Letters (June 14, 2017)

Squirrels, nuts and rethinking progress

A pack of squirrels live in a forest of trees that produce nuts. It is the only forest of nut-producing trees for miles around. To get to a different forest, the squirrels would have to embark on a long and dangerous journey. Further­more, the squirrels can eat only nuts.

Each year during the gathering season, all of the squirrel pack members gather nuts to help their pack survive. The squirrels’ forest has 100 nut-producing trees. Ten of these trees die each year, but these 10 trees are always replaced with 10 new trees grown from the nuts that are left ungathered.

This scenario, with the squirrels gathering nuts and the trees dying and being replaced has gone on for many years and will likely continue for many more. The squirrels love gathering nuts and always gather as many as possible.

It is important to note that each year, the pack of squirrels grows by several members. Additionally, through the many years of gathering nuts, the wisdom of the best nut-gathering squirrels has been handed-down to the younger members of the pack. In this way, the members of the squirrel pack increase the number of nuts gathered each year.

Through time, not only does the number of squirrels present in the forest increase, but the members get better and better at gathering nuts, so that more and more are gathered each year.

After a while, the squirrel pack is so good at gathering nuts that all members of the pack had more than enough nuts to eat and store for the future—a really nutty situation of excess.

Eventually, the squirrels get so good at gathering nuts that only nine are left un-gathered. The next year, when the 10 trees die, there are only nine to replace them. The squirrels have grown comfortable with the amount of nuts they gather each year, even though it is more than they ultimately need, and they do not change their nut-gathering practices.

The trend continues: Each year the squirrel population grows as does their overall wealth; they are living very comfortably, but fewer and fewer nuts are left over after the gathering season. As a result, the number of trees in the forest decline.

Eventually, the squirrels gather up all of the nuts produced by the trees in a single year. No nuts are left to replace the trees that die.

After a few years of no replacement trees, the squirrels begin to notice that their forest, and hence the number of nuts available to feed their population, is getting smaller. This realization causes the squirrels to think about what to do next year during the nut-gathering season.

Question: What should the squirrel pack do next year?

Now consider: Maybe it’s time we rethink our models of progress as well.

Jakob Hanschu