Why Things Bite Back

America has lost its confidence in science since the 1950’s, when it expected “better living through chemicals” and did not consider “plastics” a laugh line. Of course, the atom bomb made science scary, but America believed in progress.

That was then. Now Americans fear their ever more complicated techno-sphere has spun out of control.

Humans have long been trying to improve their world, but only in the last two hundred years has their mastery of science really been up to the task. Unfortunately, the result is rarely the one intended. In fact, too often, humans cause the very thing they sought to prevent, hence Tenner’s “revenge effect.”

After laying out his basic thesis and defining his terms, Tenner devotes several interesting chapters to the history of humanity’s disastrous stewardship of the earth. It is a sad story of misguided efforts (high-minded and otherwise) to transplant plant and animal species, to control natural disasters and pests, and to eradicate disease, which almost always backfired.

Tenner then moves on to the modern high-tech world, which generates ever more complicated systems that increase the very frustrations or dangers they are designed to solve. These systems often create new, unforeseen complications. In many cases, the revenge effects appear only many years later as low-level, long-term problems. Consequently, people have reduced the risk of catastrophes like plane crashes to remarkably low levels, but there persists an uneasy dread of looming environmental menaces.

Tenner, however, argues this pessimism is as unwarranted as the previous optimism. Instead of pointless despair or foolish overconfidence, a middle way of vigilant caution is required. Technology is not a rampaging monster. It can be controlled. Humans have learned from their mistakes and have actually improved their quality of life (even if some people do not feel better). Still, the wiser we manage our technological ambitions, the better we will steward the earth and its resources.