The monarch butterfly has become an iconic emblem of the need to preserve the environment. As insect populations decline from loss of habitat due to climate change and from broad use of pesticides and herbicides that are acutely toxic to pollinators, people have become more concerned. Pleas for help now fall on deaf ears at the EPA where industry influence has constrained controls on wide use of neonicotinoids, glyphosate, and dicamba. Pollinator populations are crashing, with terrible consequences for food production. A world without insects would be dreary and uninhabitable as these creatures are essential parts to many food chains and essential ecosystems.
It is encouraging that individual efforts can make a significant difference in the outcome of this sad story. In my home town of Forest Hills PA, Barbara Martin and the Late Bloomers Garden Club made a deliberate effort to increase the habitat for pollinators in the public gardens the club maintains. Individual members also began planting specifically for pollinator-friendly gardens. Milkweed cultivation became very popular. We all send pictures around celebrating the latest development- Monarch egg- laying, caterpillar sightings, chrysalis formation! We await the first emergence to be documented as a new generation of adult butterflies joins the hopefully growing throng. We share the small tragedies of caterpillars killed by stinkbugs or cadis fly attacks. The gardens are now scenes of high drama, not just places of colorful attraction.
Second instar Monarch caterpillar eating milkweed in Patty DeMarco's garden
Metamorphosis thus tracked and observed is revealed as one of the wonders of nature. Metamorphosis is the process through which insects, such as butterflies, develop from the egg to caterpillars, which molt two or three times as they grow, to pupate in a chrysalis, and then emerge in a totally different form as a butterfly. All of the fuel and resources necessary for the final adult butterfly form are contained in the caterpillar. You can think of the caterpillar as an eating machine devoted to storing fat, and a butterfly as a flying machine devoted to reproduction. The special cells that become the organs and parts of the butterfly are clustered behind the head in the caterpillar- small “imaginal discs” of specialized cells that grow slightly, but wait until the chrysalis forms to become active. During pupation, the stored resources the caterpillar made become the fuel for growth and development of the organs that will be evident in the butterfly. It is an elegant manifestation of nature!
Metamorphosis is also a good descriptor for the changes our civilization is facing with the existential challenges of climate change and global pollution. We have grown our industrial age on the resources extracted from the Earth – coal, oil, and natural gas – and consumed them with explosive effect on the capacity of the economy to support growth…at least for a while. Now, after roughly 100 years since the beginning of the industrial revolution, we are hitting the limits of growth. Not growth as usually defined in economic terms, but growth in terms of keeping the balance of the life forces of the Earth. Unlike the caterpillar, human society has no signal to trigger the transformation to the next stage. We must listen to the voice of the Earth warning of the limits to growth in its current mode. The way forward cannot pursue the same path as the past. Just as the munching caterpillar is transformed into a flying creature, we need to transform our civilization from a rapacious converter of raw material into trash into a civilization devoted to preserving and sustaining the life support system the living Earth has provided to us.
The tools and resources necessary for the transformation to a sustainable civilization are at hand. This is not a technology issue. It is an issue of values and ethics, of recognizing that we have reached, perhaps even exceeded the limits of growth in this mode. I share here the wisdom of Donella Meadows, one of the authors of The Limits to Growth.
People don’t need enormous cars; they need respect. They don’t need a closetful of clothes; they need to feel attractive and they need excitement, variety and beauty. People need identity, community, challenge, acknowledgment, love, joy. To try to fulfill these needs with material things is to set up an unquenchable appetite for false solutions to real and never-satisfied problems.
If we really look at the way nature manages healthy systems, we see the balances among growth and decomposition and reconstitution. In the great cycles of life, nothing is wasted and every part is interconnected with other parts to make a complex system that changes and evolves in succession. Human civilizations in past times have sustained a harmonious existence in nature for thousands of years, as the indigenous populations in many diverse parts of the world have illustrated. Modernizing such cultures has rarely achieved a similar balance.
The elegance of natural systems and the absolute economy of resource cycles in nature can inspire our future ways. As the monarch flutters through the milkweed in the garden, I am thankful for the efforts of my friends and of so many people from Mexico to Canada who are stepping forward to provide sanctuary for these amazing wanderers. Because their life cycle spans a continent, the healthy presence of monarch butterflies gives hope that we can restore the health of our own life support system for our children and the children yet to be born in the 21stcentury.
L. Hunter Lovins et.al. A Finer Future – Creating an Economy in Service to Life. New Society Publishers. B.C. Canada. 2018. Page 27