So, what happens when the very actions that we each individually take to improve our lives in the end cause detrimental consequences to all of us? The sage might say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and she might be right. But, does it have to be that way? Are we doomed to one step forward and one step back? Can we anticipate the things that might go wrong? And, how important is the collective good when compared to personal freedom?
In this article I am going to discuss only one example, that of the urban heat island effect, but many others may arise in the future as unintended consequences are one of the main factors negatively affecting real progress around the world. How often does the most exciting new technology prove to be damaging in the long term after it is already implemented?
Urban Heat Island
The urban heat island effect is the name applied to the phenomenon whereby cities have higher temperatures than their surrounding rural areas. It arises due to the fact that man made surfaces including buildings, roads, parking lots, driveways, and other things have different heat transfer properties than that of natural wild lands or farmland. Those man made materials absorb and store more heat from the Sun on average than the natural areas. That stored energy is then released overnight preventing the city from cooling as much as the adjacent countryside. Then, in the morning, as the city is starting off at a higher temperature, it will remain hotter than the rural areas throughout the day.
There is another secondary cause of the heat island effect. That cause is produced by the energy consumed in the city. As touching any lamp or automobile engine can tell you, any electrical device or machine that uses energy releases heat into the environment. As industrial processes and general human activities proceed in the population dense area of the city, a significant amount of heat is released. With considerably less population, the rural areas do not consume as much energy per unit area.
This image below (from this report) displays a thermal picture of the Atlanta, Georgia area in 1972 and 1993 indicating how the heat island effect has increased substantially. In the lower picture from 1993, the temperature difference between the urban and rural areas is more than 12 degrees (F), surely partially to blame for giving rise to the name “Hotlanta”.
Why is this effect increasing? It comes down to more development, primarily driven by an increasing population and increasing wealth driving increased economic activity. The cities are becoming more prosperous drawing greater numbers of workers. Those workers have more wealth and build larger homes and other structures. Corporations locate more offices, and retail stores, and entertainment venues in the cities to take advantage of that wealth. And, the man made structures proliferate.
I think it safe to say that no one particularly desired the heat island effect, and most would probably prefer that cities not be so much hotter (during the Summer, anyways). Development could have been controlled in such a way as to minimize the heat island effect, but it was not. Why not? How did we end up realizing a consequence that none of us set out for?
First, people made choices as to where to live and what to build based on the information they had at the time. It was many years before we recognized the heat island effect. Second (this is an important one), each individual’s contribution to the overall effect in the city was very small. Only collectively over a wide area did the magnitude of the effect become significant. This also prevented strong regulation by the democratic government to mitigate the effect. And last, the data recording and analysis capability to identify the heat island effect and determine its causes was not available after development had already started. The norms of the technology, suburban and urban development styles, were already strongly in place by the time the effect became significant.
So, What Do We Do, Now?
For this specific problem, which is not altogether that severe, but nonetheless causes us increased energy cost and discomfort, there are actions we could take. Different codes regarding land use and the preservation of green space could be enacted. Changing the standard materials on roofs and roads could affect the severity of the heat island. And, urban planning efforts to increase the overall energy efficiency and space efficiency of the city over time would improve the situation.
We will never be able to anticipate every possible outcome from introducing a new technology, so we have to observe and monitor ourselves (the population’s health) and our environment for changes all the time. We also cannot allow ourselves to get caught up in a political game about what group or philosophy is to blame for a present problem, as that only delays a solution. And we must have an active risk management system within our government that can estimate the severity and likelihood of future problems so that we can set an acceptable cost boundary to our solution searching. Then, we should implement solutions early when the overall cost is lower before our problems become crises. That would be counted as progress.