By Davie Philip
What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the rest of the world calls a butterfly.” ~ Lao Tzu
In this Good Life 2.0 column, I have been exploring how we might become more effective change makers and play a part in the transition to a way of life where we can thrive in these uncertain times. I’ve been highlighting some of the potential responses to the challenges we face, as well as looking at emerging technologies and processes that can help us nurture resilience in our communities and in ourselves.
We shouldn’t let a good crisis go to waste; these challenging times could provide a once-in-a-species opportunity to adapt our way of life to one that fits the carrying capacity of our planet and works for everyone, not just a few. In this issue of Positive Life, I want to explore an elegant and powerful analogy for change that has been used for thousands of years – the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly. This metaphor has recently been further informed with the latest in systems thinking and the observations of the evolutionary biologist and futurist Dr. Elizabet Satoris.
The butterfly begins its journey as a tiny egg on a leaf from which the caterpillar emerges. Right from the beginning of its life, a caterpillar’s sole purpose and function is to consume. They are like little eating machines that increase their body weight several thousand times in a couple of weeks, actually growing out of their skin five times before hanging from a twig and getting ready for a radical change. This is called the “pupa stage”. The caterpillar sheds its skin again but this time the new skin is different, its a harder protective shell called the “chrysalis”. This is where the transformation from caterpillar to butterfly takes place.
Within the chrysalis, the body of the caterpillar starts to break down into a nutrient goo. This is where the magic happens with the emergence of cells that have been dormant in the caterpillar. These are called “imaginal” or “organiser” cells and at first are seen as a threat and attacked by the immune system of the caterpillar. The imaginal cells however are called to action, start to collaborate and come together to create the body, legs and wings of an entirely different being. The imaginal cells develop into the structure it was originally determined to become, and after a few weeks and a final struggle the transformation is complete and the butterfly emerges and takes flight.
So what is the lesson of this story for us? We have now reached the long predicted limits to our growth and its time for us to make the transformation to a different system. The opportunity of this moment is unprecedented, with a convergence of new ideas and technologies, a resurgence of community spirit and a yearning to simplify our lives and to do more together. We are at a critical turning point in our civilization’s evolution; it’s similar to the stage between the caterpillar and butterfly, a time of transition or metamorphosis.
Our economic system requires us to consume, so it could be said that the current purpose of our human system is to consume resources and ensure economic growth. This makes our society, and us, similar to caterpillars. However, as Elizabet Satoris stresses, “the caterpillar is a necessary stage but becomes unsustainable once its job is done. There is no point in being angry at it, and there is no need to worry about defeating it. The task is to focus on building the butterfly, the success of which depends on powerful and positive creative efforts in all aspects of society and alliances built among those engaged in them.”
However, the old system will fight to protect its interests as the new system struggles to be born, and activists will spend a lot of energy fighting the old rather than birthing the new. The lesson here for the change makers of today is to be more like imaginal cells and to collaborate with others on shaping the systems of a world that works. Caterpillars are the immature or growth stage of butterflies, and the industrial age could be seen as our growth period, which we now need to transcend.
People seem to be getting tired of our shop-till-you-drop, all-you-can-eat, hyper-consumerist culture and are beginning to explore ways of simplifying their lives. There is a transformation in consumerism going on, and not just in what we consume but how we consume. According to a Euro RSCG Worldwide survey, there is an emerging trend amongst significant portions of the global population who are trading hyper-consumerism for a consumption that is more considered and sane. Many people are now exchanging a life of excess and the accumulation of stuff to a slowed down, low impact life of simplicity, authenticity, personal responsibility and community.
New movements and businesses are emerging that facilitate the building of community and people sharing their resources with an emphasis on use and service over consumption and outright ownership. In this paradigm, there is a desire to share and to collaborate. People yearn to get to know and support each other, to gather locally and to meet face to face. Virtual communities are actually now fostering real ones as people use the Internet to get off the Internet. The rise in car sharing, land sharing, couch surfing, peer to peer lending and crowd funding demonstrate that a new culture of dematerialisation and collaboration is being born.
This kind of culture is more like the butterfly than the caterpillar. The butterfly is very different from the caterpillar; it has very little impact on the earth and provides vital eco-system services through the pollination of plants. Its time for us to move from being motivated from a position of self-interest with an over-emphasis on individualism and consumption to adopting new processes that encourage sharing rather that owning, collaborating rather than competing and working with nature rather than against it.
The transformation of our world is accelerating and is happening at all levels, within our communities and ourselves. The old ways are falling away and new ways will prevail as we recognise the creative possibilities and livelihood opportunities that collaboration reveals. It looks like the crisis is paving the way for a return of the spirit and values of the Meitheal, the old Irish co-operative system in which groups of neighbours helped each other.
This powerful change metaphor is clear for anyone engaged in social transformation. As the old unsustainable structures collapse, it is time to really work together to bring into existence a life-serving resilient society. A new world is emerging; in the midst of the apparent chaos, lets act like imaginal cells and build the butterfly.
Davie Philip runs the Community Resilience programme at Cultivate, is the Communication Manager at the Green Works Hub in Tipperary and is a resident in the Cloughjordan Ecovillage.