1. The Caterpillar and The Butterfly

“Knowledge is proud that it knows so much. Wisdom is humble that it knows no more”

— William Cowper

The Caterpillar wriggles out and proceeds to eat the nutritious shell of the egg that its mother had laid on the underside of the leaf. Then it eats the leaf that the egg was clinging to. And it continues on for the next few weeks eating all the leaves that it encounters. The Caterpillar is a voracious consumer, a veritable eating machine, a crawling stomach.

Once fully satiated and grown to its adult size, the Caterpillar attaches to the underside of a twig and turns into a Pupa. A couple of weeks pass by and the Butterfly emerges. The Butterfly spreads her wings and flies about sipping nectar from the flowers. She is a very discriminating, light consumer. As she sips nectar, the Butterfly pollinates the flowers helping to regenerate Life.

The Butterfly undoes the destruction that the Caterpillar wrought and then some. This is why the Butterfly is a net asset to Life on Earth despite the seemingly destructive nature of her Caterpillar stage.

As a species, Homo Sapiens, Latin for “Wise Man,” is most definitely in its Caterpillar stage of development. It is a voracious consumer, a waste-producing eating machine that has munched through most of the complex Life in the ocean and half the forests on land.

As a species, I believe that it is well past due for Homo Sapiens to grow into its pupa stage, emerge as a Butterfly and begin undoing the destruction wrought earlier.

For Life only supports that which supports Life. A dominant species that voraciously consumes Life and never regenerates it will eventually consume all Life and consequently, itself.

The question is, how do we achieve such a metamorphosis? How can we all live our lives as Butterflies, as a matter of course?

In his excellent book, “Blessed Unrest[1],” Paul Hawken showed that humanity has already begun its transformation from its Caterpillar stage to its Butterfly stage. Literally, millions of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) dedicated to healing the environment or dedicated to healing the divisions within human society have sprung up around the world as an immune response to the ravages of our modern industrial civilization.

A couple from New Jersey, Pam and Anil Malhotra, migrate to the Kodagu district in Karnataka, India, in 1991 and purchase 55 acres of a coffee plantation in private lands surrounded by the Brahmagiri, Nagarhole and Bandipur National Forests. Over the years, they purchase neighboring private land holdings and slowly accumulate over 300 acres of land, which they simply donate back to Nature by leaving the land alone. Their neighbors think that they are crazy to be purchasing coffee plantations without the intention of growing any coffee. But over a twenty year period, Nature blooms back on their private reserve with JackFruit trees, elephant herds, birds and insects thriving as the forest regenerates. My sister, Sudha, and I stayed in a cottage on their Save Animals Initiative (SAI) sanctuary[2] and the din from the call of the crickets at night still ring in my ears. Students from American and European universities now make regular visits to the SAI Sanctuary to study the incredible biodiversity that once prevailed throughout the Western Ghats of India.

Pam and Anil Malhotra are truly human Butterflies.

Another example of human Butterflies at work can be seen in the protected common lands throughout the forest villages of India. In conjunction with the NGO, the Foundation for Ecological Security[3] (FES), the Karech Village Forest Protection Committee in the Udaipur district of Rajasthan set aside 250 acres of common land in 2002 by enclosing it with a stone fence to prevent livestock from grazing in there. The villagers also agree not to take any biomass for cooking fuel from within the protected land. Four years later, in 2006, the protected land becomes lush green while the land outside the stone fence remains barren, with new growth eaten by livestock and old growth cut down for firewood. I visited this protected land in December of 2008, saw the contrast across the stone fence and turned vegan as the realization dawned on me that my consumption of dairy products was responsible for causing the forests to disappear. Since then, I haven’t deliberately consumed or purchased a single item tainted with animal matter.

In contrast with Butterflies, human Caterpillars do the opposite transformation. Caterpillars take a pristine forest, cut it down in order to either extract some mineral from under it or to convert it to pasture land or agricultural land, leaving pollution and waste behind, typically ruining the livelihoods of native peoples within the forest. An example of Caterpillars at work can be found in the Canadian Tar Sands of Athabasca in Alberta, Canada[4], where a pristine Boreal forest the size of the state of Delaware was cut down in just the past five years and converted into polluted wasteland in order to extract the thick bituminous oil from under the forest floor. The First Nations people, who used to live sustainably within the forest, have found their livelihoods disrupted as their fresh water sources are polluted. Perhaps, they will have to seek employment driving the bulldozers and the mining equipment of the Tar Sands oil extraction operations in order to subsist. Oil companies have leased a Florida-sized area of Boreal forest lands in Canada with the intention of meting out the same treatment to all that land in the coming years. This is how Life is devoured and native cultures destroyed by human Caterpillars at work.

Butterflies heal, while Caterpillars destroy.

At present, despite Paul Hawken’s optimistic projections and the Butterfly examples cited above, the Caterpillars are far more numerous and more potent than the Butterflies and as a result, the destruction on Earth far outpaces the healing. A lot of the destruction caused by Caterpillars is permanent for all practical purposes. For example, it is difficult to imagine the Boreal forests regenerating any time soon from the vast clear cutting and the cesspool of chemical pollution resulting from the Tar Sands oil extraction process. But Nature has always surprised us with her resilience. Even in Chernobyl, Ukraine, 25 years of human avoidance of its radioactive environs has resulted in the regeneration of an ecosystem with wolves using abandoned buildings for their lairs and eagles nesting in vacant penthouses[5]. However, in the long run, the wolves and eagles are going to suffer the consequences of the silent killers that humans unleashed in Chernobyl, the radioactive waste.


[1] Paul Hawken, “Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History Is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World,” Penguin, April 2008. http://www.amazon.com/Blessed-Unrest-Largest-Movement-Restoring/dp/0143113658

[2] More information on SAI Sanctuary can be found at http://saisanctuary.com/

[3] More information on the Foundation for Ecological Security can be found at http://www.fes.org.in/

[4] Information on the Canadian Tar Sands can be found on the National Geographic web site at http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2009/03/canadian-oil-sands/kunzig-text

[5] The reclamation of Nature in the abandoned city of Pripyat and Chernobyl is captured in Edward Burtynsky’s amazing photographs in “Manufactured Landscapes,” 2006. http://www.amazon.com/Manufactured-Landscapes-US-Edward-Burtynsky/dp/B000R2GDOS. More information can be found in http://abandonedworlds.com/?p=609


1.1 The Population Conundrum
Sailesh Rao
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