By: S. Costa Franco
Introduction – What is the 'Butterfly Effect'?
The 'Butterfly Effect' can be described as, according to the Oxford Languages Dictionary, "the phenomenon whereby a minute localized change in a complex system can have large effects elsewhere." In other words, this describes how in our heavily interconnected and interdependent world, the smallest of changes can result in the most significant of consequences. For instance, we can perceive the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand as the initial cause that led to a series of events eventually resulting in the First World War. This theory can be applied to many aspects of our everyday lives, but it is fascinating to delve into its greater significance and implications, specifically through the lens of environmental sustainability.
How can this be applied to sustainability?
The term "Butterfly Effect" specifically originates from an environmental and climactic context, in which the flap of a butterfly's wings in India could cause changes in air pressure that lead to a hurricane taking place in Iowa. What this aims to explain is that climate change, environmental issues, and the overall value of the solutions we come up with are almost impossible to predict, as there are so many factors to consider, and everything is so interwoven, that it is not nearly as simple as following a specific pattern. This, in a way, forces us as mindful consumers to think deeper about the consequences of our actions, and how these can lead to previously unforeseen results.
Emissions of carbon monoxide gas have been one of the primary causes of the excessive greenhouse effect we are currently experiencing, and nations have been under pressure to rapidly solve this issue. In 1990, an attempt was in fact made, where the United States signed an amendment to the Clean Air Act with the aim of reducing carbon monoxide emissions. The amendment stated that gasoline in automobiles must have a minimum of an oxygenate additive, a chemical compound that aids in allowing gases to burn more completely, mitigating both the production and release of carbon monoxide. The most commonly used oxygenate additive at the time was Methyl Tert-Butyl Ether (MTBE). This all seemed like an ideal solution, until the chemical began to contaminate groundwater, causing many civilians to become ill, and placing the possible adverse health effects of MTBE under scrutiny.
Many states rapidly began to ban the use of MTBE, most notably California and New York, which accounted for 40% of its use. With the dangers of the chemical becoming explicit, consumers had but one choice – utilize an alternative fuel source that also did not produce severe carbon monoxide emissions: ethanol. Quickly, ethanol became the fuel of choice, with the USA soon becoming the top ethanol producer in the world, manufacturing 13.2 billion gallons in 2010. Hence, it seemed that America had finally found the perfect solution to this environmental problem. Only one problem remained – how the ethanol was in fact being produced.
Ethanol is a fuel source originating in crops. Whilst in Brazil, sugarcane is used to extract it, in the United States ethanol is produced from corn. So, to meet the ever-growing demand, massive areas of land had to be carved out solely to grow corn, particularly in the mid-western regions of the country. Corn is grown with maximum yield and for maximum profit, but to achieve this, farmers must eliminate a very crucial barrier in any plantation: weeds. Herbicides are often utilized to rid any farmland of various kinds of weeds that can disrupt crop growth. This doesn't seem like an immediate problem unless we consider a species that heavily depends on one particular type of weed, known as the milkweed. This species is the Monarch Butterfly, depicted in the image above. The incredible insects undergo enormous migration periods, in which they lay their eggs, and the larvae emerging from such eggs feast only on milkweed, which was rapidly being eliminated by corn farmers. The result? 56% of the Monarch Butterfly population was lost in 2013, a staggering consequence.
Many would argue that butterflies do not seem to contribute much to our way of life. Hence, in the interest of preserving our planet, what would be the impact of losing one specific species many of us have not even heard of? However, this then begs the question: is it just for us humans to justify the extinction of a species as a consequence of us attempting to solve a problem that we have caused? How can we attribute value to a species merely based on the uses it provides for us? Have we humans dominated the planet to such an extent that the environment only has value if it can be exploited by us? While this case study may seem insignificant, it is in fact crucial in raising key issues regarding how we view sustainability.
In all, the main conclusion to draw from this is one we have all heard hundreds of times before but continues to be equally valid – all aspects of nature are intrinsically connected. One slight modification in the type of fuel we use can impact the survival of an entire species. Whilst we might think a particular solution is perfect, it may have repercussions we are not even aware of. This is all due to the Butterfly Effect (in this case, literally), in which a flap of a butterfly's wings can lead to a series of events, each leading on to the next, that can possibly end in the mass extinction of the human race! But seriously, it is essential that we, more realistically on a smaller scale, take a step back to think about the impact of our actions and reflect on how we are in such a position that our inputs into the global environmental system can forever modify life as we know it. And while this may seem like an unsolvable problem, it can also provide much room for very positive change.