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)