The butterfly effect is a feature of chaos theory, emerging from the work of meteorologist and mathematician Edward Lorenz. It’s usually defined as the sensitive dependence of deterministic nonlinear systems on initial conditions, such that a small change in an earlier state can result in large differences in a later state.
Lorenz cited the metaphorical example of the flapping wings of a butterfly possibly influencing the formation and path of a far-off tornado weeks later. The discovery of the effect came about as the result of running a weather model with and without seemingly inconsequential data rounding; the rounded data resulted in a significantly different result. Lorenz’s explanation of this effect caught the popular imagination, leading even to a motion picture titled “The Butterfly Effect” starring Ashton Kutcher (I wouldn’t recommend it).
As Peter Dizikes wrote in the Boston Globe, pop culture mostly gets the butterfly effect wrong. We naturally want to run the tape backward to trace how each little event caused some later big event. But Lorenz used his butterfly metaphor to suggest that predictability is “inherently limited.” As Dizikes explains, this misuse of the idea “speaks to our larger expectation that the world should be comprehensible—that everything happens for a reason, and that we can pinpoint all those reasons, however small they may be. But nature itself defies this expectation.”
Of course, most of what we do in life is based on rational expectations of specific results. We pay for products and services, and lodge complaints when those products and services don’t meet certain standards. We offer our labor to employers with the expectation of a wage or salary. But life isn’t always rational. As Lorenz found, there are domains that are best described as chaotic, where predictions and expectations are often frustrated.
I’d argue that the realms of public opinion and policy formation are, at least in part, chaotic. Big money buys guaranteed results in elections and regulatory decisions—usually. But not always: occasionally, a small group, even a single individual, with few resources manages to decisively shift public perception, discussion, and action. The myriad possible examples include Joan of Arc, the Zapatistas, and Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit vendor who set off the Arab Spring by setting himself on fire after refusing to pay a bribe to the police.
Knowing that the connection, within chaotic systems, between action and consequence is tenuous and unpredictable, it makes perfect sense to act, at least sometimes, in ways that may seem irrational. Specifically, it makes sense to act on the basis of impulses like hope, love, creativity, and joy even when no result can be predicted.
From a rational standpoint, it may be clear that humanity is headed toward dire outcomes from climate change, resource depletion, species extinctions, pollution, too much debt, and too much inequality. And it appears the deck is stacked in favor of powerful groups and institutions that, for reasons of narrow and temporary self-interest, thwart actions that might relieve these crises. What could a little nonprofit organization do to change the outcome? Rationally speaking, not much. But if that organization is speaking an otherwise excluded truth, who knows? There’s only one way to find out. Maybe the path of that tornado bearing down on us is less predetermined than we think.
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