Photo: Laitche. Source: Wikimedia
Sixty years ago, Mao Zedong introduced the “Four Pests” campaign in China, a hygiene crusade designed to eradicate the pests that made daily life so difficult: mosquitos which transmitted malaria, rats that spread the plague, biting black flies, and sparrows. Sparrows? Yes, each sparrow, the government determined, could eat four pounds of grain per year. Birds were the public animals of capitalism.
In Beijing, millions of citizens took to the streets or took up station on rooftops or at windows. Children carried pots, pans, and spoons to bang upon. Large groups roamed the streets carrying sticks with brightly colored rags to frighten the birds and keep them flying. Soon, exhausted birds started dropping from the air. Foreign embassies denied the Chinese request to enter their grounds and scare away the birds. As a result, the legations soon needed shovels to clear the dead and dying sparrows from their compounds.
But rather than improve the harvest, the “war on sparrows” created an ecological disaster. Without sparrows to prey on them, locust and grasshopper populations ballooned. Locusts swarmed across the country, eating everything in sight. Ecological imbalances contributed to the Great Chinese Famine a few years later, a mass starvation event that killed 30 to 60 million people. Books and references to this famine are still officially banned in China, where it is officially known as the “Three Years of Difficult Period.”
Famine relief in China. Public Domain. Source: Wikimedia
Nature is more powerful than we imagine. Decades of antiseptic hospitals have bred pathogens resistant to antiseptics that live mainly in hospitals. Pesticides used on farms breed bugs resistant to pesticides. The most persistent law of nature and economics seems to be the law of unintended consequences.
Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA
Charter Trust Company
“The Best Trust Company in New England”