Friday, July 4, 2008

The Butterfly: A Declaration of Interdependence

It’s the Fourth of July, Independence Day, and I’ll soon be heading over to the local fireworks to mark the day.

But while most of us are thinking about fireworks and flags, independence and declarations, I’ve been thinking about butterflies.

For me, thinking like a butterfly is the key to our environmental future, and is intimately connected with Independence Day.

Hang with me on this.

Consider the butterfly. Butterflies begin life as caterpillars, miniature mowers that chew through entire forests of trees, stripping leaves and denuding vegetation. In one of nature's ironies, caterpillars can weaken, even kill, the plants that serve as their hosts, precluding future butterflies from laying their eggs there. In some places, caterpillar droppings rain down from trees as armies of marauding tent caterpillars and gypsy moth larvae wreak destruction on our forests.

Caterpillars eat their future. They loot and pillage, like Eric Carle’s creation in the children’s classic, “A Very Hungry Caterpillar,” taking from the world the resources they crave for their survival.

Kind of like us.

Then, in a stunning act of mea culpa, an odd and magical transformation occurs. As if being punished for the sin of gluttony, the caterpillar metamorphoses into an adult with no mouthparts whatsoever for eating any solid food at all. A butterfly’s mouth is a long slender tube, essentially a straw, adapted only for nectar-sipping.

Butterflies drink the world, flitting from flower to flower in search of sugar water, drinking their way through the day.

And as they flit, pollen grains accidentally adhere to their hairy bodies, and butterflies pollinate the flowers they visit. Here’s one of nature’s most enduring examples of interdependence: butterflies require flowers for nectar; flowers in turn require butterflies to create the next generation of seeds and flowers.

But humankind is stuck in a protracted caterpillar stage, perpetually taking from the world whatever we need to survive, whether oil to power massive SUVs named after endangered places vanishing under an onslaught of car tires, or ancient old-growth forests clearcut to quench our unyielding thirst for chopsticks and plywood.

Yes, we are organic creatures with real needs: we must breathe air, drink water, eat food grown in soil, live in houses made from wood, water that house with coal taken from underground seams. The word “balance” is kicked around a lot in policy discussions about environmental issues, and it is a critical word. There simply must be a balance between what we take and what we give.

But let’s not kid ourselves: there is a deep and dark imbalance in our relationship to life and the resources that sustain us. We need forests for wood and water to drink, but we the future of wood and water is grim.

Humankind is way out of balance: precious little butterfly, far too much caterpillar.

July 4th is also the height of summer, butterfly season. As we celebrate the Fourth and our Declaration if Independence, butterflies remind us that the future of humankind is a deep interdependence, an acknowledgment that we must give back to the systems that sustain us if these systems are to continue functioning.

It’s time for a radical transformation, from caterpillar to butterfly, from unyielding takers vacuuming forests and ocean floors to generous givers restoring the systems that keep us alive.

Each of us needs to begin thinking like a butterfly.

A big thought from a small corner of the web. Happy Fourth.

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