Tuesday, March 08, 2005


what is a pest?

Designers, indeed any citizen who interacts with the wider world, should be culturally aware. There is even a specialized field know as cultural ergonomics that concerns itself with how different cultures, say, perceive risk. An early test bed for this research was the very international field of aviation, where misunderstanding just isn't tolerated.

Culture is often assumed to be based on long historical precedent, such as religion or language (literal or symbolic.) For example, color doesn't mean the same thing in different places. What surprises me is when cultural meanings are much newer in origin. The notion of a pest is generally based on a deep-seated biological aversion to something threatening. Many people, for example, find creepy-crawly insects pest-like. Yet in New Zealand, a very creepy looking insect, the weta, is revered, and measures are taken to assure its survival. The Department of Conservation notes "weta have become icons for invertebrate conservation." Show a photo of a weta outside New Zealand, and I bet few people would think, "wow, we should conserve these." Most would assume it was a cockroach. Can one imagine a weta instead of a panda as the logo of an international conservation organization?

If the weta isn't a pest, what counts as a pest is equally counter-intuitive to this outsider. The wallaby, a small kangaroo, to me seems the delightful stuff of Saturday morning cartoon shows. In Australia, it's native land, it is, like the weta, an icon for conservation. It is loved, and sadly it is endangered. A few wallabies also live on the outskirts of Auckland, New Zealand's largest city. Despite a very friendly rivalry, New Zealand and Australia are not that radically different -- heck, they even have nearly identical flags. But they are different when it comes to wallabies. In Auckland, wallabies are officially classified as a pest by government authorities. Seems while it struggles in Australia, it gets on too well in New Zealand. So, wallabies would be another problematic logo for an international conservation group to adopt: it would turn off New Zealand donors.

If Australia and New Zealand don't agree on what a pest is, how can we expect India and Iceland to agree? Or Mongolia and Mexico? Some cross-cultural differences are lessening with globalization, but, at the same time, we are inventing new ones.

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