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

Rafe Sagarin
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.

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.

In the book, you also highlight DARPA, the Department of Defense’s agency for developing new technology for the military, as being particularly adaptable.

DARPA is a great example. Unlike the rest of the Department of Defense, which hires one or maybe two mega defense contractors to produce something, DARPA will send out challenges to anyone, like “Figure out if you can create a vehicle that will navigate a course autonomously. DARPA will give you a million- or two-million-dollar prize”—an amount that is practically nothing to the Department of Defense.

All of these university engineering groups go out and try to solve this problem. The thing that is neat about challenge-based problem solving is it rarely takes many resources. People want to solve problems.

Are there other examples of challenge-based problem solving that you find interesting?

There are video games that have been created by biologists. The biologists are trying to figure out how proteins can be folded in different configurations, which is an incredibly complex problem. So they created a video game where gamers online compete with one another to try to come up with the best configurations for proteins. That has been incredibly effective, with much faster results than any individual biology lab could come up with. There is virtually no incentive there except to beat your fellow gamers.

Anytime you are issuing these challenges, if you ask the right question, you are likely to get a range of responses, some of which will be very good, some of which will be completely surprising, and you’ll do it at a very low cost and in a very quick time frame.

How have people taken to your idea?

The security people were very hungry for new ideas. Biologists tend to be more skeptical. But I eventually amassed a large group of biologists who are really excited about these kinds of applications. To me, the most interesting people to work with are the practitioners—the first responders, the soldiers, air marshals, and Marines coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. I talk with these groups in various ways, and what I always find is the ones who have been closest to lethal-type situations are the ones who are the most adaptable. They had to do things that weren’t in the standard operating procedures because they got on the ground and quickly recognized that they were in a completely different kind of war and one that changed from tour to tour.

What evidence is there that organizations that incorporate biological lessons are more fortified against risks?

You never know until the risk hits. We have seen examples after big events where this kind of organic organization really works. Think about the boatlift out of Lower Manhattan after 9/11. It wasn’t some big organized thing. There was no plan in place that said if there is a massive catastrophe in Lower Manhattan, every boat owner who can take passengers should go down there. But it happened. As those boats started coming, the Coast Guard said, OK, we’ve got something here. We’re going to basically let these guys come in, get out of the way, facilitate as much as we can but not put up any barriers because we got to get these people out of here.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.