Irreversible Consequences

We’re all familiar, I presume, with the idea that our actions can lead to unintended consequences. Some of these unintended consequences become almost immediately recognizable, and in a small number of those cases the actions are reversible. But what about the actions that set in motion consequences that cannot be seen by the living and that, partially due to their invisibility, end up being irreversible?

When I was younger, I read a fair number of Ian McEwan novels. Most of these were centered on a transfiguring event, an occurrence that radically transforms the life of an individual or a couple so that life after becomes, almost in a flash, radically different from her or their life before. Tragedy has, since Aristotle, often been concerned with the sudden, perhaps irreversible loss–of a loved one, social standing, place, cultural identity, and of other supremely valued objects. Hence the Renaissance interest in the “tragic fall.”

But what about the slow and steady tragic decline? Here, I reckon, is a different, and perhaps far stickier, predicament. When James Watt invented the steam engine in 1781, he could not have foreseen how in a little over 200 years he would have contributed to setting in motion an industrial civilization the unintended consequences of which have been widespread and irreversible climactic changes of the kind that future generations will be grappling with for as long as they and those after them live. Relatedly, in his book Collapse, Jared Diamond tells plenty of stories about how a current illiterate generation, one whose memory didn’t extend back far enough, takes some source of food or supply of food to be extraordinarily abundant and are not able to see that current tribal members are slowly depleting this resource at a rate that will ultimately lead future generations to face peril, even collapse.

The examples of the sort of slow-moving yet irreversible tragedy I’m discussing are not just social, political, or economic; they’re also existential. If we think about our lives, we’ll soon recognize that some action we performed, or neglected to perform, some 20 years ago set up a causal chain of events that has made it impossible for you to go back, to “do over,” to make amends. Perhaps it is as simple as overusing your knees when you were young to the point at which not in an instant but over a few decades you come to find that your knees are shot. Looking back, you might say now, “If only I had known that doing X would cause me such pain, then I would have avoiding X,” yet, while that is true, you’re also missing something more basic and profound, perhaps, about the possible lack of human foresight built into the human condition: might it be that there just are certain things that, in virtue of our cognitive limits, will inevitably lead us, at some point in the future, into situations which we will just have to learn to live with? Might it be necessary for us to let go of the belief that all our decisions and actions are reversible? And, knowing this while keeping it fixedly in mind, might we come to discover an even greater sense of reverence for the power we wield every time we act, especially when it comes to our actions whose consequences can affect others, possibly for life, possibly in ways that they won’t be able to see themselves until two or three decades later?