Unintended consequences

A little story

Get rid of those trees, get rid of these people – clear the world of that kind of business! Sure, the world can do better without certain pests, but what would really improve our lot is some correctly applied wisdom. So, running all this through my mind, I remember Chairman Mao and the sparrows. I can see some of you nodding, you know where I’m going with this, but a cold realisation grips me (it actually gripped me): the majority of our new generation of movers and shakers/thought leaders might not know what the hell I’m on about. So here’s a little story about some apparently brilliant decisions that ended up killing millions of people they were meant to benefit, including many who implemented the policies with fervour.

I have a brilliant idea!

It starts with fanfare and excitement: Chairman Mao Zedong introduces the The “Four Pests” campaign in 1958 to get rid of disease and hunger. Mosquitoes, rats and flies are responsible for sickness, so crazy amounts of untested pesticides and poisons will be their lot. For hunger, sparrows are the target and citizens must attack nests, bang pots and pans to stop them from resting and flying birds are to be shot. Contests will be held where citizens are rewarded for the largest number of dead sparrows. It goes well: sparrows are driven close to extinction in China.

So, how’d it turn out?

It takes a few years for leaders to realise that sparrows eat insects as well as grain and the rice yield has dropped substantially. Turns out those sparrows were taking a nominal salary in rice and grain for doing an amazing job of naturally curbing destructive insects. But no-one knew this because sparrows had neglected to run a loud and stirring political campaign to advertise the fact. No sparrows meant that locust populations exploded – combine this with a deforested countryside drenched in destructive poisons, and what do you get? The Great Chinese Famine which led to death by starvation of 20 – 40 million or so people, the very ones who’d waged war against sparrows a few years earlier.

Nothing’s changed, except the speed

So, absolutely: get rid of foreign trees, but make sure you can manage the fire-hungry invading underbrush that sprouts in the wake of dead trees and strangles any friendly foliage. Dislike all kinds of people who aren’t exactly like you, but try to find out what it is they do to benefit your community before you get rid of them. Apply some actual thought.