image by: Javier Rapoport
In today's world we often impose our technology on every difficulty we encounter. But confining ourselves to a more natural approach to problem-solving may do more good with less harm.
Humans are clever beasts. We have developed technologies to deal with problems ranging from building metropolises in the middle of deserts (Las Vegas, Los Angeles) to allowing us to survive or avoid diseases that ravaged us former (penicillin, the polio vaccine) to transmitting information through the air (radio, WiFi). Our ability to innovate has enabled us to survive and thrive in ways that make our species stand out from the pack.
But by and large we have become so enamored of our ability to create technologies to cope with our problems that we seem to have forgotten that the best course is to innovate within the confines of the natural world, a strategy that avoids the possibility of unintended consequences that comes with any new technology.
The current classic case of unintended consequences brought by technology is antibiotic resistance. As Dr. Howard Markel writes, the 1928 discovery of penicillin—popularly thought of as the first antibiotic (that's not quite right, but never mind)—"marks a true turning point in human history—when doctors finally had a tool that could completely cure their patients of deadly infectious diseases."
Unfortunately, humans began using antibiotics and other antibacterial products as cure-alls or prevent-alls (e.g., in animal feed, in soap) rather than confining their use to the specific needful circumstances (e.g., to treat malaria, which is often fatal if untreated). As the Centers for Disease Control puts it, "Since the 1940s, [antibiotics] have greatly reduced illness and death from infectious diseases. However, these drugs have been used so widely and for so long that the infectious organisms the antibiotics are designed to kill have adapted to them, making the drugs less effective."
The situation has become so grave that in 2014 the World Health Organization called antimicrobial resistance "a global health security threat that requires concerted cross-sectional action by governments and society as a whole." In the United States, the Food & Drug Administration—an organization usually far behind the scientific curve because of what is widely seen as corporate and political influence on its policies—recently decided to pull antibacterial soap from the market, recommending that people wash their hands simply with plain soap and water.
That directive highlights what ought to be a general rule for how we choose to address our problems: we should look for an organic means to get what we want, rather than blindly embracing the high-tech means to get there just because we (think we) can.
The field of medicine provides a compelling example in the form of naïve interventionism, the practice of "doing something" medically when it would be better to let nature take its course. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb notes in Antifragile: Things That Benefit From Disorder, prior to the invention of penicillin "going to the doctor increased your chance of death" (consider, for example, how much harm doctors did over the course of history with the common practice of bloodletting), but even today "medical error kills between three (as accepted by doctors) and ten times as many people as car accidents in the United States," and "harm from doctors—not including risks from hospital germs—accounts for more deaths than any single cancer" (pp. 111–112). Researches at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine put that number at upwards of 250,000 per year, making medical intervention the third-leading killer of Americans.
A recent model of how to address problems with an organic, holistic mindset can be found in the novel way some African farmers are handling the problem of nighttime crop-raids by elephants. In recent years the expansion of human settlement on the African continents has led to an increase in human-elephant conflict, which results in dozen of human casualties and hundreds of elephant fatalities each year. But for the last eight years the Elephants and Bees Project is working with farmers across Africa to install Beehive fences as a natural means of deterring elephant raids. The principle is simple: hives, or dummy hives, are hung every 10 meters and linked together in such a way that when an elephant touches one of the hives or the interconnecting wire between them, the beehives all along the fence line swing, which results in the bees being released and attacking the source of the disturbance. Not only are the raiding elephants deterred, but elephants are intelligent enough that they and their herds s quickly learn to avoid the fence lines entirely. The Elephants and Bees Project reports an 80% success rate thus far.
Not surprisingly, electrified fences have also been shown to reduce such raids. But as a University of Cambridge study notes, such fencing works only "when well
maintained and vigorously enforced"; and "the cost of constructing, maintaining and enforcing [such fencing] is high and therefore this approach may only be applicable in well-resourced conservation areas. Elsewhere, resources might be better focused on cheaper fence configurations, stronger enforcement and/or on support for small-scale farmers in adopting simple farmbased deterrents."
Because Beehive Fences are made entirely from local, organic material and rely on a native species, they are complementary to the environment, rather than imposing a foreign element (such as metal posts and wires and whatever byproducts result from the power generation necessary to electrify the fencing). Moreover, beyond protecting a given farm's existing crops, Beehive Fences add a new one—honey—while increasing the pollination rates of area vegetation (such as trees, bushes, flowering shrubs, and wild grasses), which both increases quality forage for livestock and helps absorb and store atmospheric carbon.
This is innovation in the best sense of the word, and it shows why perhaps the best first step toward addressing a problem should always be one that does not introduce exogenous elements into the mix. Otherwise, you may do more harm than good, while the good you wanted may have been obtainable by the natural means you had on hand.
About the Author:
Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California. Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing.
His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly, GreaterLongBeach.com, and a variety of academic and literary journals. HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up. For more information: greggorymoore.com
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