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What can we learn from nature about security?

Partner story

Photo by Erik Tanghe from Pixabay

Combining genius and common sense, biologist turned security analyst Rafe Sagarin writes about how nature and its myriad of living organisms can teach us about 21st-century conflict. His book is called Learning from the Octopus: How Secrets from Nature Can Help us Fight Terrorist Attacks, Natural Disasters and Disease.

One of the book’s big takeaways is that, in security situations, genius, imagination and adaption must now replace raw power. Civil society stakeholders could probably also glean insights from Sagarin’s theory to ensure we deliver our outcomes safely and securely. After all, there seems to be a new world order for environmental defenders, who face increasing risks and multiple threats.

Sagarin’s theory of natural security takes its guidance from the living world – which has consistently shown an ability to adapt, even to the harshest conditions. His book aims to teach about natural organisms – the world’s undisputed experts on the subject – exactly how they incorporate adaptability into their own survival. He suggests that we, with our clever brains, deliberately incorporate adaptability into our personal and societal security systems, having learned from the long march of evolution that got us here.

In taking the octopus as an example, Sagarin profiles how octopuses learn, not only how to survive, but also how to thrive, in almost any environment. “Even in the barren isolated tanks of a marine biology lab, colleagues have discovered octopuses escaping from their chambers and braving the dry air to scamper across a lab bench and find a snack in a nearby tank before returning to their own.”

But this colourful excerpt reveals only part of the octopus’s success. With its soft meaty body, the octopus is an attractive target for predators. Therefore, it often constructs a protective den in the rocks, sometimes with only a peephole for its keen eyes to peer out from. If good rocky crevices aren’t available, it will learn to use whatever is around it – a shell, an old crate, or, as Sagarin writes, “the champagne bottle tossed decades ago from [his] advisor’s shipboard wedding, just offshore from the Hopkins Marin Laboratory in Pacific Grove.”

He goes on to describe how, when the octopus ventures out from its constructed bunker, millions of cells on the surface of the skin are all sensing and responding to the world around, instantly changing shape and colour to perfectly match their immediate surroundings. And when threatened, who doesn’t think of the octopus’s inky defence mechanism?

John Steinbeck’s good friend, the marine biologist Edward F. Ricketts (fictionally portrayed as the character “Doc” in Cannery Row), wrote a guide to marine animals on the Pacific Coast. Of the octopus’s capacity to blend in and hide, he said, “A little observation will convince one that, in a given area, probably half of the specimen’s escape notice, despite the most careful searching – a highly desirable situation from the point of view of the conservationist … and the octopus.” He goes on to add, “The octopus has an ink sac, opening near the anus, from which it can discharge a dense, sepia-coloured fluid, creating a ‘smoke screen’ that should be the envy of the navy.”

Absorbing some lessons from nature about how to keep adapting and surviving, even when challenges seem insurmountable, should surely hold some value in the conservation world. Another benefit of a biological approach might be that it is a framework that can be applied consistently, from security analysis to planning to implementation, and across the broad spectrum of security concerns.

Taking a page out of Sagarin’s book, Oak’s wildlife conservation and trade sub-Programme is working with experts around the world and partners on the ground, to explore adaptive, intelligence-led security approaches within its Environment Programme. We hope that this approach will neutralise and reduce threats that courageous implementers are facing today.

Written by Alexandra Kennaugh, wildlife conservation and trade sub-Programme officer, Environment Programme.