Chaos theory is a branch of mathematics focusing on the study of chaos- states of dynamical systems whose apparently random states of disorder and irregularities are often governed by deterministic laws that are highly sensitive to initial conditions. In chaos theory, the butterfly effect refers to the sensitive dependence on initial conditions, in which a small change can lead to large consequences. The concept is imagined with a butterfly flapping its wings and causing a typhoon.
Simple systems, with few variables, can nonetheless show unpredictable and sometimes chaotic behaviour. Assume a small system in a lab to study convection (chaotic system behaviour) in a cubic millimetre of helium. By gradually warming this up from the bottom, one could create a state of controlled turbulence. Even this tightly controlled environment displays chaotic behaviour, that is, complex unpredictable disorder that is paradoxically governed by ‘orderly’ rules. A seemingly stable system (as in 1cmm of helium) can be exposed to very small influences (like heating it up a mere 0.001 degree) which can transform it from orderly convection to 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:
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 flap of a butterfly’s wing can be instrumental in generating a tornado, it can equally well be instrumental in preventing a tornado. This is how we can think about the current situation arising due to Covid-19. It is no less than chaos and it may or may not have arisen from the initial stages of pandemic control, such as what we have seen happening with many nations, the US being the prime example, where recklessness or negligence in the initial stages of the outbreak has got them to this point right now. Conversely, a small change or a small step today can prove to be gigantic in dealing with the issue in the times to come.
Similarly, many climate change effects might already be visible—rising sea levels, increase in wildfires, unseasonal rainfall—but the major and potentially more disastrous consequences may only become apparent in the years to come. Covid-19 should serve as a wake-up call, driving a shift towards sustainable practices which, in turn, should help accelerate the global recovery from the pandemic and build a more resilient society and economy. Hope lies in the fact that whatsoever has happened or is happening has a way out. In other words, we can fix it.
In this regard, one approach can also be of Holism. Holism is the science of recognising that the parts of any whole or system are inter-connected, such that they cannot exist independently or cannot be understood without reference to the whole. Thus, if we understand the right thing at the right time, we can prevent a certain butterfly from flapping its wings so that it doesn’t cause any tornado anywhere.