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Everything is interconnected: Dropping cats and thinking in systems

A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away... Oh wait, this isn’t fiction. Or Star Wars. A not-so-long time ago, on an island not-so-far away, it literally rained cats. Cats in parachutes. 

                            
                                                              Yep. (image source)

In the early 1950s, Borneo was affected by a serious malaria outbreak. The World Health Organization, as part of their antimalarial campaign, sprayed houses on the island with insecticide DDT to kill the mosquito vector responsible for the spread of the disease. And it worked, the number of cases of malaria reduced. However, there were some other serious consequences. 

We know now the dangerous effects of DDT and other insecticides, but back then, it was assumed that the insecticide would get rid of the mosquitos, malaria would be gone and Borneo would be a happy place. But that didn't happen, instead, the spraying had some unintended consequences. Cats on the island started dying due to accidentally ingesting DDT and being poisoned. Less cats meant more rats... The rat population increased quickly, which raised the possibility of the spread of rodent-related diseases. So, to control the growing rat population, the Royal Air Force "dropped" boxes of cats from the air in parachutes to replace the ones killed. This was called Operation Cat Drop. And yes, this is a true story [1]. 

This incident is a classic example of the law of unintended consequences. Most actions don't simply work as simple as action -> desired outcome, they're rather action -> chain of events -> each chain generating a different (and often unpredicted) set of outcomes. If we are to make decisions that have a huge impact, we need to take this into account for the various possibilities that can occur as a result. By only looking at the first-level relationship between DDT and the mosquitos, Operation Cat Drop assumed this relationship would be fairly straightforward and unaffected by any other variables. They considered only one aspect of the system, not the whole system.

The rather dramatic consequences show the incredible importance of systems thinking, which is essentially understanding that everything is interconnected, each part of the whole system is somehow related to another. A "system" is composed of interdependent parts, and all the elements of the system function together as a whole, taking in inputs and producing an autonomous outcome.  A computer is a system, the human body is a system, a car with a driver is a system. One system can overlap with and affect another system. Any action on one element of the system can set off a chain of domino effects which one can fail to anticipate if the big picture wasn't planned for [2].

                                                      
A simple representation of a system: interrelated elements take in an input to produce outputs

The same idea can be applied to all aspects of life - ranging from ecology to computer science, from everyday actions to global patterns. A butterfly simply fluttering its wings can lead to a series of events that cause a hurricane in another part of the world [3]. However, this chaos of consequences is not always bad. One smile can brighten someone's day, who could in turn perform another act of kindness which they otherwise wouldn't have, leading to a series of events that wouldn't have happened if not for the little smile (happiness is literally contagious!). 

The importance of thinking in systems beyond the simple cause and effect relationship is becoming increasingly important as we continue to grow and make technological and economic progress. Every step we take has consequences on the environment, the economy, and the people. Often, we like to focus on the economic or consumer benefits that a new development begets, without considering the direct or secondary/tertiary level consequences on the planet and our resources. While there is an environmental movement emerging worldwide, we still have a long way to go. 

Several companies try to allocate environmental strategy implementation to a single department while continuing business as usual in all other aspects of their operations - but it is impossible to achieve a sustainable growth pattern in that case. Think of the company as a system, environmental strategy affects all elements of the business from product development to operational efficiency. Incorporating the "triple bottom line" - People, Profits and the Planet straight into business models is now becoming a necessity if we are to sustainably continue with the rate of growth we are at now. 


The Triple Bottom Line (image source

Companies, governments, communities and individuals at all levels need to work collaboratively and proactively to change the rather terrifying trajectory of where we're headed if we continue business and practices as usual. Systems are complex and there are, of course, tradeoffs involved. We need to consider options and their potential consequences thoroughly while making decisions. Before we make another mistake like Operation Cat Drop, we need people in decision-making positions to have interdisciplinary problem-solving skills. Having specific scientific competencies helps, but is not enough in today's ever-changing external environment dynamics. Thinking of unintended consequences does not mean everything is out of our hands and we can't do anything to avoid it. Instead, a systems approach should help us realize our power to control our actions, not our impotence. 


Notes
Systems thinking is a very broad term that can be applied to a wide range of contexts in different ways. This article is only a small insight into the theory and why it is necessary from the point of business and environmental sustainability.

[1]: A fun-to-read illustrated version of the story can be found here. Though there is slight skepticism about all parts of that story being a hundred percent true, we know for sure that cats have a poor resistance against DDT and that the cat-drop incident did happen. 
[2]: For learning more about systems and applying systems thinking, Donella Meadow's book, Thinking in Systems, is a great place to start.
[3]: This is called the butterfly effect: A small change in the initial state of complex system can lead to a large difference at a later state. 

Comments

  1. You lost me when you started talking about companies, but I really love the cat dropping story.

    ReplyDelete
  2. You have pretty much summed up everything that is wrong with the we humans are thinking, in general. Very informative.

    ReplyDelete

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