In 1935 sugarcane growers in Australia were battling the cane beetle.
The adult beetle enjoyed eating the leaves of the sugarcane.
The larvae hatched underground and ate the roots, which either killed or stunted the growth of the plant.
Biologists, spurred on by previous successes, introduced a species to Australia that they hoped would eat the cane beetle and fix the problem.
102 cane toads were sourced from Hawaii, bred in captivity to increase their numbers and released into the sugar cane fields of the tropic north.
A well-intentioned and reasonably well-thought out plan.
Except it turned out to be a disaster.
The cane toad thrived by feeding on other insects, but not the cane beetle.
It couldn’t jump high enough to reach the beetle which liked to hang out on the upper stalks of the cane plants.
It brought disease to the native toads and frogs, decimating their populations.
Other native species that ate the cane toad were killed by its poison.
An ecosystem is a complex adaptive system, a system where you can have perfect understanding of the individual parts but still have no idea how the whole system will behave.
You think you understand but then you make one single change and you end up with a chain of unintended consequences.
We operate in and interact with complex adaptive systems every day.
Society as a whole.
Right now, we humans are doing one giant experiment on one giant complex adaptive system.
Never before have we shut down the world like we have in the last three months.
We have made changes to the economy and society that just six months ago would have seemed ludicrous.
I don’t know how it’s all going to turn out, but I am fairly certain there are going to be a tonne of unintended consequences.
Unintended consequences stemming from well-intentioned behaviours.
The shelter-in-place and lockdown laws were intended to save lives – a well-intentioned behaviour if ever there was one.
But what else did they do?
They destroyed livelihoods and small businesses.
It’s not just about the business or the money, it’s about the blood, sweat and tears that had gone into building that local restaurant or that artisan shop.
All of it just snatched away overnight.
The hopes and dreams of everyone involved are shattered.
I have spoken to business owners here in Cayman and the stories are heartbreaking. Jerome Powell, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, said last week, “if small businesses that were viable enterprises before the crisis fail we would lose more than just that business.
We lose something more fundamental.”
They forced children inside, into close contact with family members who in many cases were under extreme stresses from job losses and financial difficulties.
Child maltreatment likely surged.
Children lost their social support through schools and often access to their only square meal.
Modern life had already led to an increase in anxiety among young people, and this crisis certainly adds more fuel to the fire.
They exacerbated the loneliness epidemic – this time not just among the elderly, but across all cohorts of the population.
Surveys have shown that between a third and a half of American adults have reported feeling lonelier than usual.
The health consequences of loneliness have been likened to the effects of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
They increased inequality.
This was a huge issue before but this crisis has, sadly, disproportionately impacted those at the lower end of the spectrum.
In the US 40% of people employed in households making less than $40,000 lost their job or were furloughed in March.
That compares to 13 percent of people in households with an income above $100,000.
They removed support and treatment for people battling cancer, chronic illnesses and addictions.
There are reports of many previously operable or curable cancers becoming terminal because people are not getting treatment quick enough, or at all.
Deaths from drugs, alcohol or suicide (“deaths of despair”) will skyrocket.
One study suggests 75,000 people will die from drug or alcohol misuse and suicide in the US as a result of the Coronavirus crisis (so far just under 100,000 deaths in the US have been linked to Coronavirus).
They have increased deaths on the road in many US States because empty streets have encouraged reckless driving.
Speed is the number one predictor of crash severity and this has meant that the proportion of people dying per collision is higher.
In Minnesota the number of road deaths doubled in March of this year versus last year.
In New York, despite an 84 percent reduction in vehicle miles travelled more motorists died between March 2nd and April 8th this year than died in the same period in four of the last five years.
Take most of the drivers off the street and those that are left will drive like maniacs!
Not all unintended consequences are bad.
Sometimes we make changes to a complex adaptive system and are pleasantly surprised.
I see two major winners in this crisis.
Big tech companies (think Amazon, Netflix, Facebook, Microsoft) and The Planet.
Planet Earth is healing.
Nature has proved its resilience and is bouncing back.
Wild species of animals are being seen in old habitats and some are boldly walking into cities.
And for some, whilst this crisis may not have brought benefits, it has been mild.
More of an inconvenience than a crisis.
I like to look at this as one of humanity’s greatest acts of compassion.
We have shut down the world to protect our precious elderly and those that are vulnerable (in Italy 96% of virus fatalities suffered from other illnesses and only 1.1% of those that died were under 50).
I am not arguing with that or debating the politics or ethics behind it.
What I want to point out is how complicated and nuanced this situation is.
The statement I have heard repeated, that we are putting “lives over money”, or some other version of that (or the opposite of that), misses a level of complexity that is critical to understand.
It isn’t simply one or the other.
We don’t live in a system where you can make one change and expect to understand the outcomes.
Like the biologists introducing the cane toads to Australia, we have seen that a well-intentioned and perhaps well thought-out plans can have far reaching consequences that will only be appreciated in hindsight.
When we look back on this through the lens of history, will we say that the shutting down of the world and the locking up of free-willed (mostly healthy) people was the correct and proportionate response to the risks that we faced?
Or will we say that it was one giant science experiment that went very wrong?
Guest Expert: Georgie Loxton, CFA is a Financial Planner and Investment Manager based in the Cayman Islands.
She founded Liberty Wealth Partners Ltd, a comprehensive Wealth Management company, on her passion for combining a deep technical expertise with the psychological and behavioural aspects of money and investing. Georgie originally hails from the UK and she has lived in the Cayman Islands with her husband and three children for the past 14 years.