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Logo of bmjThis ArticleThe BMJ
BMJ. 2007 November 3; 335(7626): 940.
PMCID: PMC2048838
The Bigger Picture

Crown of thorns

Mary E Black, public health physician, Belgrade, Serbia

The crown of thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci), a voracious predator of coral, is present normally in small numbers on reefs. Extensive and devastating epidemics can occur on coral reefs when the population of these sinister, grey spiny creatures episodically explodes; they munch through every bit of coral in sight, secreting chemicals as they do so that attract more starfish. The result is total battlefield devastation. There are two types of trigger: pesticides and overfishing kill off the tritons, sea snails, and reef fish that prey on these starfish; and agricultural run-off and warming of the oceans lead to algal blooms that directly nourish the larval form of A planci. After a few years of mayhem, life settles back to normal, and the starfish are once again corralled in their little ecological niche.

In human warfare megalomaniac, usually male, lunatics prevail—tinpot dictators who hold ordinary people to ransom. Those men who use rape and mayhem as tools of war are ordinary and mostly well behaved in peace time. The dogs of war are timid creatures; but change the conditions, remove the controlling factors, add in a liberal helping of arms and the ecosystem runs out of control. When the war ends they stop barking, tuck their tails between their legs, and go back to their ordinary and usually small lives.

After several years mopping up the damage caused by the last outbreak of human starfish in the Balkans, I have a second coral reef analogy. To make a new artificial reef you identify the right place on the sea floor, with the right water temperature, depth, particle level, nutrients, and currents. Then you sink an old ship or a pile of concrete blocks and let it sit. Lo and behold, the structure in a few years' time will support a perfectly functioning little ecosystem, its rough edges buried by myriad ordinary, busy little fish, sponges, and plankton who like nothing better than to get on with things and build something lovely. Over the past few years I have seen some initially hopeless or tiny international development projects flourish while some major yet ill positioned ones leave nothing more than a big pile of embarrassing rubbish. The difference was usually the location—and the timing.

Human society is like the coral reef: resilient yet fragile. There will always be wannabe master of the universe starfish waiting in the wings for an opportunity to run wild. There will always be lots of ordinary little creatures wanting to build and repair. We know that getting the conditions in any ecosystem right can prevent disaster and speed up rebuilding, which is why we need democracy, a strong civil society, transparency in government and business, social justice, and . . . an end to the arms trade. This will stop starfish, whether human or A planci, from getting away with it.

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