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Learning to minimize risks

ON AN SSIGNMENT in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I recently visited the tallest tree ever documented east of the Rockies. It was a magnificent old white pine that stood 207 feet tall.

At least, it was 207 feet tall until Hurricane Opal took off its top in 1995. It remains the tall-tree champ, having grown from 181 to 187 feet since then.

The big pine's fate, my guide said, is not uncommon for super-tall trees that rise so far above the surrounding forest that they make inviting targets for windstorms and lightning strikes.

It's one reason we don't see any 250-foot-tall trees in the Eastern United States. Poking your head that high above the canopy isn't much of a survival strategy.

In quite another setting, we've seen architects and urban planners this past week rethinking the strategy of building towering, attention-getting office buildings such as those at the World Trade Center.

It made me think of the old pine down in the Smokies. Comparisons of natural with human systems can be instructive, though one must draw conclusions with care.

A cautionary tale is the mistaken notion of nature's "survival of the fittest," which has been used to justify everything from warfare to monopolistic business practices.

Better understanding of how nature works shows that cooperation, and avoidance of struggles that lead to death or serious injury, are far more typical of behavior among members of a species.

It's fascinating that Japan, where workers have set the standard for quality in so many consumer goods, finances a lot of research on communal, cooperative insects like ants.

The evil genius of the terrorism that now confronts this nation reminds me of the highly successful ecological strategy developed in tropical rain forests.

Though the rain forest is chock-a-block with trees, you seldom find any one species growing in dense stands. Without a cold season to check buildups of pests and diseases, the best survival strategy is to spread out, scatter, hide and lie low. For a given species, this makes it harder for anything that preys on it to build to epidemic proportions.

Similarly, terrorists operating in small, loosely connected cells spread across large geographic areas make exceedingly difficult targets for their foes.

Based on experience with natural systems, I worry when I hear, over and over from officials and citizens, a desire - a natural desire to be sure - to "eradicate" the terrorist threat, to "declare war" on terrorism.

That kind of thinking led us into a disastrous, decades-long dependence on DDT and other chemicals that we thought held the promise of eradicating pests.

It seemed to work at first, but in time gave birth to new generations of more pesticide-resistant pests, which we dosed with more and nastier chemicals.

In the process, we wreaked chemical havoc on the reproductive systems of eagles, ospreys and songbirds, and on the health of farm workers.

I am not suggesting that the lesson here is to let terrorism and terrorists go unchecked, but we need to recognize that eradication of such shadowy, cobwebbed organizations is probably impossible.

And we need to think hard about whether all-out war in the territory of any Muslim nation will create so much hatred that it would guarantee another round of attacks.

Again, it's instructive to consider the alternatives that have emerged to the bad old days of DDT-type assaults on pests. Increasingly, agriculture has embraced integrated pest management, a range of techniques that begins with recognizing that a certain level of pests is unavoidable.

Trained scouts determine when pests are numerous enough that control is needed. Controls now often emphasize releasing insects that are natural predators of the ones that need controlling. Chemical pesticides are now more selective in what they kill and more benign in their impacts on the overall environment.

The way terrorists operate also brings to mind the toxic Pfiesteria microorganism that has afflicted Chesapeake rivers and mid-Atlantic coastal bays in recent years.

Pfiesteria assumes many forms, and can lie dormant and nearly undetectable in river sediment for years, reactivating in lethal form when inviting targets - large schools of fish - pass nearby.

We can never eradicate Pfiesteria, but we can minimize the risk by declaring all-out war on the polluted water conditions in which it seems to thrive.

One has to hope that we can similarly minimize terrorism by working harder for a more just world, by reaching out with more skill and understanding to the cultures that harbor terrorists.

And by using force, when it is needed, as selectively as possible, with the fullest knowledge of who are our enemies and who are innocent bystanders.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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