Systems thinking: a cautionary tale (cats in Borneo)

This whiteboard animation video about systems thinking tells a story of cats in Borneo (a.k.a. Operation Cat Drop parachuting cats) that occurred in Borneo in the 1950’s. It is a reminder that when solutions are implemented without a systems perspective they often create new problems.

More details in this book “Parachuting Cats into Borneo”:

We live in complex systems. Systems thinking is important to take into account in our sustainable development to make sure that we take all systems into account before acting and trying to solve our sustainability problems.

As a result of not using systems thinking in this story, the World Health Organization decided to parachute live cats into Borneo. “Operation Cat Drop” occurred courtesy of the Royal Air Force and eventually stabilized the situation.

Indonesian Subtitles: Shanty Syahril

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Videos are created by Alexandre Magnin using years of experience drawing and working as a sustainability consultant with businesses and communities:

Thank you to The Natural Step Canada and all our patrons for supporting us.

If you are interested to learn more about systems thinking, check out the Top 15 Systems Thinking Books and follow Gene Bellinger @SystemsThinking.

Narration: Sarah Brooks
Music “The Messenger” by Silent Partner

Thank you to our volunteer for the Portuguese subtitles: André Ribeiro Winter
Thank you to our volunteer for the Turkish subtitles: Tuba Atabey, Gül Ulu, Okan Türkeş, Ezgi Topuz

Inspired by a true story…

In the 1950s, the Dayak people of Borneo, an island in Southeast Asia, were suffering from an outbreak of malaria, so they called the World Health Organization for help. The World Health Organization had a ready-made solution, which was to spray copious amounts of DDT around the island. With the application of DDT, the mosquitoes that carried the malaria were knocked down, and so was the malaria.

There were some interesting side effects, though. The first was that the roofs of people’s houses began to collapse on their heads (sound 50-52). It seems the DDT not only killed off the malaria-carrying mosquitoes, but it also killed a species of parasitic wasp that up to that point had controlled a population of thatch-eating caterpillars. Without the wasps, the caterpillars multiplied and flourished, and began munching their way through the villagers’ roofs.

That was just the beginning. The DDT affected a lot of the island’s other insects, which were eaten by the resident population of small lizards called geckos. The biological half-life of DDT is around 8 years, so animals like geckos do not metabolize it very fast, and it stays in their system for a long time. Over time, the geckos began to accumulate pretty high loads of DDT, and while they tolerated the DDT fairly well, the island’s resident cats, which dined on the geckos, did not. The cats ate the geckos and the DDT contained in the geckos killed the cats. With the cats gone, the island’s population of rats came out to play and we all know what happens when rats multiply and flourish. Pretty soon the Dayak people were back on the phone to the World Health Organization, only this time it wasn’t malaria they were complaining about. It was plague and the destruction of their grain stores caused by the overpopulation of rats. This time, though, the World Health Organization didn’t have a ready-made solution and had to invent one: they decided to parachute live cats into Borneo. “Operation Cat Drop” occurred courtesy of the Royal Air Force and eventually stabilized the situation.

If you don’t understand the inter-relatedness of things, solutions often cause more problems
Simple questions often require complex and reflective thinking if good solutions are to be found
It is always better to manage by design than by default