A Chaos Theory Primer for Civil Action
By Mica James
“Think globally, act locally.” We’ve all heard the slogan countless times, but have you ever stopped to question what it means? How does it work? By your local actions can you influence change on a global scale? The science of chaos theory offers some compelling insights that suggest your local actions may very well contribute to the greater good.
The scientific definition of chaos refers to an underlying interconnectedness that exists in apparently random events. John Briggs and F. David Peat, authors of Turbulent Mirror and Seven Life Lessons of Chaos: Spiritual Wisdom from the Science of Change, explain that “chaos science focuses on hidden patterns, nuance, the ‘sensitivity’ of things, and the ‘rules’ for how the unpredictable leads to the new.” Chaos is active in all our natural systems from the patterns of weather, the creation and erosion of mountains, to the nerves and blood vessels of our body. Not only is it all around us, but it’s inside us as well, and it tells us that outside and inside are connected. Sounds more like a Zen master’s koan than advanced mathematics.
Chaos is active in all our natural systems from the patterns of weather, the creation and erosion of mountains, to the nerves and blood vessels of our body.
Chaos theory began to wreak havoc on the mainstream scientific zeitgeist through the observations of MIT meteorologist Edward Lorentz. While working on a mathematical model of weather prediction in 1960, he desperately needed a caffeine hit, so set his computer to run through a second round of calculations. In an attempt to speed up the lengthy process, he decided to forgo several decimal places of accuracy. When he later returned, latte in hand, all hell had broken loose. Chaos had erupted in his calculations and the results of his new iteration were far different from the previous one. A clear indication that minute changes—in this case the difference between six decimal places and three—when fed back upon themselves in multiple iterations can have startling consequences. This is the process of amplification resulting from positive feedback in full action. We’ve all had a taste of the power of positive feedback, that’s what happens at rock concerts or more frequently over PA systems when the person with the microphone holds it too close to a speaker. Small noises are picked up by the microphone, amplified by the system and broadcast by the speakers, where they are picked up by the microphone and so on until a cacophony of chaotic static prevails.
Most of the systems we encounter in nature and society, from flowing rivers to the stock market, are complex and chaotic. As it turns out, the smallest perturbation may have drastic results.
Slowly Lorentz’s Oops! turned to Aha! and chaos theory was born. Named after an ancient Chinese proverb that says the power of a butterfly’s wings can be felt on the other side of the world, his observation is known as the Butterfly Effect. In this case, Lorentz posited: “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?” His answer was a resounding, “it might, it’s hard to predict.” Soon scientists were noticing the “subtle influence,” as Briggs and Peat call it, of butterfly wings everywhere they looked. Most of the systems we encounter in nature and society, from flowing rivers to the stock market, are complex and chaotic. As it turns out, the smallest perturbation may have drastic results. The fun part is that the effect is totally unpredictable. Random events are interconnected, says chaos. This bodes well for the impact of local action.
Butterflies have been around for a long time and so, it appears, have some of the basic tenets of chaos theory. The exploration of interconnectivity has long been the domain of some of the world’s oldest indigenous and spiritual traditions. They often recount through myth and story how all beings are part of a universal whole; ultimately none of us are truly separate or independent from the other or from the world around us. Science is finally catching on to what the mystics have long known.
Chaos theory is named after an ancient Chinese proverb that says the power of a butterfly's wings can be felt on the other side of the world.
Common to these worldviews is self-organization, the random emergence of order from chaos. Joseph Campbell spoke of the hero’s journey into the underworld, often to undertake some heroic deed, which ultimately led to self-mastery and greater self-knowledge. The ingestion of hallucinogenic plant substances during the rituals of many indigenous cultures reflects a similar journey. Sacred plants such as ayahuasca, San Pedro, and peyote illuminate a path descending into chaos in search of creative psychic self-organization.
The leap of faith comes in believing that other like-minded individuals exist and are acting in their own neighbourhoods. Each person acting independently and locally creates a permutation in the web of interconnectedness.
The principles of self-organization emerge in the ‘act locally’ half of our slogan. The effect lies not in the summation of many local acts but rather in their effect on the collective whole. It is not the critical mass that is important but rather what Margaret Wheatley, author of Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World, calls “critical connections.” Drop one stone in a pond and ripples flow outward. Scatter a whole handful of stones and the surface erupts in chaotic motion. Out of this chaos, ripples connect and coalesce into larger waves and a whole new surprising pattern of motion emerges. A student named Greta strikes in front of the Swedish parliament and a groundswell of support arises as if by magic. Like Lorentz trying to model the weather, we cannot predict the impact of our actions. We often don’t recognize the importance of our individual contribution because we cannot see how many other stones are out there. The leap of faith comes in believing that other like-minded individuals exist and are acting in their own neighbourhoods. Each person acting independently and locally creates a permutation in the web of interconnectedness. Iteration helps these small acts grow into powerful and appreciable effects. The impact becomes global.
Out of chaos, ripples connect and coalesce into larger waves and a whole new surprising pattern of motion emerges.
Briggs and Peat, when faced with the limited perspective of localness and lack of a greater vision of the whole system say, “The best we can do is act with truth, sincerity and sensitivity, remembering that it is never one person who brings about change but the feedback of change within the entire system.”
A fractal is the repetition of patterns within patterns within patterns. Fractals have always existed in nature. They are evident in the complex shape of a single snowflake, the crags and crevices of a mountain landscape and the mysterious swirling of galaxies. Mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot conceived the word fractal. When numbers in the Mandelbrot set, a series of complex numbers with the distinction of being “the most complex object in mathematics,” are iterated in a defined mathematical formula a fractal plot is born. The resulting patterns are astonishing in their beauty. Fractal images blur the boundary between science and art. The science lies in the manipulation of the mathematical formula while the art is revealed in the choice of colour.
Fractals have always existed in nature and are evident in the mysterious swirling of galaxies.
Fractals provide powerful visual images of how chaos theory relates to thinking globally. A fundamental characteristic of fractals is the repetition of patterns at all scales. The images are both simple and surprisingly complex. Blow a fractal image up 100 times and the same basic flow of colours and textural relationships is observed. Increase your zoom in to 1000, 1 million, 1 billion, just keep going, each image will be new but strangely similar to the previous one. A clear indication that in a non-linear universe, scale is truly meaningless. A fractal image represents infinity packed into a finite space; every point in that space is infinitely deep. Confirmation of the ancient poetic truth of the Universe contained in a grain of sand.
The scale of the action is not as important as the action itself. In our world viewed through the lens of chaos, local gum wrappers become as important as removing discarded plastics from a whole country.
On a more practical front this means that whether you pick up a gum wrapper on your walk to work, participate in a trip to remove trash from the snowy heights of Everest or spearhead a program to introduce recycling of waste in a Central American country, all will have an effect. The scale of the action is not as important as the action itself. In our world viewed through the lens of chaos, local gum wrappers become as important as removing discarded plastics from a whole country. At the moment that you initiate the action, no one can say how profound or far reaching that effect may be.
A fractal is the repetition of patterns within patterns such as the complex shape of a single snowflake.
Another concept that emerges from our increasingly amplified view of fractal imagery is that, while ultimately the images may appear as a group of discrete objects and patterns, they do indeed make up a seamless whole. Interconnectedness spirals back upon itself, revealed in the face of our fractal.
So, the next time that you’re sitting on the fence, compelled to take action but doubting the value of a single person’s act, remember the lessons of chaos theory. It is quality not quantity that counts. When feeling impotent in the face of such monsters as the climate crisis, rampant pollution and environmental degradation, remember the potential impact of a butterfly’s wings. Small actions can result in tsunami-like reactions. Choose consciously to exert your subtle influence. Act with authenticity and become the sudden burst of randomness in an otherwise ordered society. Go on and inject a little chaos into the system and then sit back and watch what form of fractal pattern emerges. You might be surprised at your power.