What wildlife, politics, pain, and relationships have in common.
The lessons of the Simplicity Trap—pursuing obvious and simple, but dangerously wrong connections—can be applied to almost everything in life, from politics to health to relationships.
The Yellowstone Simplicity Trap
Alton Chase writes in his book, Playing God in Yellowstone, that Yellowstone National Park, when created in 1872 was full of wildlife. In 1903, Yellowstone had elks, bison, antelope, cougar, lynx, sheep, deer, coyotes, wolves, beavers, etc. But in 1934, white-tailed deer and antelopes were gone from the park.
Why was that?
Since game hunting had been banned, The National Park Service thought the problem was predators. That would make sense, right? If there were no more predators, the deer population, if reintroduced, should thrive. With that mindset, the National Park Service killed mountain lions and eliminated wolves and cougars from the park. But the more predators the National Park Service killed, Chase writes, “the greater the decline of the game; and the greater the decline of the game, the more predators they killed.”
Perplexed, the park service called biologist Adolph Murie, who studied the problem from 1937 to 1939 and concluded that the problem was not the predators but elks. Hungry elk herds had destroyed the park’s aspen and willow trees. As a consequence, deer and antelope didn’t have enough to eat. The second consequence of the destruction of the park aspen and willow trees was that beavers couldn’t build dams anymore, so meadows lost their water management system, which caused the soil to dry out which decreased plant growth, which caused the deer and antelope population to starve even more.
The Simplicity Trap had created a vicious cycle.
The solution was to reintroduce predators to decrease the elk population so that aspen and willow trees could grow again, so beavers could use that material to build dams to allow the meadows to manage their water, so that plants could grow, and so deer could feed. That solution worked.
It was important to recognize the complex intricate reality of the ecosystem and understand all of its parts so that a fix could be found.
The U.S.-Russia Simplicity Trap
George Beebe, in his new book The Russia Trap, compares the story of Yellowstone National Park to the U.S.-Russia relationship. Beebe, former director of Russia analysis at the CIA, explains that we think that the problem with Russia is simple: Russia is an aggressor in the escalating tension between the two countries, and so the solution is to impose more sanctions on Russia to get them to stop aggressive actions.
However, Beebe asserts, punishments might encourage more, not less undesirable Russian behavior. The idea that Russia is an ambitious aggressor may well be overly simplistic, and Russia may have good reason to view the U.S. as an aggressor whose actions must be discouraged.
Beebe points out that a series of missteps led Russia to conclude that the U.S. had aggressive intentions toward them. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the U.S. meddled in Russian politics, trying to rapidly transform the country into a democracy and discounting Vladimir Putin’s genuine efforts to advance land, tax, and judicial reforms.
When Putin decided to partner with the U.S. on anti-terrorism after 9/11, facilitating the establishment of temporary U.S. bases in Central Asia, the U.S. took advantage of his willingness to help. The U.S. refused to leave the “temporary” bases in Central Asia, supported the Chechens against Moscow, withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty (signed in 1972), and, to complicate things, urged the Baltic states to join NATO.
All of those steps, which seemed to be obvious and simple ways to advance U.S. interests, turned Russia against the U.S. Beebe writes, “Relationships. . .are not arithmetic. . . Combining two and two seldom produces four; sometimes it produces twenty-seven or sometimes negative eight. . . And recognizing in advance what those cascading effects will be is immensely difficult.”
The Russia Trap outlines several different means by which the U.S. can embrace the complexity of cause-and-effect in foreign policy in order to lessen the growing tension between the US and Russia.
The Simplicity Trap in Medicine
As I describe in my book The Listening Cure, a medical problem like lower back pain can be viewed as simple and treated with an anti-inflammatory pill which could make the problem worse if the origin of the problem is not addressed.
Anti-inflammatories, if taken for long periods of time, could cause stomach ulcers and gastric bleeding and yet not address the four likely origins of a lower back problem which are long periods of sitting down at a desk without getting up, being overweight, being stressed out (muscles tense up) and lifting things the wrong way.
As long as we don’t understand and address the origin of the pain, our improvements will be temporary, and we will continue to hurt in the long run.
How not to fall into the trap
We think finding a life partner is based on mutual sexual attraction when in fact, the complexity of a relationship is staggering, including the need for emotional, intellectual, spiritual, financial, and physical compatibility, in addition to sexual attraction. We also need to take into account the way we were raised, our childhood traumas, and the way we reacted to them. To find the ideal life partner, we need to be aware of all the above important compatibility factors.
From now on, let’s not fall into Simplicity Traps and try to understand that life is simply. . . complicated.
Alton Chase “Playing God in Yellowstone: The Destruction of America’s First National Park” 1987. https://www.amazon.com/Playing-God-Yellowstone-Destruction-Americas/dp/…
George Beebe “The Russia Trap: How our shadow war with Russia could spiral into a nuclear catastrophe” https://www.amazon.com/Russia-Trap-Shadow-Nuclear-Catastrophe/dp/125031…
Chris Gilbert, MD, PhD and Eric Haseltine PhD “The Listening Cure: Healing secrets of an unconventional doctor”https://www.amazon.com/Listening-Cure-Healing-Secrets-Unconventional-eb…