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Let’s start with a quote from Wikepedia:

In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependency on initial conditions in which a small change at one place in a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state. The name of the effect, coined by Edward Lorenz, is derived from the theoretical example of a hurricane’s formation being contingent on whether or not a distant butterfly had flapped its wings several weeks earlier.

In the popular mind, which is arguably more heavily influenced by myth, fiction, and propaganda than by science (especially something as esoteric as chaos theory), the butterfly effect is often understood as a minor disturbance to a timeline resulting in a substantial divergence downstream. It’s an alteration from one likelihood or expectation to another one, typically carrying major impacts. We have no trouble believing in fates and destinies being fundamentally altered by arbitrary choices and happenstances. Hindsight sometimes even affords the opportunity to wonder what might have happened if one had zigged instead of zagged, knowing that every instant has the unbeknowst potential for a life-changing development. (What bus?) The foresight to recognize those linchpin moments escapes us most of the time, but we believe in them nonetheless.

My reason for bringing this up is to make the observation that with the biosphere now manifesting major impacts that are highly discontinuous from the historical record, we don’t really believe in the butterfly effect, or at least ignore/deny it. Minor perturbances, from population pressure to pollution to paving to purported prosperity, are frequently thought to be too tiny to affect something as large as the planet and its finely tuned systems. Yet ripples and eddies have accumulated over time and are now lapping shores like tsunamis, causing the face of the Earth to be quite different from its state, say, 250 years ago, before the fossil fuels era kicked off in earnest.

This week’s biggest news is a good case in point: an artic vortex has brought dangerously low temperatures and wind chills to North America. This phenonenon, where the mass of extremely cold air slides off its normal center at the North Pole, may not be entirely unknown in modern history, but its reappearance this week reminds us that small changes to the systems of the Earth’s thermal regulation can wreak substantial havok. (Please stop reporting the damage in terms of cost in dollars!) Further, in answer to the question, “Are these cold temps due to climate change?” at least this article at Common Dreams answers unequivocally “yes.” It argues that all weather events major and minor are now attributable to climate change because, like the fate or destiny aspect of the butterfly effect, we have embarked on a new timeline that diverges from a calmer, steadier state we might have enjoyed had we not made unwitting, wholesale alterations to the Earth’s climate systems. This is essentially the same argument made by Bill McKibben in The End of Nature way back in 1989, namely, that Nature (capital N) didn’t really exist anymore because humanity’s imprint is now everywhere: in the air, water, and soil. (Incidentally, this is the book that awakened me to ecological issues that in the ensuing 25 years have only grown progressively gloomier and doomier.) Put another way for the entertainment-bred masses, we now have the equivalent of J.J. Abrahm’s reboot of Star Trek TOS with a new timeline, offering the opportunity to depart from canon as desired. The major difference is that, in our reality, we can only project and extrapolate how it would have been had we not messed everything up — except to say that it wouldn’t have been, well, nearly so messed up.

From my home and workplace in Chicago, it’s been curious to see how people have responded to the extreme cold. Fashion has been displaced in favor of function, with men and women on the street mummified under multiple layers to the point they look like the Michelin Man. Traffic (air, train, bus, automobiles) has not ground to a complete halt but it’s been slowed to a crawl, with many cancellations, delays, and accidents. The huddled masses (read: the homeless and unhoused) are congregating unapologeticaly in warming locations (public buildings such as libraries, underground pedways, on public transportation, etc.) to avoid the very real threat of freezing to death. Nonetheless, several freezing deaths have already been reported. School and business closures kept many at home, with many others calling in to complain of their inability to get to work. Four days of snow just prior to the extreme cold snap has everything covered in snow and ice, and plumes of water vapor behind every vehicle and over every building testify to the ongoing maintenance of an inside/outside temperature delta of 80+ deg. F. In addition, everything is encrusted in salt, which inevitably gets tracked indoors.

The look and feel of this experience may not yet be apocalyptic, but the sense of hunkering down to endure, if not survive, is palpable. Most individuals are cooperative and aware of others facing the same difficulties, but there are always a few douchebags arguing and pushing their way forward as though no one else matters. Such idiots turn out to be yet another part of the entire package to be tolerated, though my suspicion is that worsening conditions in repeat events will eventually lead to intolerance, violence, and mayhem. It’s a sneak peek, perhaps, of what many of us expect when collapse of services and utilities, financial institutions, and infrastructure impacts all of us directly, like the weather is impacting us this week.