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)

Rafe Sagarin is what you might call a “natural” security expert. In his new book, Learning From the Octopus, the University of Arizona marine ecologist and environmental policy analyst argues that we ought to look to nature—and its 3.5 billion years of adaptations for survival—for how to better protect ourselves from terrorist attacks, natural disasters and infectious disease. He spoke with Megan Gambino.

You are both an ecologist and a security expert. How did that happen?

I was a marine ecologist first. Back in 2002, I was working in Washington as a science adviser to Congresswoman Hilda Solis, now the Secretary of Labor. I was watching all the new security measures unfold in Washington less than a year after 9/11, with the eye of a naturalist. What I immediately saw was that these systems that were being put in place were not adaptable. They didn’t change or vary once they were installed. As a Hill staffer, I learned very quickly to put my hand over my keys in my pocket when I went through the metal detectors to avoid setting them off. If staffers who wanted to save 30 seconds could figure out how to avoid security measures, I thought, how quickly could terrorists figure out how to get around these measures? Likewise, security officers started screening cars by checking drivers’ IDs and then checking the trunks of the cars, but they did that exactly the same for every car pulling into the Capitol parking lots. How long would it take to figure out to put the bomb in the back seat and not the trunk? The security systems didn’t change at all like the systems I knew so well from the tide pools that I studied.

So what can we learn from an octopus?

Octopuses do so many different things. They are an exemplar of an adaptable system. The skin cells of an octopus each respond to color and texture in their environment. By doing that individually, they are, overall, giving the octopus a sense of camouflage. Then once the octopus identifies what is going on in the environment, it has many, many ways to respond. It can jet away in a cloud of ink. It can squeeze itself into a tiny shape or crevice. It can actually make tools that help protect itself. We have seen octopuses using halves of coconuts and putting them together to make a suit of armor.

That is not to say that humans should have a cloud of ink or something like that. But people should follow the principles of the octopus, which are to sense changes in the environment using as many sensors as possible and to respond to those changes with as many different strategies as possible. If one doesn’t work at a certain time, you have another to back it up.

What about other animals?

You can certainly find lessons in marmots, centipedes, sharks and just about everything. Ground squirrels do some very complex communication with predators. If they see a hawk or a coyote around, they make a shrill alarm call. This serves two purposes. It may warn other ground squirrels that there is a predator, but it also tells the hawk or the coyote that it can’t sneak up on it, that the uncertainty advantage is gone.

When this same ground squirrel sees a snake predator, it doesn’t make an alarm call, because snakes don’t hear. It actually puffs up its tail in a menacing way. It makes itself look bigger. But it gets even more complex than that. If and only if the snake is a rattlesnake, the squirrel will actually heat up its tail, because rattlesnakes see in infrared. Here are different ways of communicating with its predator that are very tightly tied to what its predator perceives.

That is an important lesson for how we communicate what we know about what our enemies are doing. Too often we just communicate some kind of blanket fear—we are at “code-level orange”—which doesn’t really give any indication that we’re reducing the uncertainty that our adversaries are trying to create.


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