This week's blog is taken from Chapter 87 of my book, Escape from Bubbleworld Seven Curves to Save the World.  It examines the danger of optimization.  Efficiency measures, more from less, optimizing production and design and increased technology are mantras of the Enlightenment, where we view optimization at the human level as central to our own progress.  Yet we are not alone, but part of a much greater whole, the biosphere.  Systems require sub-optimality at each level for the greater functional good, as we shall see if we go down to the neighbouring woodland...

He’d buried them somewhere around here.  Hundreds of acorns carefully gathered and secreted away for the winter, each one chosen with a feast in mind.  And now, this snowy morning, waking to the feeling of overwhelming hunger, all Mr Squirrel had to do was remember where he had hidden the damn nuts.  This was getting ridiculous.  Squirrel Nutkin indeed!  More like Squirrel Nothing, with the “nothing” referring to the substance of his memory and the content of his belly.

And this wasn’t the first time either.  Just a couple of days ago, it had taken him three hours to track down one of his caches.  Maybe he was being too cryptic, placing the tasty morsels in more and more obscure hidey-holes.  If only he had some way of recording exactly where and when he had hidden these nuts.  Maybe some kind of hand-held global positioning system device or...

Then, from nowhere, a magical cloud appeared in front of him, full of sparkles and fireworks, and out of it stepped a rather muscular little wood mouse, oozing attitude and zeal.

“You see,” the wood mouse proclaimed with a flourish of his paw, “it’s the way it’s meant to be!”

Mr Squirrel just stared at this flamboyant little chap, and was about to try to think of something to say when the mouse took a stick from the ground and sketched out a rectangle in the air, which transformed into a flat screen monitor.

“Let’s take two scenarios here, Squirrel.  First, you remember where all the nuts are.  You become the recall rodent himself – not one acorn escapes your crystal clear thinking.  And you eat them all.  Year after year, you keep eating them all.  What do you think will happen, eh, big guy?”

“Well,” said Mr Squirrel “I suppose I’d be nice and full, and a lot less frustrated, and I’d be much more operationally optimized too – think of the efficiency savings! I could start studying again for my Master of Business Administration with the Open University. I’d have more time for my family too...” “And there’d be no more squirrels in the woodland.” interrupted the wood mouse, in a monotone that cut across his bows.  “Take a look for yourself; it’s all on the screen, this forest, in one hundred years time, with your perfect recollection and kernel collection.”

They both stared at the screen, which flickered into life.  It was terrible.  The trees were all dead, as were almost all of the animals.  There was no bird-song, no chirruping of the grasshopper, no buzzing of the bees and no rustling of the squirrels.  There were no squirrels.

“What...happened?” stammered the squirrel.

You and your sort ate all the nuts, that’s what happened.  The trees were unable to reproduce because you ate all their babies.  So the forest died, and you lot starved to death.”

There was silence.  The screen flickered and went blank. 

“Of course, you could have forgotten where all of the nuts were hidden...” and the screen flickered back into life.  The forest looked relatively healthy, although there were a lot of birds around... too many birds.  The place was covered in birds.  And there were no squirrels.

“What’s with all the birds” Mr Squirrel asked, honestly puzzled by this Hitchcockian scene. “And where are all the squirrels?” he added, more tentatively. 

“Well you couldn’t remember where any of the nuts were, so you all starved to death.  Remember in the spring, you eat bird eggs?  Lots of them.  Without your predation, the bird populations spiralled out of control.  They’ll all starve eventually.  A population explosion.  And then, a population crash –Malthusian Mayhem, they call it!” 

The wood mouse made the screen disappear, and started to walk off into the forest.  Turning to look at the stunned squirrel, he said “You see, the optimal way for nature to operate is with each of its components acting sub-optimally.  If you try to strive for efficiency, the whole house will come tumbling down.”



09/03/2015 11:40pm

You have a very interesting take on how to save the planet. “Escape from Bubbleworld Seven Curves to Save the World” is very entertaining. I wish I can write the way you do. There is a different kind of fulfillment when you are a writer. You share your thoughts to the world and, once shared, you cannot measure how you impact other people’s way of thinking. Your profession indeed is very noble and worth emulating.

04/12/2016 8:30am

Saving this planet together. Thks for great post


Too many birds in the forrest and no squirrels? It is cool, but sounds unreal :)


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