Pandemic and the butterfly effect, why didn’t we realise that?

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By Aaniqa Qayoom

In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state.   The butterfly effect is the idea that small things can have non-linear impacts on a complex system. The concept is imagined with a butterfly flapping its wings and causing a typhoon. Of course , a single act like the butterfly flapping its wings cannot cause a typhoon directly.

Tom  Breuer writes :

Simple systems, with few variables, can nonetheless show unpredictable and sometimes chaotic behavior. Libchaber conducted a series of seminal experiments. He created a small system in his lab to study convection (chaotic system behavior) in a cubic millimeter of helium .By gradually warming this up from the bottom , he could create a state of controlled turbulence. Even this tightly controlled environment displayed chaotic behavior; complex unpredictable disorder that is paradoxically governed by ‘orderly’ rules.

A seemingly stable system (as in 1ccm cell of helium) can be exposed to very small influences(like heating it up a mere 0.001 degree),and can transform from orderly convection into wild chaos . Although such systems are governed by deterministic phenomena ,we are nonetheless unable to predict how they will behave over time.

Benjamin Franklin offered a poetic perspective in his variation of a proverb that’s been around since the 14th century in English and the 13th century in German, long before the identification of the butterfly effect:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For want of a horse the rider was lost,
For want of a rider the battle was lost,
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

The lack of one horseshoe nail could be inconsequential, or it could indirectly cause the loss of a war. There is no way to predict which outcome will occur.

“If a single flap of a butterfly’s wing can be instrumental in generating a tornado, so all the previous and subsequent flaps of its wings, as can the flaps of the wings of the millions of other butterflies, not to mention the activities of innumerable more powerful creatures, including our own species.” “If a flap of a butterfly’s wing can be instrumental in generating a tornado, it can equally well be instrumental in preventing a tornado.”

There is how we can think about current situation arising due to pandemic. There may seemingly or un seemingly occur extreme chaos and crisis which could arise due to the all those loopholes which we create or have created in the initial stages of pandemic control ,that is what we have seen happening with many nations, US being one example .It was their recklessness or negligence at initial stages of outbreak, which has got them to  this point right now .And they still don’t know where the end of this lies it can take an even more  huge and terrible form thus staying consistent with the phenomena of Butterfly effect. Conversely a small change or a small step today, towards controlling or managing the pandemic can prove to be gigantic in dealing the issue in the times to come.

Similarly Butterfly effect might be witnessed as far as humanitarian crisis,economic crisis and threats to civilization are  concerned. With many sustainability challenges like climate change, the effects might already be visible—for example, rising sea levels, changing weather, and an increase in wildfires. However, the major and potentially more disastrous consequences may only become apparent in years to come. In contrast, the accelerated impacts of COVID-19 have had an immediate and profound effect. We believe this stark warning will serve as a wake-up call, driving a further modal shift towards sustainable investing and a renewed focus on sustainability risks and opportunities. This, in turn, should help accelerate the global recovery from the pandemic and build a more resilient society and economy for the future. Hope lies in the fact that whatsoever has happened or is happening has a way out .In other words we can fix it as we don’t have many problems like everybody thinks, but we have many symptoms of the same problem.

In this regard one approach can also be of Holism .Holism is the science of recognizing the parts of any whole, or system(from manmade to natural systems) are in intimate interconnection , such that they cannot exist independently of the whole or cannot be understood without reference to the whole.  Thus if we understand the right thing at the right time we can avoid the wrong time. Therefore the wings of the butterfly need to be cut right now so that it doesn’t flap them and doesn’t cause any tornado anymore ,This  analogy seems relevant, at least for now.


The author is a research scholar at Kashmir University.

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