was to spend more time trapping, and less time hunting and preparing for survival. The trader moved on, leaving his sons to run the outpost. They ran the business more fairly than their father, but Development continued. The society now made their living almost exclusively by trapping fox, and had lost the knowledge of generations, the knowledge of subsistence.
True, the Inuit tribe knew how to survive day-by-day. However, the resilience of a society, a people, or even a species is shown not in day-to-day life, but in the extreme circumstances. Those extreme circumstances came in the winter of 1947. The caribou left the region early that winter. Hunters preoccupied with their trap lines had failed to set up adequate stores of food or oil.
Hunger, then starvation came. Blankets and clothing made of animal hide were boiled for sustenance until no fuel remained. Those that could, left, choosing a precarious fate in the frozen tundra over certain starvation. Those left behind butchered their dogs and ate them raw, an act which sentenced them to death—the death of a nomadic people deprived of mobility. The old chose their time to go, walking naked into the frozen night, leaving the meager scraps for the younger generation. The ancient law of the land, that the hunter must be fed first, was broken so that the children may survive.
News of their plight reached Canadian officials by relayed Morse code. The official reaction was typical of the well-meaning-but-uninformed. They sent assistance without understanding. Sacks of dried white beans were shipped and cached some 200 miles from those in need. Two hundred miles, or a million miles, it did not matter. The starving had neither the strength nor the dogs to pull their sleds to the food.
In the end, two children survived. Records from the debt log of the fur trading company indicate that there were just under 50 hunters; presumably a society of 50 families, at the turn of the century. Left to their own devices, the society had survived a few millennia, and would likely have survived a few millennia more. In the presence of uncontrolled, uninformed, or uncaring development, they disappeared in half a century. The only names preserved are in a handwritten ledger alongside the total of their debt to the fur trade, a fact which speaks volumes.
This story was told to Farley Mowat in 1947 at Nueltin Lake by the son of the fur trader, and new parent to the children Kunee and Anoteelik . The original account can be found in Mowat’s book “The People of the Deer.” Like all his books, it comes highly recommended, and should be required reading for anyone in the world of Development. It serves as a warning to those of us in Economic Development, a warning to look for the future unintended consequences of our actions, a warning to ask the question, “At what cost?”
We are in the world of Development. The problem with the Law of Unintended Consequences is that you didn’t see them coming. Some days, I’d consider our work successful if we’re never heard of, if our name isn’t the developmental equivalent of Three Mile Island or the Tacoma Narrows bridge.
Do we want the donation of 90 day corn seeds that promises to increase food yield? No, thank you. I refuse that donation every year. The donor is aghast. These corn seeds are an improvement—they represent newer technology and more food for the masses. Maybe. But what are the unintended consequences? Will the corn blow down when there is a hurricane on the coast? Can the stalks be used to build houses like our unimproved variety? Are they strong enough to support the pole beans that will be planted at their base—the beans that provide protein for families and nitrogen for next-year’s corn? Are the proving grounds of Illinois an accurate representation of Guatemala? Does our corn have a resistance to tropical diseases that weren’t studied by Monsanto? Perhaps the question is more accurately phrased as “How many diseases not studied by Monsanto does our corn resist?” Are the seeds fertile or sterile hybrids? If they are sterile, how do we plant next year? If the seeds are fertile, when will Monsanto sue us for collecting and planting them? Most difficult of all, “Am I intelligent enough and informed enough to even ask the right question?” Perhaps that’s the easiest question—it’s the only one I know the answer to. The Law of Unintended Consequences tells me I’m not.
The problems become more theoretical. What is the value of a corn field compared to a forest? What discount factor do I apply to the future value of the forest when I choose to cut it down and plant corn? Is our goal to maximize food production, to maximize quantity of life, or maximize quality of life? Do we have the right to decide this question? Which is a greater sin; to allow a child to starve, or to cause future starvation by short-term development under the banner of feeding the children? If I am fully cognizant of population dynamics, and understand that increased food production leads to population growth, which implicitly means a de facto decrease in quality of life for the next generation, can I in good conscience increase food yield? The answers to those questions will yield Master’s theses in Agronomy, Economics, Philosophy, Ethics, and Mathematics. The danger isn’t in the difficulty of these questions, but in how seldom they are asked.
I enable folks to plant coffee. I’ve seen corn fields turn to coffee fields. Production of food gives way to the production of cash with which to buy food. I can answer my questions theoretically. The future value of the corn field is low, and the future value of the coffee field is high. We are minimizing (local) food production to maximize (local) quality of life by putting more food on kitchen table, though it wasn’t grown here. No one starves. We’re have secured the moral and economic high ground. If the current market economy will be the future means of distributing wealth, then the farmer will be in an increasingly strengthened position to provide for his family. Do I make the mistake of measuring that strength today, a relatively average point in time? That strength is really best measured in the extreme, when coffee has completely supplanted corn, the local coffee harvest has failed but the world market is glutted. And to make matters worse, all the corn farmers have supplanted coffee so the supply of corn is non-existent. In that scenario, we might not fare so well, but a scenario like that is beyond imagination.
The following conversation is also beyond imagination. The 49th Inuit hunter says to the 50th Inuit hunter, “Why not give up on the caribou? There’s more money to be had in fox pelts. Besides, there will be plenty of time for hunting caribou later. And even if we don’t have a chance to hunt caribou, someone else will. We’ll be able to buy meat from our neighbors with all the sea shells we’ll earn from the fox pelts.”
In Development, we measure success in seashells and fox pelts, coffee beans and dollar bills. I can’t shake this nagging feeling that we’re using the wrong units. I don’t know the right answer. My fear is that I don’t know the right question.