Musings from the Mountain

August 02, 2013 Posted by: Dylan Stuntz

Have you ever heard of the Butterfly Effect? It's the idea that any action, regardless of how small, can set in motion a chain of events that can have tremendous consequences. "If a butterfly flaps its wings in Africa, it can cause an earthquake in Asia," that sort of thing. So if you adopt this thinking, the idea that every action we take can potentially be tremendous in its impact, what happens when we take tremendous actions? When you look at a landscape, it just seems so vast, so unchanging. I can almost understand where climate change deniers are coming from, the idea that nature is just so tremendous; nothing man does will have a permanent impact. However, that is an idea grounded in feelings, not in facts. Our reliance on our own feelings to tell us how the world functions is a throwback to our Neolithic ancestors, and the superstitions that guided them. But we have rejected those superstitious mutterings and instead we understand that we can change nature. It is both the gift and the curse of self-awareness. Once we are able to comprehend the impact that we may have, it all of a sudden becomes our responsibility to minimize that impact.

However, then we find ourselves faced with the burden of collective action. Although the Butterfly Effect says that a single person's action may have a large impact, we have no way of knowing what that impact may be. Instead, in order to create large scale lasting change that is effective, we need a large number of participants. Now, the idea of shared responsibility means that everyone has an equal stake in this, and that they all have an obligation to take action, but this is both a blessing and a curse. There is a psychological principle called "diffusion of responsibility", which means that in a large group where responsibility is equally shared, people are less likely to act. They feel that they have such a small role, it will mean nothing if they decline to participate. They think that the person next to them will act, so why should they? However, when everyone thinks that the person next to them will take action, no-one takes action. In order to create lasting change on the scale that is needed, we need to fight this. Include everybody. The Butterfly Effect, multiplied by countless people, will create the change that is needed for all. 

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Last updated: August 2, 2013

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