Mark Frauenfelder at 11:42 am Mon, Apr 30
Excerpt: Learning from the Octopus: Prologue: Unnatural Disasters
On the morning of December 26, 2004, animals across Asia and Africa were acting strangely. Elephants elicited horrific bellows, herds of oxen bolted for higher ground, and domestic dogs refused to go on their morning walks along the beach. In some cases, bewildered humans followed the lead of their charges to higher ground, but many did not. Less than an hour later, the ocean was sucked back far from shore and a huge tsunami thundered all across India, Africa, and southern Asia, killing 225,000 people -- one of the worst catastrophes in modern history.1
After the floodwaters retreated, international aid poured in, with particular attention paid to installing state-of-the-art tsunami warning systems across the region. Yet in comparison to the animal-based warning systems, these high-tech solutions are still fairly primitive. Just a few years after the tsunami, villagers in the Aceh province of Indonesia, one of the hardest hit areas, angrily stoned their tsunami alarm until it was destroyed. The villagers felt the annoyance of the system's false alarms outweighed its purported benefits in early warning.
Destroying alarm systems that are supposed to protect us isn't uncommon. In the United States, residents of over 21 million households have tampered with, destroyed, or disabled their own smoke detectors because of the nuisance of false alarms.3 In fairness to the makers of smoke and tsunami alarms, such technologies have only been around for a few decades -- a fleeting fraction of Earth's long and violent experience with tsunamis, floods, and fire. By contrast, the surprisingly accurate security systems demonstrated by the animals before the tsunami have been developed and fine-tuned over billions of years, and this illustrates a major point: there is no technological solution that can prepare us for the risks of a highly variable and unpredictable world as well as the ancient natural process of adaptation.
Indeed, just a few weeks before the 2004 tsunami, the most technically sophisticated military force in the world inadvertently and quite publicly demonstrated how poorly adapted it was to its latest challenge. It happened during a pretty standard piece of military propaganda set up for the evening news. The U.S. secretary of defense was to helicopter in to the edge of a war zone to bolster the troops' morale, listen sincerely to their concerns, and assure them that all of America was fighting right there alongside them. But it didn't turn out that way for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in Kuwait on December 8, 2004. To the cheers of several thousand soldiers assembled, Specialist Thomas Wilson, a 31-year old Tennessee National Guardsman, pointedly asked the secretary why he and his fellow soldiers were being forced to rummage through garbage dumps to find armor to strap on to their vehicles, which provided inadequate protection in the combat zone. Rumsfeld was initially taken aback, then tartly retorted, "You go to war with the Army you have."4