Getting to the ‘root’ of the issue

December 2, 2008

Lately when I find time to read – which usually happens when I’m crammed into a streetcar on the way to work – I’ve been voraciously attacking, page by page, an excellent book by Michael Pollan called The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

While the premise of Pollan’s book has little to do with business, process or culture change, there is a fabulous little excerpt about culling wild pigs on the Island of Santa Cruz, a tiny island just off the coast of California (p.324-325).

In the book, Pollan relates this story to the debate that rages between animal rights activists and ‘others’ (aka carnivores), as to whether or not hunting is morally right. While I won’t even attempt to open this can of worms, I couldn’t help but see this story as a perfect example of drilling down to the root cause of a problem by simply asking “why?”

Rooting through the dirt to find the answer

Back in 2005, the National Park service in the U.S. found that many of the plants and animals native to Santa Cruz Island were being threatened. In fact, so much so, that the island fox was on the border of extinction. When they began to peel back the layers to find out why the island’s ecosystem was in danger, officials at the National Park discovered that the root cause of the problem was an overpopulation of feral pigs.

“Pigs,” you ask? Yes. Pigs. Lots of them. And here’s where it gets interesting. Pigs are not native to Santa Cruz. They first arrived on the island more than a century ago, brought by ranchers and farmers who wanted to raise and breed them. Even though pig farming ended more than 25 years ago, over the years there were enough rogue animals to have bred a wild population. These wild pigs were rooting up native vegetation – causing major erosion, spreading invasive weeds and destroying historical sites. But that’s not all.

With the explosion of wild pigs, this has also meant a major increase in the golden eagle population – because the eagles feed on the piglets. This, combined with several other factors, is what was threatening the island fox population. You see, back in the 1950’s a company dumped millions of gallons of DDT into the surrounding waters of Santa Cruz, which damaged the eggshells of the bald eagle (the incumbent to the island). With the rapid decline of the bald eagle – which normally feeds on seafood – this left a vacancy for the more aggressive and carnivorous golden eagle. While the golden eagle likes piglets, it’s much easier to catch island fox cubs…and so begins the problem with protecting the island fox – all because more than a century ago, traders brought pigs to the island.

And so there you have it: if officials at the National Park had simply tried to treat the symptom – eroded soil and a dwindling fox population – without truly understanding why both were suffering, they probably would have come up with an unsustainable answer. But by digging down, asking ‘why?’, they were able to isolate the one variable that was wreaking havoc on an entire ecosystem and find a solution that would eliminate the problem.

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