Skydiving Cats Over Borneo!

Apr 13, 2010 10:29 AM ET

Skydiving Cats Over Borneo!

In their ground breaking book Natural Capitalism, Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins relate a story of the need for systems thinking. This is a true story — the names have not been changed to protect anybody.

In Borneo in the 1950’s, there was an outbreak of malaria amongst the Dayak people. The World Health Organization came to the rescue with a simple fix to solve the problem. They sprayed large amounts of DDT to kill the mosquitoes that carried the malaria. Problem solved; ingenuity and technology triumph again. The mosquitoes died and malaria case dropped. This would have been the happy ending to the story, but then the roof caved in. Literally. Roofs, actually, as a certain parasitic wasp that ate a certain thatch-eating caterpillar got creamed by the DDT along with the mosquitoes. Party for the caterpillars! With the wasps that ate them gone, there were more and more thatch-eating caterpillars and fewer and fewer thatched roofs standing. But no problem. The government began to issue sheet metal, caterpillar proof roofs as replacements. Problem solved. Until the tropical rains set in and turned the roofs into drums. Ever try to sleep inside a drum with someone beating on it for hours at a time? Plus the metal roofs did not breathe and insulate like the natural thatch, so they were hotter in warm weather and colder on cool nights. But at least the malaria was gone, right?

Well, the insects that died from the DDT were eaten in turn by gecko lizards, which were then eaten by local cats. With DDT in accumulating in their little cat systems, the cats started to die. Now it was party time for …. the rats. Cats down, rats up! The rats flourished, and carried with them….(drumroll)…sylvatic plague and typhus! Brought to you by…The World Health Organization! To solve this serious outbreak of disease which they themselves created, the WHO ordered — and you couldn’t make this up- Operation Cat Drop! Operation Cat Drop (not cat droppings which is something completely different), parachuted 14,000 live cats into Borneo, in one of the strangest missions the British Royal Air force ever flew. (“We’re dropping WHAT?”)

This strange but true story serves i to make the point that we need to think systemically whenever we intervene in nature — a balanced systems that has been doing pretty well for 3.8 billion years. As John Muir famously noted, “Whenever we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe."  

Whether it’s throwing away a perfectly good bottle or can, putting last night’s supper down the garbage disposal instead of the compost bin, or driving our car places we could walk, it’s in our best interests to look at the whole system. As the Cats Over Borneo story shows us, sometimes the simplest fix is the most complicated.

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