Parachuting cats into Borneo — Stopping the waste of people — Curitiba’s web of solutions — Faster travel without freeways — Subways on the surface — Simple, fast, fun, and cheap — When garbage isn’t garbage — No hunger pangs — A place for living — A symbol of the possible
W H AT D E S T I N AT I O N D O E S O U R S O C I E T Y W A N T T O R E A C H , A N D H OW W I L L I T
get there? Lessons in what not to do can often be found in cities, where most ofﬁcials, overwhelmed by a ﬂood of problems, try to cope by naming and solving them one at a time. If they are faced with congestion, their answer is to widen streets and build bypasses and parking garages. Crime? Lock up the offenders. Smog? Regulate emissions. Illiteracy? Toughen standards. Litter?Raise ﬁnes. Homelessness? Build shelters, and if that seems to fail, jail the loiterers. Insufﬁcient budget to fund all these competing priorities? Raise taxes or impose sacriﬁcial austerity, to taste. Disaffected voters? Blame political enemies. Sometimes single-problem, single-solution approaches do work, but often, as previously described, optimizing one element in isolation pessimizes the entiresystem. Hidden connections that have not been recognized and turned to advantage will eventually tend to create disadvantage. Consider what happened in Borneo in the s. Many Dayak villagers had malaria, and the World Health Organization had a solution that was simple and direct. Spraying DDT seemed to work: Mosquitoes died, and malaria declined. But then an expanding web of side effects(“consequences you didn’t think of,” quips biologist Garrett Hardin, “the existence of which you will deny as long as possible”) started to appear. The roofs of people’s houses began to collapse, because the DDT had also killed tiny parasitic wasps that had previously controlled thatch-eating caterpillars. The colonial government issued sheet-metal replacement roofs, but people couldn’t sleep whentropical rains turned the tin roofs into drums. Meanwhile, the DDT-poisoned bugs were
N AT U R A L C A P I TA L I S M
being eaten by geckoes, which were eaten by cats. The DDT invisibly built up in the food chain and began to kill the cats. Without the cats, the rats multiplied. The World Health Organization, threatened by potential outbreaks of typhus and sylvatic plague, which it haditself created, was obliged to parachute fourteen thousand live cats into Borneo. Thus occurred Operation Cat Drop, one of the odder missions of the British Royal Air Force.1 Too often, cities similarly ﬁnd that the cause of their problems is prior solutions that have either missed their mark or boomeranged, like the bigger road that invites more trafﬁc, the river channelization that worsensﬂoods, the homeless shelter that spreads tuberculosis, and the prison that trains criminals in more sophisticated techniques. Rather, our goal should be to solve or avoid each problem in a way that also addresses many more simultaneously — without creating new ones. This system approach not only recognizes underlying causal linkages but sees places to turn challenges into opportunities. Communities andwhole societies need to be managed with the same appreciation for integrative design as buildings, the same frugally simple engineering as lean factories, and the same entrepreneurial drive as great companies. This wide focus can help people protect not only the natural capital they depend upon but also their social fabric, their own human capital. Just as ecosystems produce both monetized“natural resources” and far more valuable but unmonetized “ecosystem services,” so social systems have a dual role. They provide not only the monetized “human resources” of educated minds and skilled hands but also the far more valuable but unmonetized “social system services” — culture, wisdom, honor, love, and a whole range of values, attributes, and behaviors that deﬁne our humanity and make our...