The Cobra Effect: law of unintended consequences, squared




This kind of complex system behavior (the irony of indirect effects flying in the face of short-term intentions) is all over ecology: applying pesticides produces more pests and more crop damage as a consequence of the obligate predators of the pest dying off of starvation after the initial applications of pesticide; or adding nitrogen to fertilize a pond decreases total nitrogen because nitrogen-removing processes are boosted by the initial signal.

Cobras make for awesome stories, though.


They also make for good food, and good leather.

Which makes me wonder why the breeders in this tale, in the face of the loss of their profitable bounties for the skins, decided to release the cobras into the wild for a complete loss of profit, instead of slaughtering them for at least a partial profit off the meat and leather? Anyone who is clever enough to come up with the idea, and willing enough to put in the effort of raising them, surely would be smart enough to cut their losses instead of just dumping out their perfectly good stocks of un-bountied snakes?


This sounds like one engagement away from a P.G. Wodehouse story.


Rats had featured largely in the history of Ankh-Morpork. Shortly before the patrician came to power there was a terrible plague of rats. The city council countered it by offering twenty pence for every rat tail. This did, for a week or two, reduce the number of rats- and then people were suddenly queuing up with rat tails, the city treasury was being drained, and no one seemed to be doing much work. And there still seemed to be a lot of rats around.

Lord Vetinari had listened carefully while the problem was explained, and had solved the thing with one memorable phrase which said a lot about him, about the folly of bounty offers, and about the natural instincts of Ankh-Morporkians in any situation involving money: “Tax the rat farms.”
“Soul Music” - Terry Pratchett


I bet that chasing down some first-person interviews or primary source material would give some interesting answers to precisely that question.


yeah, they probably did, thereby flooding the market and crashing the price. it would, pretty quickly, get to the point where it’s not even worth killing them.


There is the confounding factor of whether anyone ethically uninhibited enough to turn to entreprenurialism in the face of humanitarian policy would be willing to attempt to make the consequences of halting their subsidy immediately painful in the hope of regaining it…

On the one hand, that would be a favorable outcome for them. On the other, this would be a group that has already proven uncooperative about collective action problems, so they might have difficulty collaborating with each other to produce a snakepocalypse, rather than individually maximizing profit by butchering their stock and hoping that others endure the complete loss by releasing their snakes.


What the “War on [Cobra]” didn’t work? -shocked-

Knowing is half the battle!


Came here for this Pterry quote. Was not disappointed.


On the plus side: cobras hunt other snakes, so this probably resulted in an overall reduction in venomous snake species.


Reminds me of a story my grandfather told. The military used donkeys when turning Diego Garcia into a base. When finished, they released the donkeys. Who quickly overpopulated. The donkeys liked hanging out on the runways. Which tends to result in severe damage to aircraft and a dead donkey. Some bright person decided snakes would be a good choice for eliminating the donkey problem. It was not. The snakes overpopulated eating native critters rather than donkeys. But, the story has a happy ending. In a final stroke of genius, the “donkey fence” was constructed around the runways keeping our military aircraft safe from donkey attack.


There are positive ones as well. When wearing a helmet on a moped became the law in Holland, it reduced the number of stolen mopeds. Casual thieves, who just took a machine after a night in the town, now had to think twice, because they didn’t have a helmet.


The linked article suggests the story may be apocryphal. The BB summary writes it as fact. This is how myths become reality, and why people insist stories like the cruise control in the Winnebago are true.


The Sharif of Byn Citadel’s prize cobra, The Empress, is endangered in a plot by the Hindu gardener to breed the serpent and sell the eggs. Meanwhile, the Sharif’s neer-do-well son meets a spirited dancer who is concealing her highborn lineage, all in a plot to prove that a rival of hers is, in fact, an American.


Just remembered reading of another example: the Leakeys paying a bounty per bone fragment for hominid (hominin?) fossils in southern Africa. Locals would find a nicely preserved skull and smash it into pieces to improve their bonus.


This might explain the hordes of thin-skinned ex-reality-tv folk aimlessly wandering around in the media.


Cobras are animals that just exist to make a living. They should not be feared, vilified or maltreated.


I’m normally a trifle leery of ‘why not just use lots of lethal force? We have plenty in stock!’ Solutions; but in this case I can’t shake the suspicion that just posting some guys with guns around the runways might have been the better plan.


In other news, the UK government’s COBRA committee deals with existential threats (imminent terrorist attacks, ebola , floods etc )

Whether it is prone to the cobra effect is left an exercise for the student …