How Plants and Animals Can Prepare Us for the Next Big Disaster

Author Rafe Sagarin looks to the natural world for tips on how to plan for national emergencies

In his new book, Learning From the Octopus, Rafe Sagarin argues that we ought to look to nature for how to better protect ourselves from danger. (Paul Chinn / San Francisco Chronicle / Corbis)

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Where else in nature should we look for guidance?

In the relationships among species. One thing that is very important and very underutilized in society is the power of symbiotic relationships. These partnerships are sometimes between the most unlikely pairs of organisms—large predatory fish and small fish that are cleaning them. Many symbiotic relationships came out of relationships that used to be antagonistic.

My friend Terry Taylor has organized partnerships between health practitioners in Israel, Palestinian territories and Jordan. They are all working together to identify diseases, respond to them and neutralize them. It is not part of some road map to peace. It is not prime ministers getting together. It is just people who realize that they have a problem that transcends national borders and politics.

What sectors could most benefit from looking to nature?

Business has ignored biological principles at its peril. There is such a huge emphasis in business and management on planning, on optimizing and on trying to predict the future. Those are three things that biological organisms don’t do. They don’t plan. They don’t try to predict the future. And they don’t try to be perfect.

There is a lot of talk in the management world about how important it is to learn from failure. But learning from failure is really a dead end, biologically. In any situation, it only helps you learn what to do if the next problem is exactly like the last problem. Every biological organism is an example of learning from success and the success of its ancestors. I advocate that we need to identify and learn from success and replicate any part, even of a situation that overall was a failure, that succeeded.

We have sometimes focused so much on failure that we have failed to actually look at the successes that might be useful. For example, the after-action report from Hurricane Katrina identified over 100 different failures. But it totally ignored one major success, which was how well the Coast Guard contained a massive oil spill. Now, that one success is the one thing that would have been useful in the next big Gulf of Mexico catastrophe, which was the Deepwater Horizon blowout.

How do you see a smart corporation applying the lessons of nature? What would an adaptable corporation look like?

You can incorporate adaptable strategies into any organization, no matter how bureaucratic or top-down it is now. The best way to start is to switch from giving orders to issuing challenges. Giving an order means a small group of experts have said, “This is the right thing to do.” Issuing a challenge says, “We have a problem here. Can someone figure out how to solve it?”

The corporation 3M wanted to reduce its environmental footprint, but instead of a CEO sending out a memo saying, “Everyone reduce your paper by 20 percent,” the company said, “Anyone in any department who can figure out a way to reduce our environmental footprint, let us know.” It is just like activating all those skin cells on the octopus or activating all our immune system cells. You had mailroom clerks figuring out ways to reduce paper. You had chemists figuring out how they could reduce chemical wastes and emissions. Everyone in his or her own place is figuring out a solution. Collectively, this has saved the company tens of millions of dollars and vastly reduced its environmental impact.


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