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Intended Consequences

By Nikhil R. Mulani

Most of what I miss about Lake Forest, a small suburb of Chicago and my hometown, are just things we all leave behind when growing up—like having family all in one place, which felt permanent for so long and then suddenly was not. However, when I learned that fewer and fewer monarch butterflies follow a migratory pattern through northern Illinois every year, it seemed liked nature was cruelly imitating my own dimming memories of the place, cutting off my home from its actual beauty at the same time I decided to stop idealizing it.

But the wildlife wasn’t just a dream; it was Lake Forest’s most crucial addition to my childhood, a vital way to fulfill my youthful desire for exploration, and one of the only things my parents could not have given me in a city. My earliest memories involve obsessing over books full of pictures of local animal and insect life, then eagerly wandering around outside in my backyard or the school playground, attempting to catch sight of any creature I could. The abundant Open Lands preserve was my family’s favorite haunt on the weekends, and I grew to love the damp, shadowy parks farther out in northern Illinois and Wisconsin, which were frequent middle school campout sites.

In late summer and early fall, the most beautiful sights in any of these places are monarch butterflies lightly resting on flowers and shirtsleeves. Their vigorous orange and black patterning is undeniably more striking than any other color combination among the deep, dark tones of the lakeshore, so it’s not difficult to understand why the schoolchildren of Decatur lobbied for them to become Illinois’s official state insect in 1974.

For children, whose imaginations have not yet been fully suffocated by realism, why wouldn’t a gorgeous pair of wings be the most important cause in the world? For adults, the factors behind monarch depopulation form a litany of man-made environmental crimes we have all heard before: logging, herbicide used on genetically modified crops, global warming—all crimes we postpone dealing with because, we tell ourselves, we must prioritize worrying about ensuring cheaper food and more jobs for fellow humans.

This may be true, and I don’t pretend to have the knowledge to determine whether or not butterflies are necessary casualties. But it is time to stop pretending that known consequences human actions inflict upon nature are in any way innocent. At the end of his recent op-ed in the New York Times, Verlyn Klinkenborg writes that monarch depopulation is the obvious circumstance of living “in a world of unintended consequences of our own making, which can never be easily undone.

The statement comes across as hopelessly disingenuous after an entire article exploring the phenomenon’s man-made causes. Nature only stands a chance of being saved from man-made destruction once it is factored into the equations we use to make economic decisions. If we know we are destroying it, we can no longer call its destruction an unintended consequence. The death of monarch butterflies isn’t a tragedy, but rather a consequence of us choosing not to recognize what is being lost until it is too late.

Our muted observation of the demise of monarch butterflies comes across as particularly callous when viewed through the roles butterflies play as a cultural touchstone throughout the world. Aesthetics alone do not explain our childlike attraction to them. This is best demonstrated in the acclaimed, harrowing novel “The Collector,” in which English experimentalist author John Fowles draws on centuries of butterfly symbolism, from the ancient Greek use of ψυχή (psȳchē) to describe the soul after death and the butterfly, to Christian use of the chrysalis as a symbol of Christ’s resurrection, to the folkloric Japanese belief that it is customary for souls to take the shape of a butterfly in order to signal their final departure from the body.

The book centers on the experiences of Miranda Grey, a college student kidnapped by a butterfly collector. As she lies humiliated and dying in captivity, Grey begins to develop a kind, nuanced understanding of the individual responsible for her death. Originally a typical privileged college student, with the outsize concern for herself we all have, Grey literally loses her self out of concern for someone who appears barely human to the reader.

It is the combination of fragility and beauty found in butterflies, and the amazing transformative process they undergo, that have made them a common symbol for self-awareness and transcendence of desire. These are precisely the aspects of human personality missing from our regard for nature. Concern for nature is not a sign of being over-privileged, but rather of humility, in the recognition that something other than human life is important.

It is impossible not to admire Miranda, whose last thoughts are “I don’t mind for myself any more”—her loss of ego accompanies her loss of life, resulting in a fully empathetic, freed spirit of the sort we would imagine as a butterfly. It is precisely because of our privilege that we have no excuse. By recognizing that we are responsible for what is happening to monarchs, and that the consequences of human actions are preventable rather than inevitable, we can begin to fulfill our own best expectations of ourselves.

Nikhil R. Mulani ’14, a Crimson editorial executive, is a classics concentrator in Eliot House.

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