In Layman’s Terms: The Ant Mill Phenomenon – Why it’s Important to March to the Beat of a Different Drum

Editor’s Notes: NESSE Member Simon writes about the phenomena of the ant mill, and describes how we can use it to take a step back and think about the impact that our behaviour, as humans and researchers, is having on the world. 

This video shows the phenomena of an ant mill spiral. It was first described 1910 by the Harvard Professor William Morton Wheeler in his book “Ants – Their Structure, Development and Behaviour”

(You may need to head over to YouTube to view the video)

He wrote – “I have never seen a more astonishing exhibition of the limitations of instinct. For nearly two whole days these blind creatures, so dependent on the contact-odor sense of their antennae, kept palpating their uniformly smooth, odoriferous trail and the advancing bodies of the ants immediately preceding them, without perceiving that they were making no progress but only wasting their energies, till the spell was finally broken by some more venturesome members of the colony.

Paul Watzlawick uses this example in his lecture ‘When the solution is the problem’ to describe its link to climate change. He says that animals, but also humans, have the disastrous characteristic of stubbornly holding on once successful, or at least adequate, solutions, even in the case of changing environmental circumstances, in which these solutions are not longer appropriated.

Jared Diamond shows in his book ‘Collapse’, how societies like the Mayas, Greenlandic Vikings or the population of the Easter Island failed. “One common characteristic of such failing was that in the moment, when they realised that the living conditions became precarious, they intensified their strategies, which have been successful so far.” (Harald Welzer)

In our example above, the ant would start to run faster, akin to how we would behave. We accelerate the economic system after a crises, if the oil becomes scarce, we drill deeper with higher risks for the environment, we intensify our agriculture and fishery, or try to increase the efficiency of the resource use. Why don’t we change our behaviour and adopt to an environment with limits in space and time?

We can’t solve the problems that are caused by a growing economic system with even more growth of that economic system. This causes a societal tunnel vision.

As an ant in an ant mill, we have to stop and make a break, we have to look around and observe what is going on. We have to think about where we want to go and what we really need. As human beings with conscience and the freedom of will, we can resist those instincts, like greed, which trap us in such a circle, but we have to be aware and make use of these abilities.

Instead of decoupling natural resource use and environmental impacts from economic growth, we should think about decoupling human well-being from economic growth.

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