The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

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In Goethe’s poem, the sorcerer’s apprentice use magic to lighten his workload, but because his knowledge is limited, his spell creates more problems than it solves.

From the current issue of Nature

In an effort to combat warming-induced drought, Australians may be clearing the way for the spread of dengue fever. A recent move by the government to encourage households to install rainwater storage tanks may provide a breeding ground for the insect that transmits the disease, raising the risk of future outbreaks, finds new research.

In an ecological modelling study, Nigel Beebe of the University of Queensland and colleagues found that the mosquito that transmits dengue fever, Aedes aegypti, could potentially occupy a range that includes most major cities in Australia. It is currently found only in northern Queensland, however, because its distribution is limited by the availability of suitable breeding sites. On its own, further warming up to 2050 is unlikely to cause the mosquito to spread more widely — but the government-subsidized water tanks, which over one-fifth of Australian households have already installed, could allow it to gain a foothold outside Queensland.

Once infected mosquitoes have arrived, say the authors, dengue transmission could be aided by rising temperatures, which may lengthen the warm season in which the virus can pass to humans.


  • Ben, I agree with your comments. I used the heading for this item not to condemn water collection, but to launch a new feature — the first of what I hope will be many much better items under that heading.

    Unintended consequences — the Sorcerer’s Apprentice effect — are a fundamental feature of capitalist history — and no continent has experienced that more than Australia.

    In this case, a good measure (water collection) has potential bad effects (mosquitoes) which the promoters seem to have ignored. Fortunately, as you say, there is an easy fix. That’s often not the case.

  • The analogy of the sorcerer’s apprentice is very apt for technological-reductionist solutions to climate change. However, water tanks are a pretty good measure on many counts – they reduce flow from roofs into stormwater drains and waterways; they store water locally without needing centralised reservoirs or (shudder) desalination plants.

    They are pretty low-tech and very important in a country like Australia with such unreliable, intermittent rainfall. That’s not to discount this warning. But it is possible to instal fine screens to prevent mosquitoes using them for breeding. I am not sure the sorcerer’s apprentice analogy quite fits this case; although it would be very apt in the case of building desalination plants – see for example.