The road to (environmental) hell is paved with good intentions

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Courtesy of Richard MacLean & Associates, LLC

As the proverb in the title suggests, well-intentioned efforts do not always guarantee desired outcomes. Two famous laws—one about unintended consequences and the other set down by Murphy—ensure that the landscape is littered with instances of good ideas gone awry.

This is as true in the environmental field as in any other area of endeavor. As we have learned in recent years, many efforts that seemed environmentally friendly when they were launched later turned out to be unmitigated disasters. In a few cases, they were eventually revealed not even to have been well intended in the first place.

This column reviews some notorious cases where “good intentions” have gone wrong. It also takes note of some current environmental practices about which skepticism is growing. My discussion explores common themes among these examples and highlights the underlying ethical issues. Finally, I offer some ideas (including a case study) suggesting what you can do to keep your organization from choosing practices that might ultimately become environmentally ruinous.

They Seemed Like Good Ideas at the Time Asbestos, chlorof luoroc a rbons (CFCs), and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) all share a common trait: Each was touted as a significantly safer alternative to older materials that were viewed as being more toxic and less efficient.

Other examples of “good ideas gone bad” abound. Adding lead compounds to gasoline and paint was once thought to produce a superior product. Now lead compounds are linked to mental retardation in children.

Many early efforts at controlling pollution seem naïve by today’s standards. “Sanitary” landfills were introduced as a better way to manage solid waste. Only later did we realize that leachate from these landfills was contributing to groundwater pollution.

We have a long history of “solving” one problem by unwittingly creating another—often with even worse long-term consequences. For example, kudzu, an Asian vine, was introduced as a way of preventing erosion in earthworks in the south-eastern part of the United States. It now grows unchecked and is considered an invasive pest.

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