In 2002, Rafe Sagarin worked in Washington, D.C. as a science advisor to a California Congresswoman.
Sagarin was a marine ecologist. He looked at the barricades, armed guards, and other security features of post 9/11 Washington through an ecological frame. He described what he saw as an ecology of fear.
That observation led to one of the few fundamentally creative insights in homeland security thinking. Sagarin asked what biology had to contribute to homeland security. His answer: “plenty.”
Sagarin argued biology offers 3.5 billion years of experience and more than 20 million answers to the question of how one survives and thrives in a hostile and unpredictable world.
He wrote several books and numerous articles amplifying that theme. See, for example, “Learning From the Octopus: How Secrets from Nature Can Help Us Fight Terrorist Attacks, Natural Disasters, and Disease,” and an article in Foreign Policy called “Adapt or Die.”
Here’s an excerpt from an article he wrote for Homeland Security Affairs:
The most famous line of the 9/11 Commission report was that 9/11 represented a “failure of imagination” and this was certainly an apt description of the security situation up until 9/11. However, now that we imagine almost anything to be a threat to our security, a more pernicious problem faces all of our security systems: a failure of adaptation.
Adaptation is the process of changing structures, behaviors, and interactions in response to changing conditions in the environment. Adaptability is the capacity to adapt to these changes—something that despite an unprecedented amount of attention, financial resources and human lives sacrificed in the name of security since 9/11, has still largely eluded us.
Fortunately, we have at our disposal a vast storehouse of largely untapped knowledge that could guide us in developing adaptable security systems. It is a massive set of proven solutions, and teachable failures, to the very same problem that unites all of the threats we face—that is, how to survive and thrive in a risky, variable and uncertain world. Remarkably, this database is completely unclassified and free to use by anyone.
The solutions I’m referring to are all contained in the staggering diversity of life on Earth—millions of individual living and extinct species, and countless individuals within those species—which have been developing, testing, rejecting, and replicating methods to overcome the challenges of living on a continually changing planet. These organisms have been experiencing security challenges and developing solutions since long before the latest Presidential administration or Congress has been working on their security agenda, since long before 9/11 finally woke most of us to the new post-cold war reality, since long before industrialization pushed our biogeochemical cycles into chaos, and since long before humans ever walked the Earth.
Indeed, the 3.5 billion year history of life imbues biological systems with more experience dealing with security problems than any other body of knowledge we possess. And because we ourselves are biological creatures, our own species’ evolution and the modern manifestations of that evolutionary process, is not only an integral part of this natural database, but perhaps the most important set of data to consider.
This means that in addition to the ecologists, paleontologists, virologists and evolutionary biologists that have something novel to contribute to our security debate, so too do anthropologists, psychologists, soldiers and first responders who have extensive behavioral observations of people and societies under the stress of insecurity in an uncertain environment.
Last Thursday, Sagarin was riding his bicycle after work. He was hit by a truck and died. He was 43 years old.