Everything choice we make has consequences. And the place we find ourselves in life is simply a direct result of all the choices we’ve made, large or small, added together.

Successful people realize this fact and strive to make their choices wisely.

Many other people instead choose to ignore the cause and effect relationship of their choices and look for something or someone that they can blame for the circumstances they find themselves in. Until they realize that all of us do in fact have choices and that they can start making different choices, their circumstances are unlikely to change.

Unintended Consequences

But here’s the thing. Not all of the consequences of our choices are what we might expect. There are times when unintended consequences might result from our choices.

None of the decisions we make happen in a vacuum. Every choice we make in some way, large or small, affects those around us. And it is quite possible that there might even be a ripple effect of those choices that end up affecting a whole lot of folks.

This principle of unintended consequences is especially evident when governments make policy decisions and change laws for very large groups of people.

Ethanol and Corn – Unintended Consequences in Action

Let’s take a look at an example of this that’s happening right now.

The good Idea

Here in the US laws have recently been changed to require more ethanol usage in the fuels for our automobiles. On the surface it is a very sensible change. There’s some great benefits.

  • Renewable energy source
  • Cleaner burning fuel
  • Fewer greenhouse gases
  • Reduced dependency on foreign oil

Sounds like a good idea. Who wouldn’t be in favor of seeing that happen? I know I’d like to see all that and more.

Trouble is, we are running smack into the principle of unintended consequences with this one.

Turns out the only viable source of ethanol at the moment comes from corn.

Shouldn’t be much of a problem, right? I mean the US is the larges corn producer in the world. Our output is measured in hundreds of millions of metric tons. That’s a lot of corn!

The Unintended Consequences

But. We supply much of the world with their corn as one of the largest corn exporting countries. Now that a larger portion of our corn is being diverted from feeding people to fueling cars, people in some parts of the world are starting to feel the pinch at the table.

For example, they are now seeing serious corn shortages in Mexico, Guatemala and the Philippines.

There are feedstock shortages in China.

The US might even be headed for a food shortage itself. Part of the reason for that may be that we are already seeing a corn seed shortage, and the laws don’t come into full effect for another 5 years!

Or maybe it is because farm land prices are on the rise and are keeping new farmers out of that line of work.

Of course we all know that our rising fuel cost is directly related to these new governmental requirements.

But did you know that corn prices factor into the cost of a wide range of food sources from eggs, milk and cheese, to chicken, pork and beef? We’re already on our way to increasing world hunger for our ethanol.

Not only that, but I’m in the transportation industry and I’m here to tell you that these higher fuel costs affect every singly segment of our economy. Think about it. Everything you see on your local Wal-mart or grocer’s shelf got there via truck. Don’t be fooled. The higher fuel costs to run that truck are already coming out of your pocket. In the form of higher prices on the shelves.


So what we have is a great idea to force cleaner, renewable fuels having the unintended consequence of causing huge problems which will likely at a minimum cause more starvation around the world.

In hind sight, was it a good decision by the government?

Applying the Principle Ourselves

Does the principle of unintended consequences mean we should never strive to achieve high goals for fear of causing some horrible things to happen around us?

Of course not.

We can however take the time to think through the long term ramifications of our decisions. The bigger the decision, the more thought that should go into it. In our personal lives that means we should weigh out very carefully the major decisions.

How will this affect people around me?

What will this decision allow to happen?

Which things will no longer be available to me anymore by making this choice?

Successful people think through their decisions. By asking tons of questions, and considering the possible consequences of our decisions, we can better manage those unintended consequences.

And we’ll be more successful in the process.


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