In the last 3+ months, I’ve been meaning to write a post about “Operation Cat Drop.” With my recent “unburdening” of having to write an “article,” I feel more comfortable recounting the story and adding a few of my ideas to the post. For those unfamiliar with the story of Operation Cat Drop, here’s a site that has collected many versions of the story. According to said site, there are at least 5 different versions of the story. Regardless of the number of variants on the story there are and the uncertainty of its truth, the lessons from the story still stand. Here’s a brief account found on Harvard’s site:
In the early 1950s, there was an outbreak of a serious disease called malaria amongst the Dayak people in Borneo. The World Health Organization tried to solve the problem. They sprayed large amounts of a chemical called DDT to kill the mosquitoes that carried the malaria. The mosquitoes died and there was less malaria. That was good. However, there were side effects. One of the first effects was that the roofs of people’s houses began to fall down on their heads. It turned out that the DDT was also killing a parasitic wasp that ate thatch-eating caterpillars. Without the wasps to eat them, there were more and more thatch-eating caterpillars. Worse than that, the insects that died from being poisoned by DDT were eaten by gecko lizards, which were then eaten by cats. The cats started to die, the rats flourished, and the people were threatened by outbreaks of two new serious diseases carried by the rats, sylvatic plague and typhus. To cope with these problems, which it had itself created, the World Health Organization had to parachute live cats into Borneo.
The coincidental nature (for me) of having wanted to write this post so many times in the last few months is striking. Two of my most recent submissions for coursework have involved me explaining: 1) unintended consequences and 2) externalities. They are, essentially, the same thing, but externalities has a history in the economics literature. My point in raising the story about dropping cats into Borneo is that it’s very important to consider the ramifications of the actions being taken.
That’s not to say that those folks who were involved in Operation Cat Drop (if there was one) didn’t think about the unintended consequences or (externalities) of what they were doing, but just to illustrate the importance of these concepts. A perspective that takes into account the “whole system” would — at a minimum — consider the possibility of externalities and unintended consequences. I think that as the world grows closer together (read: globalization) it is vital that decisions take into account even disparate connections.