|Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus)|
When I was younger (40 or 50 years ago) there seemed to be butterflies everywhere. The cabbage white, cabbage butterfly, or simply white butterfly (Pieris rapae) is (or at least, was) common throughout Europe, North America, eastern Asia, Australia, and New Zealand.
The other (then) common butterfly – the Monarch (Danaus plexippus) has a similar global distribution.
Both are in decline. We see far fewer of them today than we did 40 or 50 years ago. I was recently talking with a friend who is twenty years younger than me, and he could not identify the butterfly (Monarch) I was telling him about – he could not recall having ever seen one!
These butterflies are in decline because of (unnatural) human intervention into natural systems. Pesticides, insecticides, habitat loss, food source depletion, and climate change are all causes for the decline.
Butterfly decline may be one of the “canaries in the mine.” The loss of butterflies signals to us that it is time we did something – and did it fast!
What? What can we do? What does any individual do? How can I bring about change?
An allegorical butterfly may be a way to think about this.
We might be able to do something if we understood the Butterfly Effect. This effect, an aspect of Chaos Theory, allegorically suggests that a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon can trigger a thunderstorm in Japan. That may sound far-fetched. However, there is scientific and mathematical support for this.
Put another way (more technically) the hypothesis can be stated as: sensitive dependence upon initial conditions in which a small change in one state can result in significant change in another state.
The idea was initially proposed (discovered may be more accurate) by Edward Lorenz (a meteorologist) working in the 1960s. He stumbled upon the effect when he wanted to re-run a computer simulation of a weather model he was working on. However, to save time, he inputted data that was correct to three decimal places (rather than the six places in the original simulation.) He assumed that the resulting outcome would not differ significantly from that of his original run.
He was wrong! The outcome was significantly different. So much so that the two resulting scenarios looked nothing like each other. He was also surprised.
Lorenz’s discovery led (along with some work by other theorists) to the idea of Chaos Theory. This theory upended our historical mindset that says we live in a linear and predictable world.
We don’t. Our world is non-linear, it is inherently unpredictable, self-organising, and fractally based. To our minds it looks – chaotic.
What can we do with this?
If small changes in initial conditions are able to produce large changes in a subsequent state, then that suggests we have agency, even if small. We can effect change. We can make a difference.
However; a caveat. Just because we can influence the initial conditions, this does not guarantee that the outcomes will be what we want. Chaotic systems have inputs and feedback loops that can be positive and/or negative. Once a system receives an input there is little controlling what happens because of that input. Hence, although the input we make can be made with the best of intentions, we would be foolish to think that the outcome will be as we wish it or envision it.
Vaclav Havel (the last President of Czechoslovakia and the first President of the Czech Republic) understood this well. Even though he worked to bring about change in his country he fully understood the difference between what we may hope for and what we get.
“Hope, in the deep and meaningful sense … is an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”1
Although we are unable to predict the outcome, we can help to tip the probabilities in our favour. We can, as Havel says, “…work for something because it is good.”
The Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, advised similarly. Merton was opposed to the Vietnam war, and worked non-violently towards bringing about an end to that war. In a reply to a young correspondent who wrote to Merton of his despair, Merton had these words of advice:
“(Do not) depend on the hope of results… You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea you start to concentrate more and more not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people… In the end… it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.”2
Our small, individual, and collective, actions may bring about the significant change we wish. They may not. As Havel and Merton attest, however, the value and rightness of what we do in our relationships should be what we value and work with.
And in that work, the Butterfly Effect may just result in significant change.
This brings us back to the question that is the title of this blog.
How many butterflies will it take?
How many butterflies need to disappear or go extinct before we wake up to the fact that we must do something?
How many of us need to begin flapping our “butterfly” wings in order to do what is right and of value?
1. Václav Havel, Disturbing The Peace, Vintage Books, New York, first English edition 1990.
2. My apologies for those looking for a reference to this quotation. I have it written down, but neglected (at the time) to note the source. I’m sure that some judicious seeking may turn it up.