Purchase What We Leave Behind
Read more

Excerpt from What We Leave Behind

Great Butterfly (p. 229)

From chapter "Magical Thinking"

The new story is of the transformation of caterpillars into butterflies through what they call “imaginal cells.” This allegory was popularized by Elisabet Sahtouris, whose work, according to her website, “shows the relevance of biological systems [sic] to organizational design in business, government and global trade.” She gives talks on such topics as, Why biology is good for business; How organic models can meet corporate needs; How quality of life and profits can improve together; and The Internet: self-organizing system and key to human evolution. You can see why both New Agers and corporate sponsors nuzzle up to her. It’s the same old McDonough message of attempting to naturalize industrialism, except this time she doesn’t even bother to include native grasses.

Sahtouris insists, as do so many New Agers and Green Businesspeople, that, “The Globalization of humanity is a natural, biological, evolutionary process.”

Once again, she’s trying to naturalize—justify—this culture’s destructive activities. Further, this statement of course repeats the racist and imperialist notion of cultural maturation leading inevitably to this culture’s transformation into some greater state. Further still, it ignores ecological reality, and ignores what is most central to every sustainable indigenous culture: place. Two impolite words for “globalization” are genocide and ecocide in that globalization is by definition a singular society across the entire world (which means it has eliminated significant cultural differences), and is by definition not based on place (which means it will never be sustainable). By now we should all know this, and more of us would know this if there weren’t always too many people like Sahtouris ever-too-ready to tell us these lies that too many of us believe. Capitalism—and more broadly industrial civilization—is based on globalization. Every traditional indigenous person I have ever spoken with at length has emphasized their deep (and often violent) opposition to globalization.

Now to the allegory. As Sahtouris says, “If you see the old system as a caterpillar crunching its way through the eco-system [sic], eating up to three hundred times its weight in a single day, bloating itself until it just can’t function anymore, and then going to sleep with its skin hardening into a chrysalis. What happens in its body is that little imaginal disks (as they’re called by biologists) begin to appear in the body of the caterpillar and its immune system attacks them. But they keep coming up stronger and they start to link with each other. As they connect, as they link with each other, they mature into fully-fledged cells and more and more of them aggregate until the immune system of the caterpillar just can’t function any more. At that point the body of the caterpillar melts into a nutritive soup that can feed the butterfly.

“I love this metaphor because it shows us why, first of all, we who want to change the world [we’ve been through this too many times: the word should be culture, but she clearly conflates this culture with the whole world: how’s that for narcissism?] are co-existing with the old system for a while and why there’s no point in attacking the old system because you know the caterpillar is unsustainable so it’s going to die [and of course take most or all of the world with it, but why should we let life on the planet get in the way of a stirring though absurd metaphor] What we have to focus on is ‘can we build a viable butterfly?’”

Ah, so we finally get to the point, which is the same f**king point these people make every f**king time: “there’s no point in attacking the old system.” Anything, anything, to justify not stopping this system. Anything, anything, to keep people from actually fighting back to defend those they love. Anything, anything, to justify cowardice.

There’s really nothing new here: it’s nothing more than a New Age retelling of the same old Christian rapture story: things suck now, but if you remain meek enough, if you don’t fight back, if you’re Christian enough, if you accept what this culture does to you and to the planet (which after all is natural since caterpillars are so voracious), then someday Jesus—or in this version the Great Butterfly—will magically appear and make things all better.


Further, as hinted before, this metaphor of the caterpillar and the butterfly is extraordinarily racist, in that it states explicitly that this culture’s consumption of the planet is natural. The metaphor’s point is the notion that this culture’s destructiveness is the necessary prelude to a transformation to some seemingly better state—this implies that traditional indigenous peoples are stuck in some primitive or immature caterpillar phase. I’m stunned that so few people can see the obvious ethnocentrism and racism in that progressive perspective. But perhaps I shouldn’t be so stunned: people will do anything, say anything, to avoid looking at the fact that this culture is killing the planet, killing all who are wild and free, including indigenous humans.