The sociologist Robert K. Merton coined the phrase “unintended consequences” describing outcomes not foreseen when an action in undertaken.  Actions intended to mitigate or improve a situation sometimes can cause one of three unintended consequences: beneficial unintended consequences,  drawbacks, or even perverse results.  A perverse result actually causes the problem to deepen or become worse. The law of unintended consequences is an outgrowth of Merton’s work.  This pithy bit of common wisdom warns against intervention in a complex social system when the actor does not completely understand the consequences of the action he is advocating, or has not taken the time to study the impact of the potential outcomes on society.

We are all familiar with the sustainability and green movements in the American economy.  Sustainability attempts to avoid depletion of natural resources by business.  For example,  where possible businesses should use bamboo as flooring instead of other environmentally hazardous material.  Another example of sustainability is using solar or wind power to provide energy instead of a depleting natural resource, petroleum. “Green” products are those reducing the environmental impact compared to other similar products.

Sustainability and green product impact are issues each and every business must take into account.  These can be controversial subjects,  especially when the potential trade-off between profits and environmental impact is concerned.  In this article, I want to explore an example of the law of unintended consequences resulting from good intentions.

Cities and companies are beginning to ban the use of straws.  Starbucks says its stores will be “strawless” by 2020.  Straws  cause  pollution.  Just take a stroll down the beach someday and see the how many  straws you will find washed up on the beach.  Banning straws helps make the planet “green.” They are  just a small portion of the total pollution mankind produces, but this pollution seems preventable. We can learn to live without straws, right?  It is a laudable social goal businesses and cities are trying to accomplish Not using straws seems like a win-win situation for everyone.  Or, is it?

The law of unintended consequences strikes again.  One group vehemently opposes the ban on straws:  the disabled community.  It turns out straws are a major improvement in the life of many disabled who can’t pick up a cup.  Using straws has become a major improvement in their lives.  One commentator on  disability issues has even suggested the lack of straws will cause many deaths in the disabled community.  Another activist has claimed there is already a genocide against the disabled being perpetuated by American society.  In her view, this is just another example of that.  This is the straw that will  literally and figuratively break the camels back.  These commentators say banning straws is an example of the worst form of utilitarianism.  The good of the many outweighs the good of the few, to paraphrase a famous science fiction utilitarian.

What is to be done?  A true believer in capitalism will say the market will solve this problem with an innovation.  Will it though?  Capitalism may not work so well when the welfare of small groups are involved.  Look at orphan drugs as an example.  The government has needed to subsidize orphan drug production.  Perhaps the  disabled should be required to bring their own straws to the restaurant?  Aside from putting the burden on the disabled, it is going to be politically difficult for a legislator to vote something like that into effect.

A Chinese activist, Chen Guangcheng, stated how a society treats its disabled is a true measure of its civilization.  While there may be no right or wrong solution to this conflicting moral dilemma, I have to come down on the side of the disabled. I suppose I am more of a Kantian when it comes to the disabled.  Yes,  keeping our planet green is a wonderful goal.  However, agreeing to even slightly jeopardize someone who already has to struggle through daily life does not seem to be something I personally want to sign on with.

Update:  The Sustainability Accounting Standards Board announced a project to prepare reporting standards for the use of plastics by companies in its products and manufacturing process.  Will it include the impact on the disabled?  We will have to wait and see….

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