We are ringed by fire. All around us—to the North, South, East and West—bush fires rage uncontrollably. The air—smoke-filled, eye-stinging, throat-catching—constantly reminds us that not far from our well-ordered urban life, chaos stalks us.

We are in the grip of the longest drought ever recorded in Australia. Every turn of the tap, flush of the faucet, watering of the thirsty plants is laden with concern and guilt.

Is this drought and its consequences of our own making? Nobody really knows but most of us have our suspicions.

Coinciding with our bush fire season and the prolonged drought, we note with some interest the discovery of the environment earlier this year by high profile politicians and economists. For decades, despite warnings from environmentalists, they have regarded their policies about use of water, energy resources, and breathable air as having no cost. There are—they used to confidently assert—NO externalities. We live in a magic pudding!

With their discovery of the environment, yesterday’s externalities become today’s internalities. And now, even our normally conservative politicians and economists are coming to the view that a healthy environment does come at a cost. Carbon dioxide costs. Gone is the magic pudding, we are now enlightened. Once again they assert with confidence, there are NO externalities. We know all we need to know to reassert our control.

Sadly, they are mistaken. There are always externalities.

Every time a politician or economist draws a line, a boundary, round a ‘problem’ or an ‘economic system’, the mere fact of drawing the boundary creates both internal and external costs. This is not just a disease of politicians and economists. All of us involved in designing anything draw a boundary round the ‘problem’ space we choose to deal with, whether it’s a web site, a document, a motor car, a building, a city plan, or a whole society. We fix a boundary, and design within that self created space.

We designers sometimes think that our tools for doing this designing have become progressively better, and this gives us the impression that we are taking more and more into account and able to design, and so control, increasingly complex systems. We are designing whole communities, living things, the environment! If only we had the resources we could redesign the world; we, too, confidently assert that there are NO externalities!

The reality, though, is not like that. We are mere travelling tinkers. We fix the leaks in the pots and pans, and sometimes make things work a little better—good worthy stuff, but nothing grand. And, like the tinkers of old, we move on to mend other pots, solve other problems, sometimes leaving a mess for others to clear up, sometimes inadvertently carrying on our feet the spores of indigenous disasters to new exotic locations. There are always externalities, things we do not notice, consequences we cannot foresee.

Like all biological entities we constantly adapt the environments that sustain us to suit ourselves, postpone extinction for yet another day. We tinker with our world.

It may well be that our current drought and bushfires are some of the unintended consequences of our adaptation, our tinkering.

We should, therefore, always be mindful of our limited capacity to design systems and control them, because the externality—the unintended ring of fire beyond our control—may inadvertently bring about our extinction.