Acknowledge the Lorenz butterfly…but don’t blame it.

This past week the news media have been abuzz about Senator Joe Manchin and his stance on climate change legislation. Much of that coverage lays the blame for America’s struggles to cope with climate change on his shoulders.

Only a couple of weeks ago, the media laid that same blame at the feet of the conservative majority on the Supreme Court. There was outrage, with this flavor: Is it right that such a small handful of unelected men and women should exert such outsized control on such an important issue?

Fact is, the media seem to flit (butterfly-like?) from narrow cause to narrow cause, fixing and isolating the blame in turn:

  • on inaction of the current president of whichever party;
  • on Republican obstinacy, or liberal Democratic over-reach;
  • on covid, or inflation, or the Russian invasion of the Ukraine and the resulting global fuel shortage, or Amazon deforestation;
  • on any of myriad other sensitivities in the climate system to human influence.

then, weeks or even just days later, recycling through this list.

Advancing human knowledge and understanding of all these problems is not just useful but necessary. So is building public awareness of these challenges across all sectors of society. But overlaying blame doesn’t appear to have been particularly helpful.

Meteorologists are well-positioned to see this. Thanks to Ed Lorenz and others, we’re well aware that the smallest details of atmospheric conditions in the right places can magnify quickly into enormous differences in weather development and outcomes. We’ve given this reality a name. We call it the butterfly effect, encapsulating the idea with a metaphor: a butterfly flapping its wings can lead to chain of events culminating at a later time in a tornado or hurricane somewhere downstream.

Meteorologists stop at recognition. We don’t blame the butterfly (or the seagull, or the breaching whale, or any other creature) for causing bad weather, or for failing to maintain favorable conditions. None is aware of their larger, longer-term impacts. Each is remaining true to its nature. We don’t say, butterflies are dangerous! We must eliminate butterflies!

Similarly, we wouldn’t blame a jogger. By the same logic, a jogger’s particular timing, or route, or speed, or arm movements, or even choice of clothing could ultimately trigger an extreme weather event – but no jogger knows that outcome. Our forecasts aren’t that good.

But, Bill, the clear difference is that Senator Manchin, the Supreme Court, and the other human players in your bulleted list are aware of their climate impacts. They have a good idea of the damage they’re causing, and they have other options open to them.

Yes and no. They’re undoubtedly aware of at least the first-order, initial impacts of their decisions. But they have little or no knowledge of the emergent consequences of their actions – how the larger society will respond over time, or even initially. And the tools at their disposal are limited. So is their so-called agency. As media coverage has made clear, Joe Manchin is ideally suited to be a Democratic Senator from today’s West Virginia in much the same way as a butterfly, or a seagull, or a whale is ideally suited for its unique role in the global ecosystem. The same holds true for the Supreme Court justices, and the other actors in the bulletized climate change roles above. And just as you and I see our influence on our circumstances to be limited, and however free we might imagine leaders to be, they likely see little more room for maneuver than you and I enjoy – in fact, possibly much less, as they’re in the media limelight. This is especially the case if they hold true to their nature – that is, the set of principles and ideals and history of action that led them to their current position in the first place. Asking or expecting them to change just because they’ve arrived in a particular leadership position might be disingenuous on our part or even irresponsible.

(By the way, we don’t hold that jogger to be entirely blameless either, do we? We don’t pick a quarrel with their exercise regime per se, but should we decide that their workouts increased their appetite for, say, corn-fed beef versus something vegetarian, or other-than-locally-sourced produce, then we start to feel free to weigh in.)

Hopefully, by now, everyone is convinced that no one person or small group is any more or less of the problem than each of us. To a lesser or greater extent we’re also shaped by and prisoners of our cultural and social context. We all hope that on net our influence on the world is positive, but we can’t ever really know.

Okay, Bill. Suppose all that is true. How then do we make progress with respect to climate change, or any of the other problems that bedevil us?

I was hoping you had the answer. Beats me. But I do know that the really difficult problems of today are all wicked. That is, they

  • are characteristics of deeper problems
  • offer little opportunity for trial-and-error learning
  • exhibit no clear set of alternative solutions
  • exhibit uncertainty, but strongly feature contradictory certitudes
  • hold redistributive implications for entrenched interests
  • yield only to coping strategies, and grudgingly at that

It’s risky to zero in on any of these in isolation; it’s the combination that’s the challenge. Furthermore, the 21st-century issue is the cocktail of such wicked problems that confront us: limited natural resources, including but not confined to food, energy, and water; environmental degradation; natural hazards, including pandemics. We need to address all these simultaneously.

Nevertheless, the root issue on this list that seems to me most problematic is “redistributive implications for entrenched interests.” At a personal level, virtually all of us feel that “we want just a little more” and “what little we do have is at risk to being stripped away by others.” But here in the United States we’re merely worried about the price of food while others are starving; about the cost of education when others, especially young women and the poor are going entirely without; about the need for fine-tuning the justice system while others are struggling to survive in failed states, where there is little or no rule of law. Paradoxically, it seems that those of us most willing to share what they have with others are the neediest – those who have the least.


In conversation on all this at breakfast, my wife pointedly asked, “so what is your solution?” To which I replied I didn’t have one. But one place I’d start? Remembering the ancient advice dating back to the Old Testament (but featured in other cultures as well) that wealth stems from generosity as much as the other way around:

One person gives freely, yet gains even more;
    another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty.

A generous person will prosper;
    whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.

People curse the one who hoards grain,
    but they pray God’s blessing on the one who is willing to sell
. – Proverbs 11:24-26

On a national and international level, the United States could emulate the precedent of the Marshall Plan implemented at the end of World War II. Ten years of Depression followed by five years of conflict had drawn down US coffers, but from 1948-1951 inclusive the United States gave away something like 2% of its GDP to a host of foreign countries (including its enemies, notably Germany). Today that would be something like $400B. Difficult to imagine reviving this commitment today, given current domestic- and geo-politics. But the postwar payoff to the United States in terms of increased trade and geopolitical stability, the respect of other nations (and domestically, our respect for ourselves) quickly made this look much more of an investment than a gift. The same outcome would likely obtain today.

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2 Responses to Acknowledge the Lorenz butterfly…but don’t blame it.

  1. jimmy correia says:

    Wicked indeed. The wickedest might be the purposeful deployment of mis- and dis- information as a weapon of war. Previously used in other capitalistic ventures like tobacco, electricity, etc these have been deployed at scale across all boundaries.
    I guess this is one fork in the road toward civilization collapse. we have to choose our way out of it together.
    I would like to say that individually is not the right way. But its perhaps the only way. We have to get back to our fundamentals. making local connections. building local trust. fighting not with our fists or minds but with our empathy, and determination to get us all to talk about our challenges locally. Then and only then, when we have re-built our local communities and figured out which problems we share, instead of which problems we disagree about – can we build a foundation to act. This is idealistic and simple and LONG. and we dont have much time. Our human systems are far too large to have solutions, instead we need attempts, trial and error, and all the worlds water in patience.

  2. Bill:-

    One way to start the long journey toward solutions is to quit trying to turn the young into social justice warriors, and instead – educate them. Make them learn history – warts and all. Yes, slavery is a stain on our past, but it was counterbalanced by building a culture of confidence and hope in the future. Our current “woke” cancel culture clearly isn’t working – it engenders fear and zero sum thinking that actually prevents the generosity of spirit you rightly call for.

    Make them learn science, and discover the joy of discovering how the natural world works. Make them learn mathematics, and its language of logic. Finally, expose them to all of the Great Books, and help them to apply the wisdom of the ages to today’s problems.

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