On our last episode, we revisited Dan Geer’s analysis of software monoculture. Let’s switch back to true biological monocultures again. Monoculture Considered Harmful is a paper published by John S. Quarterman in First Monday in January of 2002. The abstract gets to the heart of the matter:
Monoculture cotton crops and the economy they supported proved susceptible to a small insect in the early 20th century. There may be parallels in the Internet in the early 21st century.
The insect Quarterman refers to is the boll weevil, a small beetle that had the power to devastate the entire U.S. cotton crop in the early 1900s. Only relatively recently have efforts to eradicate it had any success, with programs being established in Texas and Oklahoma (where the weevil first had an impact) as well as North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi.
Most remarkable is the USDA’s assessment of the impact of boll weevils:
Many experts consider the boll weevil second only to the Civil War as an agent of change in the South. Over the years, estimates of yield losses and control costs due to the boll weevil total more than $22 billion.
…The year before boll weevils marched into Georgia in 1915, the state produced 2.8 million bales of cotton. Less than 10 years later, Georgia’s annual cotton production had fallen to 600,000 bales. By 1983, Georgia cotton production was down to 112,000 bales harvested from 115,000 acres.
The southern farming economy didn’t even begin to recover from the economic impact until farmers began to cultivate other crops, including (most notably) the peanut. So why was the argicultural industry in the south so susceptible to attack from boll weevils? Because nearly all the cotton being grown was of a single species.
I have a long, long list of other faults of the cotton industry that are far more egregious than their choice of crop species, but it’s simply impossible to ignore the lessons that were plainly spelled out by the devastating impact of boll weevils. Building an industry around a monoculture places the entire economy in danger from unanticipated threats. And it’s only the adoption and embrace of a broader range of cultures that can help an industry protect itself from that danger, or sustain itself when facing a downturn.