Anyone who reads my posts will know that most of them are long. Really long. So you might be relieved to find a short one. I haven’t done as I normally would and dug deep into the question I’m posing because in this case I think one story is enough to illustrate the importance of good questions.
I watched this CNN documentary this morning following a prompt from a Facebook friend. If you want to watch it, warning, there are some very distressing images in it. When we talk about species extinction and see that end result of elephant poaching in the wild, anyone who loves the animal kingdom is going to be horrified.
But today my ear and eye was caught by the part of the feature on the Franklin bumblebee which hasn’t been seen in the wild for over 10 years (it comes at about 16.17 minutes in). Wild bees as we know are in steep decline, and we know it’s primarily due to overuse of pesticides in farming.
What isn’t so widely known is that one of the food industry’s most successful new innovations — vertical greenhouse farming — which produces a lot of our vegetables from tomatoes to peppers, has a different kind of partnership with bees. Bee colonies are artificially produced and flown into these vast greenhouses to pollinate the plants which would otherwise have to be pollinated by hand.
Most vertical greenhouses, from hydroponics to phytoponics are much less damaging on the environment, they use far less fertiliser and water, and use biological management methods to manage pests. I would far rather these than industrially grown monocultures that are knocking out biodiversity across the planet.
And yet they are also not without their challenges, which illustrates how deeply we are in the world of ‘no easy choices’.
In the case of artifical pollination through bees, the system is simple. The queen bee is trapped in the colony box delivered to the greenhouse so that she cannot escape and take the colony to a different location. At the end of around 8 weeks, the entire colony is incinerated. This is done to prevent the artificially developed bees from getting into nature and disturbing wild ecosystems. There are many other innovations coming forwards like bee vectoring technologies.
Yet of course even the most well thought through systems don’t work 100%. Science is now showing that some of these artificial colonies do escape and it is quite possible that they are taking diseases into wild bee populations that they acquire in their artificial conditions of captivity, and are contributing to the extinction of wild bee populations.
There are two things here.
Firstly, the human hubris that suggests we ‘think of the bees like a herd of cows; they’re domesticated insects’. And therefore that it’s ok to incinerate them when they’ve done their service to humanity and we have a tasty plate of veg! Morally I question that, it doesn’t feel quite right. But then I do eat a lot of tomatoes, the ones I grow myself are not enough for my yearly intake. Do we want plentiful tomatoes? Of course. Do we prefer them to be grown in a modern, hydroponic way compared to fertilised and sprayed greenhouses? Of course. But. Do I want that to be at the expense of incinerated bees? Not really.
Equally, if not more important, is that in our excitement to innovate, we often don’t stop to ask the question about unintended consequences.
In this case it appears that the impact of not taking ‘life’ into consideration in our brilliant new design for growing exponential amounts of veg, is proving to be detrimental to nature. The law of unintended consequences showing up. The knock on effect we thought about, had a plan for, but that happened anyway.
It’s at these moments I always think of Jeff Goldblum in the original Jurassic Park: “Just because we can, does it mean we should.” And ‘life finds a way”. That’s also the moment in a creativity workshop where your group has found a brilliant solution and they look at you daggers when you then ask them to consider the potential negative or moral implications. Especially moral ones. No one likes thinking about those; they’re a bit painful, awkward, threatening. We’ld just rather not be inconvenienced that way.
But what if you don’t?
Just because you design a box where a queen bee can’t get out, doesn’t mean she won’t. Just because you insist on the colonies being incinerated, and you have rules and processes to ensure it happens, doesn’t mean someone out there won’t feel he or she can’t do that and lets them fly away — even if it’s just once.
We didn’t ask the question: would nature do it this way, and the end result may be further collapse in wild insect populations.
Now I’m not a farmer or a biologist. I do creative strategy, narratives and innovation. I am not saying that in every case where we bring a mindset to an innovation challenge that is about manipulating and subduing nature to provide a solution with benefits for just one species — us humans — is always going to result in a disaster for the natural world. Yet within innovation processes, the most powerful question is ‘what if’?
What if it always does?
What if the answer to the law of unintended consequences is just to ask this one question: would nature do it this way?
PS. I’m prepared to be dumped on from a very great height for proposing that in some cases there may be a simple solution as to what we should, and shouldn’t do? But it’s a Sunday and I’m just thinking about it…..because that’s the sort of think I do on a Sunday 🙂