The ‘Outsider’ — A Cautionary Tale About Politics As Told By An African Lake

Rising concerns about the viability of local industry and increasing economic stagnation led a group of impassioned individuals to seek salvation in the promise of an ‘outsider.’ Fueled not by specific plan details and charted downstream consequences, these supporters were buoyed by hope in the generic promise of something, anything different. The outsider’s success in a different environment provided further reason for optimism.

These blanket motivations muffled the voices of critics who demanded more information about the potential consequences of introducing a stranger into their midst and silenced the experts who had reviewed what scant evidence existed on the idea. The outsider prevailed, but instead of yielding the promised benefits, it sparked one of the greatest die-offs in the modern era.

The human-mediated introduction of the Nile perch to Africa’s Lake Victoria is certainly complicated, but studying it teaches us about the potential ramifications of hitching your hopes to the promise of an outsider. It’s a nature-inspired story whose wisdom may help us guard against the potential pitfalls of President Trump, a self-branded political outsider.

It was the mid-1950s and the economic conditions of a post-colonial East Africa were highly uncertain. Along the shores of Lake Victoria (a massive 26,000-square mile lake spread across whole swaths of Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania), the subsistence fishing that had supported local populations for decades was under pressure to produce greater yields—largely for export—that would capitalize on the natural commodity of Africa’s largest lake.

Lake Victoria’s native fish didn’t have a physical stature in keeping with the immense dimensions of their aquatic home. Instead, nature had stocked the lake with millions of small-bodied fish that were more appropriately measured in inches and ounces than feet and pounds. The 400+ native species of small haplochromine cichlids met the needs of local populations (and were an ecological oasis of diversity), but didn’t hold the promise of the grand commercial fishery that some envisioned.

With an eye toward enriched opportunity, a few fishery managers began an impassioned campaign for an outsider—the Nile perch. Unlike native cichlids, many of which fed on the lake’s dead organic matter, the Nile perch was a voracious predator. In their natural habitat, the Nile perches’ gluttonous feeding propelled them to grow in excess of 6 feet long and over 200 pounds. They became a beacon of hope for a better future and the focal point of unbounded promises.

The campaign to introduce the Nile perch to Lake Victoria wasn’t without controversy. The East African Fisheries Research Organization (EAFRO) voiced strong concern about a dearth of specifics and corroborating research. To the scientists, introducing the Nile perch was a high-risk wildcard with the potential for exceptional disaster. Unfortunately, the EAFRO didn’t have an effective voice in the political process, and the grandiose promises of supporters proved too much to overcome. Under highly controversial circumstances, the Nile perch was clandestinely introduced to Africa’s biggest lake in the 1950s.[1]

As promised, the Nile perch did produce positive gains for commercial fishing, but because the fish were primarily caught by foreign fishing operations and the catch was immediately exported, local populations saw no appreciable gains. What did increase, however, was the number of perch-processing plants on the shoreline that exported everything except a steady stream of waste that they dutifully returned to the lake.  At the same time, below the surface, Lake Victoria was under assault.

With each passing year, the growing Nile perch population ate an increasingly large percentage of the native cichlids. Without an evolved defense to the new predator, cichlids had little hope of survival. Today the number of cichlid species in Lake Victoria has been cut in half, and the remaining species have seen their numbers decline precipitously.

The mass die-off of the algae-consuming cichlids, in turn, caused the accumulation of organic matter in the lake whose decomposition consumed a greater share of the lake’s oxygen. With less oxygen, fewer aerobic organisms—like fish—survive. All told, the introduction of the Nile perch contributed to an ongoing ecological catastrophe described as the “greatest vertebrae mass extinction in recorded history.”[2]

Today, the entire lake, and its associated people and industries—including Nile perch fisheries—, are in dire straights. What began as the dream of an outsider triggered an ongoing nightmare. In addition to being a lesson about the implications of ecological disruption, the Nile perch as ‘outsider’ also yields valuable advice to help mitigate the potential negative consequences of a political non-native wildcard like Donald Trump.

First, ecosystems, like political environments, are complex entities filled with a robust cast of characters. It’s true that some species appear undesirable from afar, but their predictable behaviors and integrated relationships keep one another in check. Disrupting that balance through the introduction of an outsider with unexpected influences and nontraditional actions can throw the whole system into disarray. Of course this is precisely the reason many voters were drawn to a Trump candidacy, but just like in Lake Victoria, a positive outcome is hardly assured.

Second, just how much influence an outsider can yield is an open question.  In most cases, introduced species fail to take hold and often dwindle into relative obscurity and even extinction in their non-native environments. Most find their attributes unsuitable for survival in their new home. Those rare invasive species that do take root, survive by obliterating established rules and precedent, and they refashion the ecosystem around their unique habits and behaviors. This seems like a recipe for revolutionary change, but as the dominant species grows unchecked, its ecosystem becomes erratic and unstable.[3] Eventually, environments governed by a single species, like a Nile perch-controlled Lake Victoria, collapse under their own weight.

With this lesson in mind, Donald Trump has the best opportunity to produce sustainable change by checking his ego at the White House door and working to preserve ideological and pragmatic diversity in his administration. Of course failing to drive his opposition extinct will impede his ability to craft wholesale change, but it is precisely the checks-and-balances inherent to diversity that are indispensable to a sustainable ecosystem.

Finally, and most importantly, Lake Victoria is another instance of good intention turned disaster, and it could have been averted with a greater appreciation for science, expert analysis, and a prudent adherence to the precautionary principle. While it’s probably therapeutic to have blind faith, baseless optimism is not a viable strategy to select political leaders or enact policy. Belief in personal opinion is equally destructive. Instead, Donald Trump and our entire cohort of elected officials must be willing to listen to experts and respect their rationally derived conclusions. And when uncertainty exists (after all big problems are exceedingly complex), deferring to caution and the knowable dimensions of the status quo is preferable to hastily plunging into the unbounded perils of the unknown.

In the end, the introduction of Nile perch to Africa’s Lake Victoria provides another definitive answer to the ill-fated refrain, “what do we have to lose?” And the answer, coming in the way of collapsed local fisheries, spoiled shorelines, exported resources, and unfulfilled promises to vulnerable local populations, is “a lot!” Had the fishery managers adopted a more cautious approach that valued diversity and built upon the positive attributes of Lake Victoria that already existed, this story would likely have a happy ending. Fortunately, the unrivaled cognitive capabilities of Homo sapiens allow us to recognize similarities across seemingly disparate circumstances—like an African lake ecosystem and our post- election political environment. Now it’s up to us to heed the empirical advice to avoid a similarly dire outcome. I wish us well.

[1] For a much more detailed history of the conditions and politics leading up to the Nile perch’s introduction, see Robert M. Pringle’s “The Origins of the Nile Perch in Lake Victoria,” BioScience, Vol. 55, No. 9, September 2005 (http://bioscience.oxfordjournals.org/content/55/9/780.full.pdf)

[2] Les Kaufman, chief scientist for the New England Aquarium’s Edgerton Research Laboratory, as quoted in “Losing a Lake,” Discover, March, 1994 (http://discovermagazine.com/1994/mar/losingalake348)

[3] Kevin Shear McCann, “The Diversity-Stability Debate,” Nature, Vol. 405, May 11, 2000 (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v405/n6783/full/405228a0.html)

What Yellowstone National Park’s ‘Summer of Fire’ Teaches Us About the 2016 Presidential Election

In moments of uncertainty, when the rug has been unexpectedly pulled out from under us, we seek solace in what we know. From the vantage point of familiar territory we find strategies to overcome, motivation to persevere, and reasons for optimism.

After teaching science for 16 years, my area of comfort and familiarity is biology, and I frequently find myself looking to it for answers. Emulating nature’s strategies isn’t new—the field is called biomimicry, and it’s an exceptional model of proven problem solving. Nature’s wisdom has helped engineers, designers, and scientists solve many diverse problems, and here it provides advice to help us in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election.

Nature is the best role model to guide us through an election result that incinerated many expectations because it too has faced devastation and responded in spectacular fashion.  In the 3.8 billion years life has resided on this planet, it has encountered and overcome meteor impacts and volcanic activity, shifting continents and changing atmospheric chemistry, the freeze and thaw of ice ages, and an ongoing and escalating arms race between hunters and the hunted.  Despite surprise catastrophe and long odds, it has always found a way to flourish.

With that in mind, here is a nature-inspired lesson for this presidential election.

Catastrophe leads to opportunity

This lesson played out on a stage observable from space, but I had a front-row seat. It was the summer of 1988, I was a kid growing up in Wyoming, Yellowstone National Park was about to be engulfed by one of the largest wildfires in modern American history, and it was our fault. Yet, the story has a happy ending.

Beginning in June smoke started filling the skies and fire after fire ignited, spread, and conjoined to produce an unstoppable conflagration that eventually affected over 790,000 acres of the park. For comparison, that’s larger than the size of Rhode Island. The firestorm was visible from outer space, and by all accounts, these fires were the epitome of hot, full-throated chaos. Furthermore, it was clear that we had created this destructive inferno.

Blame can be traced to earlier in the 20th century when, in response to a series of notable wildfires, a frightened United States adopted a zero tolerance policy for fire. It was during this campaign that the iconic Smokey the Bear was born, and the irony of his “Only you can prevent the madness” message had yet to be revealed.  And in classic American fashion we dedicated ourselves to eradicating our fiery foe with the same collective energy we poured into putting a man on the moon (we are, if anything, a determined bunch).

As year after year passed without appreciable fire, the forces of nature silently built up behind our dam of obstruction. Fallen trees, dead branches, dried pine needles, and leaf litter accumulated and turned Yellowstone National Park into an enormous fire pit filled with kindling.  All it took was a spark, or, more accurately some lightening, and the rest was history.

Flash forward to the last decade when an analogous fuel has silently (and not so silently) been building up in segments of the American populace. But instead of dead trees and pine needles, it was the equally flammable fuel of animosity and despair. It was the ill will that grows inside of an assembly-line worker when he reads an article about “white privilege” after his job packed up and moved overseas. It was the anger that builds inside a person when she sees a story on CEO compensation as she prepares for her day working two jobs to stay just above the poverty line.  It’s the feeling of isolation that grows when a person uses his vote to plead for assistance only to see an unflinchingly self-serving government grind to a stalemate in the name of some artificial ideological purity. Ultimately, it’s the fear that consumes people when they see countless examples of the American dream falling out of reach.

Legitimate or not, accurate or mistaken, these feelings grew inside a consequential part of the American population. They accumulated like kindling, and all it took was the spark of a presidential election to ignite the political firestorm we just witnessed.

At this point I can see you saying, “So we inadvertently burnt everything to the ground, just like in Yellowstone. Gee, thanks. Where is the happy ending you promised?”

It’s coming, but first we have to return to a decimated Yellowstone.

Back in the park, when the early winter sleet and snow eventually extinguished the flames, it looked hopeless.  Black toothpicks dotted the seemingly sterile landscape, the park’s celebrated animals were nowhere to be found, the scorched soil gave rise only to the smell of smoke, and the crown jewel of national parks appeared irreparably scarred. Basically, it looked how I felt the morning after the election.

But then the forest did what it has always done in the face of chaos, it embraced it and took full advantage of the new normal. It turns out that the ashen soil was filled with nutrients released from the fire. Pine cones, long ago programmed by an intimate relationship with flame, opened and sowed seeds into the environment. Whole swaths of previously dense forest were thinned, allowing young aspen trees enough light to grow. With the return of aspens, so too came the elk who preferred the aspen’s tender pulp. The increase in aspen trees took some pressure off the willows, which the elk had been eating, and a more hearty willow population slowed riverbank erosion. The changes cascaded through the environment, and despite our worst fears for the outcome of the chaos and uncertainty of the fire, everything worked out.

Today, it’s easy to be consumed by the aftermath of our political wildfire and stand paralyzed among the scorched skeletons of our hopes and dreams. But instead of focusing on the damage, we must be like nature, face forward, and begin to rebuild.

 If Yellowstone can bounce back from the decided devastation of a fire long over due, we should have hope we can overcome our own political wildfire and pursue opportunity in the renewal that always follows catastrophe.

For more nature-inspired stories, in both print and video, consider visiting NatureSays.org.