Mothers, butterflies, weather and climate.

Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her:

Proverbs 31:28, NIV.

To every mother out there… every mother who is, or ever was… Happy Mother’s Day.

Words are inadequate to express the debt we owe you, and the love we hold for you.

Meteorologists by nature of education and training are better positioned than many to appreciate the magnitude of this debt. A complete explanation would fill more space than we have available, but here’s the idea in a nutshell. Meteorologists know about chaotic systems, like the weather. In such systems, the actions of a single butterfly alters the future details of weather worldwide, forever.

In the same way, whenever a individual woman who is a mother, or is destined to become one, makes the slightest change in her life… she alters all of history for all time. None of us here, man or woman, would be here if history hadn’t unwound in precisely the way it did.

You might argue that’s not so true of recent history. But recent in this context might be a few minutes or less. As I type this, I may not be influenced by small differences in outcomes underway right now half a world away… in China say, or Malaysia. But I am influenced by what happened to me five minutes ago, or yesterday, and that in turn was shaped by what happened to the people near me over that span. Their conversation, their attitudes, their moods and inclinations, and their actions have been altered or even substantially transformed by whatever they’ve heard and experienced from their own circle of friends, or what news they’ve read online (from China or Malaysia or Tennessee or wherever else). So it happens, for example, that the smallest, most trivial actions throughout history have determined just which of every mother’s eggs is fertilized, and by whom. But it doesn’t stop there. History is then changed further, through the minutest details about how that child has been treated and what that child has experienced, and so on. Down the road, that’ll play a role in who that child, now adult, courts and marries, and when or if they start a family, etc., etc. Remember, we’ve focused on single individuals but we’re all engaging each other in the seven-billion-person human swarm at 21st-century warp speed. So the complexities multiply at breathtaking speed and the outcomes alter radically.

Now for the climate part. The details determine who is here. I wouldn’t be writing this and you wouldn’t be reading it unless all of prior history had gone precisely the way it did.

But regardless of the details of history, some seven billion people would still be here. No marriages would be the same, but we’d still have marriage. Education wouldn’t be the same but we’d still have education. Civilization in its broader aspects might all work pretty much the way it does now. We wouldn’t have had the wars we’ve had, but we’d have had war. Food, water, and energy resources might be available in the same amounts. Innovation occurs only as society is ready for it. And so on. There are probably bounds on the broad sweep of history. In the same way, climate imposes bounds on the variability of weather.

In closing, we should discuss climate change. Science, as reflected in IPCC studies and most recently the Third National Climate Assessment shows that climate variability and change will be hugely consequential for the human outlook. But our need to change our social climate, and all those human outcomes that shape society, trump even the most dire possibilities for the future of the Earth system. If we’re to realize the future we all want it starts first and foremost with changing our hearts: with choosing love over hate, choosing boldness over timidity, choosing trust over suspicion, looking to the interests of others before our own, and much more. That’s the climate change we need. If we address changing our individual hearts and the social climate, we’re likely to discover that we’ve improved the outlook for the environment, habitat, and ecosystems as a collateral benefit. If we attempt to address the latter without tackling the former, we’ll probably fail to achieve either desired result.

Mothers, at their best, have a lot to teach us here.

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