A Cautionary Tale of Unintended Consequences

Historians, anthropologists and others have long sought the common cause of the collapse of societies throughout the 10,000-year march of human civilization. Causes have been considered ranging from local ecological destruction, to imperial over-reach, to unsupportable social complexity, to entropy, and even (curiously) lead poisoning.

What is rarely considered is that, because species evolution is a multi-million-year process, while civilizational development occurs on only a multi-millennial time-frame, Homo sapiens retains – in spite of our incredible technical advancement – a hunter-gatherer mindset in a hyper-accelerated cybernetic and globally-interconnected world.

We evolved to deal with immediate and short-term problems as they arose and, more than any other species, specialized in increasingly and extraordinarily clever “solutions” to the problems we confronted. But nothing in our evolutionary journey gave us the wherewithal to either understand the consequences of our cleverness or to respond appropriately to large-scale and long-term predicaments.

Problems vs. Predicaments

Problems are obstacles that can be overcome with enough sweat, cleverness and determination. If we can’t turn over, plant and harvest enough cropland with sticks and hands, we will invent a wooden and then steel moldboard plow and exploit animals for power, and eventually create automotive tractors, chemical biocides, artificial fertilizers and a global market that includes gambling in “commodity futures”.

A predicament, however, is something bigger than a problem – something that can’t be tasked away, delegated, or bulled through, but only responded to. Problems require analytic thinking. Predicaments require interpretive thinking. To deal with predicaments, we must be able to put a larger frame around a situation, see it in the sweep of history, understand it in its full context and ramifications. We must be especially alert to deeper paradoxical influences, feedback loops, non-linear processes, and therefore the possible unforeseen consequences of any decisions or actions that flow from that interpretation.

This has become known as the Law of Unintended Consequences, as immutable as the Second Law of Thermodynamics and gravity.

Good Intentions

The Law of Unintended Consequences

In the late Paleolithic, when climatic shifts made hunting more energy-intensive and less rewarding, primitive peoples turned more toward gathering and eventual domestication of cereal grains and, later, animals. This was an evolutionary leap that occurred nearly simultaneously all over the globe.

Grain-based agriculture, we soon discovered, required a sedentary lifestyle, active manipulation of the environment, longer hours of more strenuous work, a system of storage and distribution and record-keeping, non-productive classes to control and safeguard both croplands and stored grains, a peasant class to supply the non-productive hierarchy, a permanent military for territorial protection and expansion, an expansionist paradigm to control more croplands and water sources for the inevitably growing population, and the development of more efficient technologies with further unintended consequences.

In almost every case of these early civilizations – from Sumer and Mesopotamia to the Americas and Easter Island – the result was deforestation, soil erosion and/or salination, loss of fertility, catastrophic flooding, human slavery or taxation/tribute, diminishment of human health, epidemic diseases which jumped from animals to humans and were able to spread in the densely-populated cities, shorter life expectancy, regular warfare, and eventual societal collapse.

The entire history of human civilization is the history of Unintended Consequences, a concept popularized by noted sociologist Robert K. Merton in 1936, which include unexpected benefits (serendipity), negative “side effects” in addition to intended outcomes (such as is the standard in scientific medicine), and “perverse effects” or entirely negative outcomes in place of what was expected (such as global warming and breakdown of the planet’s life-support systems by the use of fossil fuels intended to make life easier and safer). Occasionally, as in the shift to sedentary and hydraulic agriculture or anthropogenic global climate change and the Sixth Great Extinction, the perverse outcomes become overwhelmingly dominant and destructive. More often, smaller-scale and shorter-term effects can nevertheless have profoundly negative impacts on the social order.

Clever “Solutions” – Perverse Outcomes

One such perverse set of outcomes developed from the apparently rational decisions to use lead in plumbing (since Roman days), in paint, and later in gasoline. The Romans understood but largely ignored the dangers of lead toxicity, and even Emperors such as Julius Caesar, Caesar Augustus, Caligula and Nero were rendered sterile, impotent or insane by drinking and eating from lead tableware. Nero wore a lead breastplate when he fiddled while Rome burned.

In 1786, Benjamin Franklin wrote about lead poisoning, and US medical authorities diagnosed childhood lead poisoning as early as 1887. By the beginning of the 20th century, many countries started banning lead in consumer products including interior paint, but by 1980 America was using 40% of the world’s lead, putting it in everything from gasoline to make-up and house paint.

Dutch Boy White LeadWhite lead made paint exceptionally durable and water-resistant, and was promoted by the US Departments of Commerce, Interior and Agriculture, along with other federal and state agencies, from the early 1900s through the late 1970s. Fifty of the public housing projects built by President Roosevelt’s Public Works Administration in the mid-1930s specified use of interior lead-based paint.

In 1933, the American Public Health Association wrote a publication responding to reports of childhood lead poisoning, and recommended avoiding lead-based paint on baby toys, beds and carriages, while continuing to recommend it for other products such as house paint.

leadTetraethyl lead (TEL) was incorporated into gasoline in the 1920s to protect engine valves and improve the octane (anti-knock quality) of engine fuel, which allowed higher-compression and more powerful engines to feed the American lust for personal power and reckless speed. Lead spewing out of the increasing number of tailpipes spread the toxin along highways and throughout urban environments.

The Government Responds (Slowly)

In spite of directed research, lobbying and lawsuits by the lead industry, President Nixon began the slow eradication of lead from our public life with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air Act Extension of 1970. After a court battle, the TEL phase-out began in 1976. The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 and EPA regulations banned lead in gasoline after 1995.

leaded gasoline

The Lead-Based Paint Poisoning Prevention Act of 1971, amended in 1973, primarily addressed lead-based paint in federally-funded housing. In 1978, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) banned the residential use of lead-based paint. Until 1977 in the US, the maximum level of lead allowed in consumer paints was 0.5%. The CPSC lowered the amount to 0.06%.

The federal Lead Contamination Control Act of 1988 ordered a recall of lead-lined drinking water coolers, which were common even in public schools. It wasn’t until 2011, however, that Congress passed the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act, which didn’t become effective until January 4, 2014. As of that date, the federal law mandates the wetted surface of every pipe, fixture, and fitting sold for or installed in potable water applications not contain more than 0.25% lead by weight.

In addition, four states, California (2010), Vermont (2010), Maryland (2012) and Louisiana (2013), have enacted lead-free legislation to implement the reductions before the federal law takes effect. The EPA and state laws now require renovation contractor certification for lead-safe work practices, cleanup and disposal.

A 1994 study indicated that the concentration of lead in the blood of the US population had dropped 78% from 1976 to 1991. But it was estimated in 2002 that 38 million housing units in the US still had lead-based paint (down from the 1990 estimate of 64 million). Deteriorating lead paint and lead-containing household dust are a primary cause of chronic lead poisoning of children.

Change in Blood Levels US 1976-1999

Residual lead in soil, caused by broken-down lead paint, residues from lead-containing gasoline, used engine oil, pesticides used in the past, contaminated landfills, or industry creates concern about the safety of urban agriculture. Tailpipe lead also contaminates the air we’ve been breathing.

Lead Toxicity

Lead interferes with a variety of body processes and is toxic to many organs and tissues including the heart, bones, intestines, kidneys, and reproductive and nervous systems. It interferes with the development of the brain and is therefore particularly problematic for children, causing potentially permanent learning and behavior disorders.

But the most startling and profound correlations to lead poisoning in children were reported by research around the turn of the millennium.

In 1994, Rick Nevin was a consultant working for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development on the costs and benefits of removing lead paint from old houses. A growing body of research was linking lead exposure in small children with a whole raft of complications later in life, including lower IQ, hyperactivity, behavioral problems, and learning disabilities.

But as Nevin was working on that assignment, a recent study had suggested a link between childhood lead exposure and juvenile delinquency. That took Nevin in a different direction. The biggest source of lead in the postwar era, it turns out, wasn’t paint – it was leaded gasoline. And if you chart the rise and fall of atmospheric lead caused by the rise and fall of leaded gasoline consumption, you get a pretty simple upside-down U: Lead emissions from tailpipes rose steadily from the early ’40s through the early ’70s, nearly quadrupling over that period. Then, as unleaded gasoline began to replace leaded gasoline, emissions plummeted.

Lead & Crime

Intriguingly, violent crime rates followed the same upside-down U pattern, except for the time period. Crime rates rose dramatically in the ’60s through the ’80s, and then began dropping steadily starting in the early ’90s. The two curves looked nearly identical, but were offset by about 20 years. In a 2000 paper, Nevin concluded that if you add a lag time of 23 years, lead emissions from automobiles explain 90% of the variation in violent crime in America. Toddlers who ingested high levels of lead in the ’40s and ’50s were more likely to become violent criminals in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. Not only crime, but teenage pregnancy and diminished IQ patterns also followed the same curve.


In 2007, Nevin published a new paper looking at crime trends around the world, and found the same lead-crime correlation in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Great Britain, Finland, France, Italy, and West Germany. No country he studied failed to show this almost precise match.

In 2013, Tulane University researcher Howard Mielke published a paper with demographer Sammy Zahran on the correlation of lead and crime at the city level. They studied six US cities that had both good crime data and good lead data going back to the ’50s, and they found a good fit in every single one. In fact, Mielke has even studied lead concentrations at the neighborhood level in New Orleans and local police indicated that it mapped very closely to neighborhood crime rates.

Lead paint didn’t play a big role in the rise of crime in the postwar era and its subsequent fall, because unlike gasoline, lead paint was a fairly uniform problem during this period, especially in inner cities. In the first part of the 20th century, however, when use of lead paint did rise and then fall dramatically, murder rates rose and fell in tandem.

Lead & Crime Trend

Variation, not Baseline

To be clear, what these studies demonstrate unequivocally, is that the increase and subsequent decrease – the variation – in America’s baseline crime rate is almost entirely attributable to lead exposure in infants and children. It does not purport to explain the fact that the US has the highest rate of violent crime, particularly homicide, among the “advanced” nations of the world. That America was founded by social, economic and religious misfits who took the land by 300 years of near-genocidal warfare, chicanery and deception and turned it into the sole remaining superpower which has engaged in nearly 200 military “adventures” since its national birth may offer some insight, as well as might America’s near-idolatrous worship of individual liberty and its unique 2nd Amendment. But that’s another story beyond the scope of this article.

No Safe Level

Recent neurological research is demonstrating that childhood lead exposure at nearly any level can seriously and permanently reduce IQ. The EPA now says that there is “no demonstrated safe concentration of lead in blood”. Not only does lead promote cell death in the brain, but the element is also chemically similar to calcium, so that it prevents calcium ions from doing their job, which causes physical damage to the developing brain that persists into adulthood.

Additionally, long-term (30-year) longitudinal studies that follow children through their lives, using MRI brain scans on exposed and non-exposed subjects, have found that high childhood lead exposure damages the parts of the brain that make us most human.

One such study found that lead exposure is linked to reduction of the brain’s white matter – primarily a substance called myelin, which forms an insulating sheath around the connections between neurons. When this is in deficit, neurons don’t communicate effectively, and the network connections within the brain become both slower and less coordinated.

Another study found that high exposure to lead during childhood was linked to a permanent loss of gray matter in the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain associated with what psychologists call “executive functions”: emotional regulation, impulse control, attention, verbal reasoning, and mental flexibility.

Yet another study found links between childhood lead exposure and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), even at concentrations well below those usually considered safe. In other words, even moderate levels of lead exposure are associated with aggressivity, impulsivity, ADHD, and lower IQ: the defining characteristics of a violent young offender.

Root Causes and Open Minds

In the divisive debate about guns and crime, gun advocates regularly point to the high violent crime levels in urban centers as “proof” that gun-control laws don’t work. We’ve known for some time that urban crime is not correlated with gun laws (in large part because guns don’t respect municipal boundaries), but rather with such sociological factors as poverty, unemployment, inequality, and drug addiction. What criminologists have failed to consider, though, is that there is a much higher correlation (and Nevin would say direct causal relationship) between childhood lead exposure and belated crime rates, which obviously appears more in the older inner city areas of the Northeast and Midwest.

Chicago is often cited as emblematic of the failure of gun laws to limit crime, in spite of the fact that its homicide rate has dropped by 50% since the mid-’90s. But Chicago also has the distinction of being home to more cases of lead toxicity than any large city in the US (1 in 12 school children and higher in the poorer neighborhoods). Chicago currently doesn’t spend a dime of its own revenues on lead-poisoning prevention.

Kevin Drum of Mother Jones, estimated in a 1/3/2013 article “America’s Real Criminal Element: Lead”, that abatement of the remaining soil and window-frame lead in the US would cost something like $20 billion a year for the next two decades, but would result in economic returns, through increased IQ resulting in greater productivity and lifetime earnings as well as decreased crime rates, of as much as $200 billion per year – an extraordinary 10:1 return. It could, says Drum, “turn out to be the cheapest, most effective crime prevention tool we have”.

In 2012, the US Center for Disease Control’s national budget for lead-poisoning prevention was cut from $30 million to $2 million. Sequestration is only going to further reduce such essential funding, research and oversight. “Penny wise but pound foolish”, our grandparents used to say. One has to wonder just how “clever” we modern humans really are, or whether we are too clever for our own good but not wise enough to know it.

Thus, the “clever” use of lead as “solutions” to such evident problems as paint durability, automotive power, and municipal water supply resulted in the unintended and perverse consequences of lowered IQ, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders, impulsiveness, aggressiveness, teen pregnancy, and violent crime.

While it still makes sense to use our “clever” brains to limit the accessibility and lethality of the means for homicidal violence – such as handguns, assault weapons and high-capacity magazines – we have to use our now-impaired brains to examine the non-linear (outside the box) and long-term repercussions of our clever “solutions”. And, someday (if we survive long enough), we will have to learn that no technological “fixes” are immune from the Law of Unintended Consequences.

unintended consequences

by Robert Riversong: may be reproduced only with attribution for non-commercial purposes and a link to this page.

See also:

Guns, Race, the Law & Public Opinion – The Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman Case

The Guns of Columbine

Ceremonial Violence – School Rampage Shootings

The NRA Story: From Rifle Club to Extremist Gun Rights Lobby: How the National Rifle Association evolved from a Shooting Club to a Terrorist Organization

District of Columbia v. Heller – A Radical Decision that Created a Middle Path

The Real Second Amendment


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