Perspective: A Life Of Unintended Consequences

May 3, 2021

Reading the history of food and agriculture in Mark Bittman’s book, Animal, Vegetable, Junk.  I have been thinking about how events in history, given our hindsight, seem to have set in motion a domino effect of unintended consequences. How a choice which made sense at the time can later seem a tragic mistake.

Take the story of Fritz Haber, a German Jew born in 1868 and a friend of Albert Einstein. Haber was influenced by William Crookes, president of the British Association for Advancement of Science. Crookes’s seminal 1898 “Great Wheat Speech” forecasted massive starvation. He ended his speech with a call, “It is the chemist who must come to the rescue of the threatened communities.”

So, in 1909 Haber discovered the method to pull nitrogen from the air producing the basis for artificial fertilizer, what was called “bread from air.” But before it was used to produce fertilizer to increase wheat production, the method was sold to BASF of Germany and used for nitrogen based chemical weapons. And later had transformative harmful effects on agriculture all the way to today.

What stemmed from Haber’s process, led to the gas Nazis used in extermination camps, where several members of Haber’s own family were killed.

Not all unintended consequences end so tragically.  

But all of us will come to know the hindsight of tomorrow will reveal the blind-spots of today.

I’m Dan Kenney and this is my perspective.