Do you remember the Butterfly Effect? I’m not talking about the Ashton Kutcher movie. I’m talking about the theory that small actions may lead to big consequences. Rebecca Solnit references this popular concept in Chapter 11 of Hope in the Dark, saying:
Some years ago, scientists attempted to create a long-range weather forecasting program. It turned out that the most minute variations, even the undetectable things, the things they could perhaps not even yet imagine as data, could cause entirely different weather to emerge from almost identical initial conditions. This was famously summed up as the saying about the flap of a butterfly’s wings on one continent that can change the weather on another. History is like weather, not like checkers. (And you, if you’re lucky and seize the day, are like that butterfly.) (emphasis added).
Becoming a “butterfly” for societal change involves more than luck. To the extent we can, we have to purposefully behave in ways that contribute to achieving the type of society we want. In her book, Solnit provides examples of political action, much of which falls into the category of direct action protest, including:
- Standing in the rain, protesting the Kennedy White House as part of the anti-nuclear movement (Chapter 1)
- Protests against the Bush Administration in Chile (Chapter 2)
- Shutting down the WTO in Seattle (Chapter 11)
- Living in trees to prevent the tree from being cut down (Chapter 15)
But what can those of us who aren’t inclined to engage in this type of direct action do? Political action carries different risks for different people, and we all have different strengths and abilities. As a result, what is a comfortable activity for one person is an uncomfortable activity for another.
These days, I’m trying to push beyond my comfort zone where I can–too many of us have been too comfortable with the status quo for too long–but I’m not going to turn into a Solnit-style activist anytime soon. I’m shy, and even making a phone call to a person I don’t know makes me anxious. However, I’m willing to do that when the person on the other end of the line works in a lawmaker’s office (something I already do for my job, despite my discomfort).*
I’m willing to do more than that too, including:
- Familiarizing myself with the issues that matter to me (beyond the issues I work on).
- Donating to and following organizations that work on these issues on the national, state, and local levels (I need their “action alerts” and talking points to know what to do and when to do it).
- Calling lawmakers on issues beyond the ones I work on. I also plan to write letters and send emails on a wider range of issues (though emails don’t make as much of an impact).
- Visiting lawmakers at their offices (on issues beyond the ones I work on).
- Educating others about issues, such as by hosting discussion groups at my house and engaging in social media. To me, blogging and tweeting about politics isn’t just a form of emotional venting. I hope it also encourages others to speak up and to feel comfortable taking action because they know they’re not alone. I know it emboldens me to see what others are saying.
- Participating in online petitions, which have had varied success even with lawmakers who purport to care about them, but could push an issue under certain circumstances (see Pew’s report on the Obama Administration’s responses to “We the People” petitions).
- “Voting with my dollars” by buying items that support the causes that matter to me and boycotting items that contradict what I believe.
- Volunteering in my community and possibly for political campaigns.
- Voting twice a year (of course); and
- Practicing what I preach on a daily basis by speaking up when I see or hear something I think is unfair or discriminatory and never accepting our current political climate as “normal.”
While doing as many of these activities as I can, I will also spend time chasing butterflies with my children, which I discussed in my first post on Hope in the Dark:
Greeting butterflies in my garden is a dream I’ve had since the bleak days after the 2016 election, when my daughters asked me what they could do in response to Donald Trump’s unconscionable win.
At first, I didn’t know what two third graders and a kindergartener could do. Whatever “political” activity it was had to be tangible, relatively easy to understand, and meaningful to them. It became clearer when they shared their fears about the environment (a fear I didn’t substantiate by saying anything about Trump’s anti-science pick for the Environmental Protection Agency).
So, we’ve decided to plant a butterfly garden.
There are about 20,000 species of butterflies worldwide, and at least that many ways to make our world a better place. If you have any ideas for me, I’d love to hear them. Thank you!
*I work for a state-based nonprofit on policy (and other legal advocacy). I believe state-based work is very important, especially when we have a federal government that isn’t likely to care about us.