One of the difficult realities about sustainability is that it’s so huge and all-encompassing. So one key mindset we need if we’re learning about and working on sustainability issues is systems thinking.
There is a lot to this, but one basic idea is the notion that taking action in one part of a system can often have unintended consequences in another part of the system. Having good examples of this in the ecological realm is a great way to help people to be systems thinkers.
One of the best-known examples is the story of Cats in Borneo, which was retold by Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute during RMI’s 25th anniversary gala in 2007. It goes something like this:
Cats in Borneo
A Cautionary Systems Tale related by Amory Lovins
In the 1950s, the Dyak people of Borneo were suffering from an outbreak of malaria, so they called the World Health Organization for help. The World Health Organization had a ready-made solution, which was to spray copious amounts of DDT around the island. With the application of DDT, the mosquitoes that carried the malaria were knocked down, and so was the malaria.
There were, though, some interesting consequences. The first was that the roofs of peoples’ houses began to collapse on their heads. It seems the DDT not only killed off the mosquitoes, but it also killed off a species of parasitic wasp that had theretofore kept in check a population of thatch-eating caterpillars. Without the wasps, the caterpillars multiplied and flourished, and began munching their way through the villagers’ roofs.
That was just the beginning. The DDT affected a lot of the island’s insects, which were eaten by the resident population of little lizardy creatures call ginkos. Overtime, the ginkos begin to accumulate pretty high loads of DDT, and while they tolerated the DDT fairly well, the island’s resident cats, which dined on the ginkos, didn’t. The cats ate the ginkos and the DDT in the ginkos killed the cats. Without any cats, the island’s population of rats multiplied and flourished, and we all know what happens when rats multiply and flourish. Pretty soon the Dyak people were back on the phone to the World Health Organization, only this time it wasn’t malaria they were complaining about. It was septisemic plague, which, being universally fatal and untreatable, was way worse than the malaria.
This time, though, the World Health Organization didn’t have a ready made solution and had to invent one. The result, believe it or not, was to parachute live cats into Borneo. “Operation Cat Drop,” courtesy of the Royal Air Force.
The moral of the story is that if you aren’t thinking about the system you’re working in and the relationships among its parts, your solutions are likely going to be the cause of even bigger problems.”
NOTE: My apologies to the owner of the great graphic. I’ve misplaced the info and can’t seem to find it again.
Jacques LeCavalier & Associates Inc.
Sustainability Learning that Sticks!