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Why Things Bite Back
Edward Tenner

Buy It? Iffy.

A decently interesting time-killer of a book. You're not going to find any overwhelming truths in this one, and I don't recommend it for airplane reading, what with the extensive ruminations on mechanical failures throughout history, but for anyone with some vague interest in how humankind got where it is today, and what happens to make things work out differently than we expect them to, it makes for a pretty good read.

The central premise of Why Things Bite Back is the revenge effect—that when we as a species think we've solved some particularly knotty problem, it turns out that the solution itself either creates or reveals a new problem, or a whole spectrum of problems. Tenner demonstrates how revenge effects usually manifest as the substitution of chronic problems for acute ones, and how the price of avoiding a problem is often exacted in terms of time and vigilance.

His examples are too numerous to count (one problem with the book is that it does get somewhat repetitive). 20th century improvements in acute medical care mean that deaths from accidents, warfare, and many kinds of disease are much rarer than they once were in industrial countries; the price comes in terms of survivors who may need care for the rest of their lives, drug-resistant infections, and increased awareness of chronic conditions for which no cure exists. Decades of well-meaing human blundering when it comes to managing the environment have made the Western forests a vast tinderbox more susceptible to damage than ever, while at the same time advances in firefighting techniques make people feel safe living in cedar-shake houses under the eaves of that very forest—another tradeoff in vigilance. We've gotten better at predicting the weather, we feel safe living in stom zones, and now hurricane damage is spread across time and space as insurance costs and disaster relief rather than human lives.

There's a lot of neat stuff in this book, but a criticism I've come across from other readers, and have to agree with, is that he doesn't really tie things together very well. He certainly isn't arguing that we're not better off thanks to technology, just that the costs of improvement are often hidden—to which the reader must reply, "So what?" He does not speculate much as to what it might be in human nature or the nature of the universe that causes these revenge effects, or what problem-solving approach would either avoid or at least correctly predict them.

The "why" of the title is never really answered. It should have been called How Things Bite Back. Nevertheless, it does make a fun if occasionally morbid read, and the bits of historical trivia scattered throughout are neat if you're interested in such things.

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Except where noted, all material on this site is © 1999 Rebecca J. Stevenson