Systems Thinking: Operation Cat Drop and Chaotic Kindness

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Back in the fifties, people in a region of Borneo were having trouble with malaria. In an effort to save lives, the World Health Organization decided to intervene by drastically reducing the mosquito population (mosquitoes being carriers of malaria). To do so, they sprayed the insecticide DDT all over the area, killing many mosquitoes and significantly reducing the incidence of malaria.

However, the World Health Organization failed to appreciate the full scope of their actions. DDT not only successfully killed mosquitoes - it also attacked a parasitic wasp population. These wasps, it turned out, had kept in check a population of thatch-eating caterpillars. So with the accidental removal of the wasps, the caterpillars flourished, and soon building roofs started falling in all over the place.

As if that was not enough the insects, poisoned by DDT, were consumed by geckoes. The biological half-life of DDT is around 8-years, so animals like geckoes do not metabolize it very fast, and it stays in their system for a long time. Those geckoes, carrying the DDT poison, were in turn hunted and eaten by the cat population. With far less cats, rats took over and multiplied, and this in turn led to outbreaks of typhus and sylvatic plague (which are passed on by rats).

By now the cure had become worse than the initial disease, so the World Health Organization did what any self-respecting world health organization would do: they parachuted a bunch of live cats into Borneo. The event was known as Operation Cat Drop.

The WHO had failed to consider the full implications of their actions on the delicate ecology of the region. Because they lacked understanding of the basic effects of DDT (now banned in the United States), such as a long half-life that allows spreading through levels of consumption, and the relationships among the animals of the area, they ended up making things worse rather than better - and a high cost was paid for this mistake.

By considering only the straightforward, first-level relationship between mosquitoes as carriers of malaria and humans as recipients of malaria, the WHO unrealistically assumed that this relationship could be investigated or acted upon independently of any other variables or relationships. They considered one tiny aspect of the system, rather than the entire thing (the entire ecology).

The results of their actions demonstrate the incredible importance of whole-systems thinking. In the real world, as opposed to the drawing boards at a WHO meeting, one relationship strand (e.g. mosquito-human) cannot be separated from the rest of the system. All of the parts are intricately tied together in a complex fabric of inter-relatedness, and tugging on one string of that fabric can pull at other parts which may not at first glance appear at all connected to the point of action. While the WHO was certainly doing their best to help people in a crisis, and things worked themselves back into balance in the end, the drastic counter-measures necessary to re-achieve basic stability demonstrate the necessity of viewing our world in its own holistic terms rather than simplistic theorizing that tries to separate easily manipulated variables in tweakable relationships.

The same idea can be applied to all areas of life. Everything is inter-related, and changes which are seemingly narrow in scope can set off a domino effect that reaches much wider than ever anticipated. A butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world could set off a chain-reaction that eventually affects the weather patterns across the entire Earth.

The chaotic nature of change (narrow scope to wide scope) does not by any means imply that everything is out of our control and that we should not bother trying to take any actions at all. Rather, adopting a whole-systems paradigm should allow us to realize not our impotence, but instead our power. Like a butterfly affecting weather, a friendly smile towards a stranger can brighten that person's day just a little bit, leading them to perform some act of compassion which they otherwise might not have, in turn inspiring others to act different than they would have before. A small act of kindness could literally change the world, even if the person performing it could never track the unimaginably complex effects of that little action across the entire human realm.

Remember, we are all affecting the world every moment, whether we mean to or not. Our actions and states of mind matter, because we're so deeply interconnected with one another. Working on our own consciousness is the most important thing that we are doing at any moment, and being in love is the supreme creative act.
--Ram Dass

I should note here that there was an error in a previous version of this article. Accounts of this story across the internet cite the number of cats dropped as 14,000(!), a number that boggles the mind when you consider the logistics involved in pulling off such a maneuver. Even the New York Times, in a 1969 story, cited incorrect numbers. In fact, it appears that the number was in fact on the order of 10's of cats. Specifically a British Royal Air Force Operations Record Book from March 13, 1960 lists an RAF flight out of Changi, Singapore that parachute-dropped various stores (seeds, stout for a chieftain) and "over 20 cats to wage war on rats that were threatening crops." Many thanks to Josie Halford for following the sources of this story all the way back to the actual military drop and clearing up what has become a very widespread mistaken twist on what is already a very interesting story.

Originally Written: 01-31-04
Last Updated: 05-23-07