OODA loops and cat belling: of Jason Bourne, climate activism and the end of the world

Two of my favourite mental tools are OODA loops and the fable of cat belling.  I’m going to describe both and then put them together as best I can. Why? Because I think it reveals something useful about “activism”, such as it is.

OODA loops are an insight developed by an American fighter pilot, John Boyd, who just missed the Korean War, but noted how badly the US trained pilots, in their technologically superior planes, did in dogfights. What he came up with was a theory of combat that said, both people in the combat aerial combat but it could be anything, having to do four things and then spit out new versions of the same things afterwards (i.e. be iterative). And these are as follows.

  • They have to observe what’s going on.
  • They have to orient, they have to figure out what its meaning is,
  • They have to decide to act.
  • And then they have to act.

Once they’ve acted, they changed reality. So, they have to observe. And they also have to observe what their opponent, or enemy has done in the same time period. And orient, decide and act again. Now, if you do that too slowly, you’re always on the back foot: the other guy is shaping reality.

My favourite example of this is the scene near the beginning of the third Bourne film, The Bourne Ultimatum, where Jason Bourne is meeting a contact at Waterloo station. And it quickly becomes apparent that other people are there. Bourne doesn’t back down. And because Bourne is able to make decisions very quickly, and they don’t know exactly who he is, he’s able to get most of what he wants.

So OODA loops are about clarity and speed of decision making. Now what they teach you in the military, especially in Special Forces, is to do OODA loops, and to make a decision and act on it, even if it seems hopeless (1) 

So there’s an old non-Aesop fable. A bunch of mice, who are distressed that so many of their fellow mice have been eaten by a marauding and silent cat. So they hold the meeting. And after debate, it’s agreed that everything would be better if the cat were to wear a belt, so they could be warned of his approach, and hide. And they all applaud  -“job well done.” And the meeting is about to break up when one of the old mice raises his wizened little paw and says, “Who is going to bell the cat?” And of course, everyone, all the mice,  expected that someone else will bell the bloody cat.

How we put these together? Well, it’s pretty straightforward. So, the mice have observed the number of sudden deaths among themselves. They have oriented it towards it being down to a marauding cat, who arrives silently, and leaves satiated. And they’ve even got as far as deciding what’s to be done. But they haven’t assigned anyone to do it, to actually act. They haven’t assigned a timeframe. They haven’t assigned, how to come back to it to see whether things are on target or not. And so it’s not going to happen.

And what always irritates me – or used to when I was still paying attention to these things – is the “who is going to bell the cat?” question. All sorts of lovely proposals for what should happen. But never any actual “this lot of people is going to do this by this time, with these skills and these resources.”

And instead we are all going to spend the next 8 months listening to people talking about how COP26 is our Last Chance To Save The World. Shoot me now.


(1) There’s a good bit at the end of Chris Ryan’s memoir, “The One That Got Away,” which is where he’s just absolutely knackered, and he’s basically waiting for them (Syrians) to do whatever they want to him. And he just doesn’t have the energy or any gas left in the tank to make a run for it or anything else.

(2) Two things here – one, within the fable, one without. Firstly, the mice COULD figure out how to bell the cat. Entice the cat into a box and trap it. Stay away from its claws and it’s mouth, trap it so that it can’t eat you., You need to build the bell as well, and the collar. And it’s got to be big enough.

And the cat could be the capitalism thing, or it could be the state. Or it could be combo of both. Mostly, these things are a combo of both. And the bell is just to warn us what’s going on. But of course, we need to really have higher ambitions than that. Why don’t the mice try to KILL the cat? A mouse could dose itself with cat poison and then do Heroic Self-Sacrifice? This is where metaphors fall down. You need to keep it simple. (See also Ursula Le Guin and Omelas – why not come back and burn it down). Now I am properly digressing…

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