Amory Lovins, Rocky Mountain Institute: ‘Don’t do this’

November 29, 2007

Steven Milloy won’t like this. It’s a parable, based on a true story, about why we shouldn’t willy-nilly increase DDT spraying, anywhere. Amory Lovins tells it quickly, and well.

So in this tranquil but unwavering spirit of applied hope, let me tell you a story.

In the early 1950s, the Dayak people in Borneo had malaria. The World Health Organization had a solution: spray DDT. They did; mosquitoes died; malaria declined; so far, so good. But there were side-effects. House roofs started falling down on people’s heads, because the DDT also killed tiny parasitic wasps that had previously controlled thatch-eating caterpillars. The colonial government gave people sheet-metal roofs, but the noise of the tropical rain on the tin roofs kept people awake. Meanwhile, the DDT-poisoned bugs were eaten by geckoes, which were eaten by cats. The DDT built up in the food chain and killed the cats. Without the cats, the rats flourished and multiplied. Soon the World Health Organization was threatened with potential outbreaks of typhus and plague, which it would itself have created, and had to call in RAF Singapore to conduct Operation Cat Drop–parachuting a great many live cats into Borneo.

This story–our guiding parable at Rocky Mountain Institute–shows that if you don’t understand how things are connected, often the cause of problems is solutions. Most of today’s problems are like that. But we can harness hidden connections so the cause of solutions is solutions: we solve, or better still avoid, not just one problem but many, without making new ones, before someone has to go parachuting more cats. So join me in envisioning where these linked, multiplying solutions can lead if you apply and extend what you’ve learned and take responsibility for creating the world you want. Details of this business-led future will be described this autumn in a book my team and I are now finishing, called Reinventing Fire.

[Here, used to be a Google Video of that part of the speech. O tempora, O mores! Is the format even available anymore?  Below, video of a 2011 commencement speech, with the same parable near the beginning.]

Amory Lovins is founder, president and Chief Scientist with the Rocky Mountain Institute.  This speech, from August 2007, can also be viewed at RMI’s site, where the full text is also available.

“Effects of DDT in Borneo,” a flow chart showing the need for “Operation Cat Drop,” the UN-sponsored parachuting of cats into Borneo after a DDT-caused disastrous avalanche of events. From ActionOutdoors.org


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