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All Things Considered: June 2007

Call it the butterfly theory


January 11, 2008
By Jim Knisley


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If a Butterfly Flaps Its Wings.  H5N1 may seem like a distant nightmare, but it is less than a day away

Call it the butterfly theory. You know the one – it goes something like, if a butterfly in China flaps its wings the result is a hurricane in Florida.

Or maybe you prefer the six degrees of separation theory. According to that any individual on the planet can get in touch with any other person by contacting a friend or acquaintance who contacts a friend or acquaintance. Six phone calls, e-mails, letters or conversations later the first person is in direct contact with someone selected at random from somewhere else.

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While I don’t know about the first theory – too many climatic variables for my brain to handle – I tried out the second one. I had a friend stick a pin in a map of the world. He ended up with a small village in India.

This looked daunting. I’d never been to India and didn’t know anyone in that country. But I used to work with an Englishman who had married a woman of Indian descent. Her parents were from India. They contacted relatives in India. One of them had a friend working in the right province who knew a merchant in the village and the merchant knew everyone living in the village.

I thought maybe I had just gotten lucky. But when I ran through a list of countries with which I had no personal connection it became clear that I knew people who did.

Take Saudi Arabia, for example. I went to Sunday school with a former Canadian ambassador to that country. Brazil, I know businessmen who work down there. Kazakhstan, I know people in the oil industry who worked there. Parts of Africa might be a challenge, but I am acquainted with people who have taught in some of the countries, missionaries who have worked in other countries, aid workers who have been in other African countries and a few peacekeepers who spent some time there.

I’m going through all this to establish the point that today everything and everyone is connected.

Two generations ago it was possible to think of us and them. Two generations ago distance mattered. For example, in 1956, 51 years ago, my grandparents took a boat to go back to Europe and visit the “old country.”

It was the same way they had come to Canada almost 50 years earlier. The journey took many days. But it was their best option. In the 1950s air travel was infrequent and extremely costly.

Now, it is affordable and virtually anyone or anything can be anywhere else on the planet within hours or at most a day. No longer is there an us and a them.

There have been numerous recent examples. Consider the tainted pet food situation. The cause seems to have been chemicals used by Chinese farmers or processors to protect wheat from rodents and pests. The chemicals happen to be persistent and deadly with high exposure, but those producing the crops seem to have been unaware of that and they escaped government scrutiny.

When a North American procurer found that wheat gluten could be obtained in China for less cost than from Europe or North America they imported some. They didn’t know there was a problem with the gluten. The pet food makers bought the gluten from the importer, did the standard tests and found nothing wrong. No one expected to find melamine and so no one tested for it.

The pet food hit supermarket shelves and animals started to get sick and die. So a farmer in China tries to protect his crop results in a dead cat in Des Moines.

Everyone is familiar with SARS. A man catches a disease in southern China, flies from Hong Kong to Toronto, where the disease breaks out of incubation and people start dying.

Another example is the Spanish flu in 1917. Soldiers start getting sick. In some U.S. cities the problem is ignored and more and more people get sick. In Philadelphia, for example, they held a war bond drive that attracted hundreds of thousands of people to a parade. Tens of thousands died. In St. Louis, the city shut down and kept interpersonal contact to a minimum. Once authorities thought the danger had passed they relaxed the rules and tens of thousands of people got sick and thousands died.

This rambling is relevant to Canadian poultry producers because what happens in a backyard flock in Indonesia is now more than ever before connected to what you do.

H5N1 may seem like a distant nightmare, but it is less than a day away. Farmers and governments here have made huge strides to enact strict biosecurity regimens. It would also be wise to do as much as possible to help producers in Southeast Asia eliminate the disease at its source.

Remember, everything is connected. n


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