Mao’s “four pests” campaign – problems with herding cats

The BBC has an article touching on Mao’s “four pests” campaign. A perfect example of the difficulty of top-down design and the unexpected consequence that arise from limited overall knowledge of a system.

In the 1950s China is seen to have four big evils – rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows.

The method for dealing with sparrows was

  • Send out the millions of villagers.
  • Get them to make noise to scare the sparrows so they take to the air and stay there.
  • Eventually the sparrows die from exhaustion

It worked. Lots of sparrows died.

The problem is that the sparrows are necessary to eat locusts. Without the sparrows, there is a plague of locusts and millions of people die.

A link with connectivism

Mao simply didn’t know the system well enough. Couldn’t see the unexpected consequences.

Was there anyone in the Chinese system, at that time, who could? I wonder if somewhere there were peasants with long term connections with agriculture that had this knowledge. Perhaps a biologist.

This sounds to me as an example of connectivism.

From the connectivism article

Realizing that complete knowledge cannot exist in the mind of one person requires a different approach to creating an overview of the situation. Diverse teams of varying viewpoints are a critical structure for completely exploring ideas.

Herding cats

EDS created a “cat herders” commercial for the 2000 Superbowl.

The phrase herding cats is often used to characterise the problems associated with implementing change and innovation within organisations, especially higher education.

The above is one example of why I think this metaphor is broken. Hopefully, I can expand on this and generate some useful publications, and more importantly some insight to help at work.

3 thoughts on “Mao’s “four pests” campaign – problems with herding cats

    1. Actually, I have no idea about the number of pests that died. But I would imagine it would be some very large number. I was more interested in the “lessons” this story might have about top-down design.

      Though your question has now got me thinking about how many people died as a result of Mao’s campaigns. The Wikipedia page suggests that the figure might be 30 million.

  1. Yes it is written on the same page that due to the elimination of sparrows pests like locusts grew in numbers and ate all the crops.
    Due to poor economy and bad crop people suffered malnutrition and died as consequence.
    Thanks to Mao

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