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What Can Nature Teach us about National Security?

OPB | Aug. 7, 2012 12:06 p.m. | Updated: Sept. 10, 2013 11:51 p.m.

Rafe Sagarin is a marine ecologist first and foremost, but he’s interested in how else the principles of ecology can be applied. Several years back, he convened a group of experts not only in fields like ecology, paleobiology, and virology, but also security, bio-warfare, and espionage to ask the question: what can we learn about security in society from security in nature? Those discussions formed the basis of his new book, Learning from the Octopus: How Secrets from Nature can Help us Fight Terrorist Attacks, Natural Disasters, and Disease

The biggest difference Sagarin found between national security organizations and nature is adaptabilityAs an example, Sagarin takes the target of the TSA:

When increased body screening of airline passengers was implemented after 9/11, Richard Reid attempted to destroy an airliner with a bomb in his shoe; and when shoes began to be screened in response to Reid’s attack, al-Qaeda plotted to use a liquid explosive attack; and when liquids were banned, Umar Abdulmutallab used a powdered incendiary hidden in his underwear.

Sagarin says that these solutions are easy to prescribe and enforce, but they don’t do anything but prevent the exact same attack. Instead, TSA could take a page out of the book of nature, where again and again you see decentralized systems that are more adaptable. Consider the octopus, and it’s skin cells that “instantly changing shape and color to perfectly match their immediate surroundings.”

The rapidly changing skin cells show it has an adaptable organization in which a lot of power to detect and directly respond to changes in the environment is given to multiple agents that don’t have to do a lot of reporting and order-taking from a central brain.

Sagarin’s conclusion from that ecological model is it is far more effective to give more power to individual agents and locales for how to monitor and address security issues.

He says people like Eric Berlow, an ecologist and founder of TRU NORTH Labs, have a lot to teach the higher ups in government institutions. Here’s Berlow’s TED talk on what the military in Iraq could have learned from ecologists studying food chains:

Are you convinced? What principles of ecology can you apply to other parts of your life or work? What questions do you have for Rafe Sagarin?

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