The Butterfly That Beat Its Wings

As we gaze into the future, the further forward we look, the more unpredictable it becomes. Despite our skills in satellite imagery, science-networking and super-computer processing which give us unsurpassed details about our planet and its resources and notwithstanding our understanding of people and their social behaviour which – with kinship and game theories adding additional insights – has never been greater, our gaze fails to penetrate the veil of uncertainty. Whether experts are forecasting the weather, the economy, an election outcome or the future of society on planet Earth, their vision extends only so far. We see through a glass, darkly. These days it’s called a prediction horizon as explained by physicist David Deutsch.

Earth Horizon image
Earth Horizon

Based on an image of Earth taken from the International Space Station (21 July 2003, NASA Photo ID ISS007-E-10807) and a fish-eye mosaic of the Milky Way (Bruno Gilli/European Southern Observatory), this composite image by

 If we transported a group of futurologists back before the agricultural revolution – let’s say we take them back 20,000 years – and then supply the surprised scientists with a few basic statistics about the prevailing human population and the pattern of climate change, I expect they could predict the shape of society some 500 years or even 1000 years into the future with considerable accuracy. We could not do the same today. I don’t think we have any idea what our society will look like in 300 years’ time. There is considerable uncertainty over what society will look like in 100 years’ time. The distance to the prediction horizon for human-related phenomena is not expanding. We have entered a new phase in our history in which unpredictability is increasing, apparently accelerating, and the prediction horizon is contracting in concert. One of the factors at work is a breakdown in modularity as nations and city-states lose their autonomous character. In their place a single complex global system is emerging. Mathematicians consider modular systems to be more stable: they prevent cascades and dampen down runaway behaviours. Ergo, our planet is becoming less stable.

What cliff edge might we, as an increasingly homogenous global society, be rushing towards? There are many possibles. Will our natural resources hold out? Will the moderate climate that we have enjoyed since the last Ice Age hang together? How will society behave as our lives online eclipse our lives offline? As machine intelligence continues to rise exponentially, when will it close with the so-called intelligence-singularity – the point at which interconnected machine intelligence becomes more capable of managing the Planet and taking big and small political decisions, than us? Even if we discount the sci-fi version in which self-aware machine intelligence emerges, we still end up in an entirely different kind of world. Religious fundamentalism is on the rise. Weapons of mass destruction could proliferate and become controlled by extremist groups. The human population is going through one last doubling and its impact on the planet is amplified by per-capita wealth which also keeps doubling. Global fishery yields have declined. Soils are being lost in mountain regions faster than they regenerate. Ancient aquifers are drying. Earth’s ability to absorb global pollution is being pushed to the limit. Hardest hit of all is nature and wild life.

Unfortunately none of this is science fiction. The global trends predicted are based on well-crafted models such as that described by Jørgen Randers, one of the authors of Limits to Growth. The reported impacts are verifiable. For instance, a long-running study that determines global changes in biodiversity, the Living Planet Index, measures the annual change in population size of more than ten thousand species of vertebrate; then takes the average across all species. The 2014 index shows a decrease of 52% between 1970 and 2010 at the global scale. In other words, over a period of 40 years, more than one half of Earth’s wildlife populations have been lost.

Aral Sea and Ships
Canal that gave access to shrinking Aral Sea

Following diversion of rivers feeding the Aral Sea to irrigate desert areas, the lake began shrinking. From 1960 to 1998 the surface area shrank by about 60%. By 2007, the sea was 10% of its original size.

Even so, not all agree about the shadow on the horizon. From what I have gleaned, there are at least three schools of environmental futurology: some, like the rational optimists, think we will invent our way out of trouble without having to change our behaviour; others believe that a population (Malthusian) catastrophe is inevitable; yet others heed the warning of environmental meltdown in our history. They hope we can turn back from the brink by carefully husbanding resources, attending to pollution, reforming our economic systems, and applying lots of diplomacy. The ‘hopefuls’ have studied how to reform institutions for greater sustainability, how to develop green economies, how to increase energy efficiency and how to restore ecosystems. More people than ever before have linked across the planet to engage directly with environmental issues. Western society is beginning to question whether GDP brings real life satisfaction.

Partial Restoration of the Aral Sea

Following construction of a 13 km dyke that prevented water from the river Syr Darya flowing south and evaporating, more than two dozen fish species fanned out from the delta as reeds spread in the shallow parts, providing spawning grounds and attracting millions of birds. Some fishermen returned to their former livelihoods.

 Transformations can be sudden and unexpected. In ecology, an ecosystem can flip from one stable state, such as old growth forest, to another such as acid bog, dense scrub or desert, almost overnight. That is why ecologists find it easy to understand how a society or civilization can grow and prosper for centuries only to vanish suddenly in the sands. Curiosity about such abrupt events led René Thom to develop catastrophe theory as an explanation of how they may unfold.

René Thom’s cusp catastrophe
Here illustrating the ‘flight or fight’ response of a threatened dog. Source: EC Zeeman‘s April 1976 article Catastrophe Theory in Scientific American.

There are plenty of signs to suggest that we are heading towards one of Thom’s dreaded birfurcations, some global transformation that we can neither predict exactly nor avoid: it lies just over the horizon. It this all sounds too alarming, take comfort from another philosophic observation. Even if we are unable to see the future, we are not helpless. According to David Deutsch we can influence our future by making general provisions of a sensible kind. Are we that sensible? One encouraging sign is the hint of revolution in the air. People are becoming very annoyed with the mismanagement of the planet and the micromanagement of their lives. There is more than a small stirring of unease at the failure of politicians to take on the corporations and financial giants. There is profound shock at the unfolding catalogue of afflictions visited on the poor, and our apparent inability to do anything about it.

Chaos theory teaches us that seemingly unpredictable events can be sensitive to starting conditions and even very small perturbations can have a major influence on what eventually unfolds. This is the butterfly effect – where the flapping of the butterfly’s wings at the right time and place became the starting condition for development of a hurricane that caused havoc in a far-off place. Perhaps our storm-birthing butterfly was a ‘blue morpho’, the large tropical lepidopteran that so impressed the Victorian naturalist, Henry Walter Bates, as it flew through the forest with its blue wings flickering in the sunlight.

Imagine a dark fringing forest set against tropical seas with the sun just rising above a great expanse of ocean, and touching the butterfly now resting with wings folded on its nocturnal perch. It lifts off beating its iridescent wings to go searching for fermenting fruit. The stirring of tiny air currents, jostles others, and the tiny vortex expands as it rises slowly. And so the swirling heart of a great storm begins to form.

Blue Morpho Butterfly by Martin Johnson Heade, 1864.

Blue Morpho Butterfly by Martin Johnson Heade, 1864. Such beauties inhabit the forests of Central and South America.

We are a bit like that butterfly, I feel. All around us, great atmospheric events are building with their climax hidden beyond the horizon. We seem feeble by comparison with such massive concerns. Still, we can flap our wings. Amongst all the wrongs worth causing a stir about, our environment is the one likely to cause the greatest mess. What is badly missing is an environmental ethic to guide our relationship with the living world, one which effects new policies for sustainable harvesting, generates a light ecological footprint tied to a high standard of living, and grants respect for all life. It doesn’t seem so much to ask but it crosses swords with two economic giants – the ungreen, free-market operations much beloved by the powerful world of business, and policies that increase gross domestic product (GDP) much beloved by politicians.

The question is: are we trapped in a contracting prediction horizon or are we the butterfly that beat its wings?

That little stirring in your or my mind may be like a tiny vortex stirred by the butterfly’s wing. The twisting current of thought could be picked up by companions and spun into a larger spiral that enlarges further as it ascends. In a few seasons’ time, one of the most potent forces on the planet, our environmental consciousness, might be unleashed…

About Martyn Murray

I fell in love with nature when I turned twenty-one camping under Acacias in East Africa, surrounded by giraffe and zebra with my nape hair raised by the distant roaring of lions. I went on to work for fifty years in Africa, Europe and Asia as an ecologist and conservation consultant. A few years ago I moved to the Isle of Lismore to pursue my passion for reconnecting people with the natural world. My first book, The Storm Leopard, is a journey across Africa and into the heart of the environmental crisis. My second, Origin of Species: Bite-Sized, contains the essence of Charles Darwin's greatest work – his theory of evolution by natural selection – in a text that is 15% the length of the original. The third, Beyond the Hebrides, is the story of a sea voyage in an old leaking boat and on how to keep personal freedom alive. I am currently working on a fourth which is about the global collapse of the natural world. Its working title is, In This Together. It challenges us all over our current connections with nature. More details are on my website,
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