Made In The U.S.A.

Unintended Consequences

In Adventures on June 3, 2009 at 12:42 am

Leave it to Michael Pollan, the author who has made me think (proportionally speaking, per written word) more than any other, to give me added insight into my own little MITUSA process.

Pollan is the author of books such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food. My favorite piece, however, is one he wrote for the New York Times Magazine. It was called Power Steer. You can read it here, and I really hope you will. (He bought a calf, and followed it through the process of growing from baby cow into a nicely marbled steak. He learned a lot, and shared his experience, and it’s really a entertaining and informative read. Powerful too.)

I heard him on the radio last week discussing all sorts of things related to his newest book and the process of “making food” in general, when he began discussing uninteded consequences. Another way I like to think of unintended consequences is that every action has an equal and opposite hidden reaction in addition to the equal and opposite reaction we’re all aware of.

I hit you in the face and you fall down. Action, reaction. But later, my hand really hurts. Unintended consequence.

In this case, Pollan cited the H1N1 virus, otherwise known as swine flu, as the perfect example of an unintended consequence.

Swine flu, he said, originated in pigs that were raised in close quarters–confinement, really. This makes it harder for pigs to stay healthy, but it’s better for keeping the price of pork down because it’s a more efficient way of raising them. The animals are fed antibiotics to keep them from getting really sick, so they’re not generally in bad shape, and we get cheap bacon, and everybody’s happy.

Until antibiotic-laden confined pigs start breeding antibiotic-resistant stronger strains of viruses–like this particular strain of H1N1. Next thing you know, people around the world are worried about dying from a flu that originated in a pig barn somewhere. That’s an unintended consequence.

In general, though, maybe most of us say, “You know, that swine flu thing didn’t really harm that many people. And it didn’t even kill as many people as the good old fashioned flu. It was, generally speaking, not that big of a deal. And I like inexpensive bacon. So maybe the system isn’t so far out of whack.” Turns out, there are unintended consequences all over the place that make it really hard for the nickels and dollars we save on cheap pork to end up on the positive side. I should know, because I got my own personal unintended consequence out of the swine flu epi/pan/whatever-demic of 2009.

I was scheduled to photograph a large convention of hospital organizations in San Antonio, Texas in the middle of May. Ten days before kickoff, however, right in the midst of the swine/H1N1 flu hysteria, the convention organization decided–presumably for primarily public relations reasons–to cancel the convention. Not postpone it. Not reschedule it. Cancel it. Thousands of people from around the world were no longer flying in to south Texas for a week of conventioneering. That meant that I was no longer flying in to south Texas for a week of photography. That meant I was out a big fat check. Several thousand dollars in day rates out the window, because of the possibility of infection and transmission that the convention presented. That’s a big ol’ unintended consequence right in my pocketbook.

I enjoyed the savings on bacon and ham and every wonderful bit of the inexpensive “other white meat.” So I subsidized the way in which pork is produced. So I personally had a dollar-filled hand in the unintended consequence that cost me way more money in a lost job than I ever will save on cheap ham in my lifetime.

(I should point out that I don’t blame my client for canceling the event. With so many medical professionals from around the world convening so close to the center of the H1N1 melee, I think they did the responsible thing. Even if it will look unwise in hindsight because the world didn’t end due to swine flu, I think it was probably a prudent decision. And I’m sure it wasn’t made hastily; you think I lost a few dollars on this thing, they shelled out hundreds-of-thousands if not millions of dollars on this event. [A previous year’s keynote speaker was Fareed Zakaria. They don’t go for inexpensive inspiration.] Talk about an uninteded consequence. You’ve got to save a lot of money on pork bellies to account for the dollars lost by this one organization for this one event. It couldn’t have been easy, so I try to assume they did the right thing.)

The way this relates to my MITUSA project, at least in my own little warped mind, is that we do all sorts of things in this society for the purpose of making things more efficient and cost-effective. So often, though, this Wal-Mart-ization of America means that we’re just doing lots of things as cheaply as we can. We’re growing beef at such an “efficient” pace that a culture which used to consider steak an occasional indulgence now sees it as something for dinner every day. We see TVs as so fundamental that we’re willing to make car-payment-sized financial investments to afford wall-sized screens on which to watch baser and baser reality TV because it’s really entertaining and costs nothing to produce. We want _____ so badly we will ship production half way around the world if it means we can buy more _____ a little, or even a lot, less expensively. We do all of this stuff, and we’re happy about it because we’re satisfying our immediate desires and saving money while we do it so that we can satisfy even more desires that we didn’t even know we had. We do it happily because we believe that it makes our lives better.

But what are the uninteded consequences?

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