In the early 1900s, the United States was in the midst of a meat crisis. Populations were rising steeply in big cities as immigration increased, and the demand for food was outpacing production. Cattle ranchers saw their herds decrease by the millions each year due to overgrazing and depleted resources. At the same time, Louisiana was facing a flower crisis. The invasive water hyacinth was rendering waterways impassible and creating vast dead zones in the state’s rivers. Lawmakers and leaders claimed to have a single solution to both problems: hippos.
Imported from Africa and raised in the Louisiana bayous, hippos would provide a ready source of meat and would also feast on the dreaded hyacinth. The plan looked unstoppable. In the December 2013 article “American Hippopotamus” for online magazine The Atavist, Jon Mooallem recounts the congressional hearings, newspaper editorials, and advocacy groups that supported the idea. According to Mooallem, the issue was seen as a vital test of ingenuity. “To defend our freedom and way of life, some generations of Americans are called to go to war; this generation was being called to import hippopotamuses and eat them,” he writes.
Despite enthusiastic support from various quarters, the hippo project never got off the ground. A bill that would implement the plan failed by one vote. Instead, lawmakers devoted more land and resources to expanding cattle ranching, resulting in the factory farming that raises controversy today. And, the state of Louisiana spends millions on herbicides each year to battle the still invasive water hyacinth. Mooallem argues that these were not answers so much as “relatively unambitious solutions that seemed safe enough.”
But safe solutions rarely lead to innovation. Bold action is necessary to truly solve intractable problems. Vaccines, public sanitation programs, and the transcontinental railroad all required a singular vision and a significant leap of faith.
By extension, successful industries embrace this spirit by constantly leveraging all the tools they can muster to seek unusual answers to complicated issues. For example, this month’s issue includes a story on school shooting solutions that illustrates how security professionals are using everything from window film to bullying prevention programs to address the threat. Another complex issue, the menace of white collar crime, is inspiring law enforcement and legislators to seek global remedies.
The cover story provides a snapshot of where innovation has led the security industry. The numbers from a new survey indicate that security is emerging from the economic downturn and that budgets are on the rise; a fact that will lead to even more bold ideas. And bold ideas can mean the difference between stagnation and that great leap forward. As Mooallem writes: “In retrospect, it’s hard to even pinpoint a moment when America said no to hippopotamuses. There were just too many moments when it failed to say yes.”