Once upon a time, a young boy got a horse as a present for his 12th birthday. It was a coveted gift and his entire village cheered and said, “Isn’t this wonderful!” “We’ll see,” replied the wise Zen master who lived in the village.
Two years later, the boy was violently thrown off of his horse, shattering his leg and causing great dismay throughout the town. The villagers all cried, “How unfortunate this is for the boy!” “We’ll see,” replied the wise Zen master. Shortly after the boy’s fall, a brutal war broke out near the village, but the boy could not fight because of his broken leg. Relieved that the boy would remain safe, the whole village said, “This is so fortunate for the boy!”
“We’ll see,” replied the Zen master — fully aware that, for better or worse, even the best intentions have unintended consequences. Understanding that events rarely occur in isolation and that seemingly random actions are often closely interconnected…and somewhere close by a butterfly flapped its wings.
The Butterfly Effect is the idea that small changes in the early state of a system can cause significant and unpredictable changes to its future state. For example, the flutter of a butterfly’s wings in Africa could possibly alter the atmosphere just enough to change a hurricane’s path from across the Gulf of Mexico to up the East Coast. Although the butterfly does not cause the hurricane, it’s a small part of a larger sequence of events that causes a major change in the ultimate outcome.
Most often The Butterfly Effect is associated with chaos theory, a field of study in mathematics. However, this profound concept extends far beyond mathematical equations or weather patterns. The power of this phenomenon is what Americans so desperately need to embrace to solve our national challenges and change the way our dysfunctional political system operates once and for all.
Just as the butterfly and the hurricane are elaborately connected, our domestic and foreign policies are linked in intricate ways. If we don’t pay close attention, a policy decision that we make today can have significant consequences down the road — in ways we may never have considered.
Passing a three-strikes law today can cause significant over-incarceration tomorrow. Increasing domestic ethanol quotas today can cause a massive worldwide food shortage tomorrow. Redlining neighborhoods today can cause a substantial wealth gap tomorrow. Overthrowing a Glass-Steagall Act today can contribute to a devastating subprime financial crisis tomorrow. Arming the Afghan mujahideen without appropriate oversight today can fortify terrorism tomorrow.