7. The Butterfly Culture

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete
— Buckminster Fuller

Since around 1960, the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project has been scanning the electromagnetic spectrum using radio telescopes, looking for signatures of intelligent alien Life from elsewhere in the cosmos[1]. The SETI@home project, which started in 1999[2], uses a network of 5 million independent home computers to analyze the data in what could be construed as the largest supercomputer ever assembled. Private computer owners just have to download some software to donate the idle cycles on their computer to be used for the search. But so far, despite all that number crunching, not a single peep has been heard that indicates the presence of intelligent alien Life in the cosmos.

However, scientists have found plenty of planets. The first extrasolar planet or exoplanet, a planet outside the solar system, was discovered in 1992[3]. Since then, over 500 such planets have been detected. Based on the data gathered so far, scientists estimate that there are at least 50 billion planets in the Milky Way galaxy alone! And there are anywhere from 100 billion to 500 billion galaxies in the observable universe[4].

That's such a mind boggling number of planets, without even a single pulse of intelligent alien Life that we could detect in nearly thirty years of searching. No doubt, the planets are full of materials that we can mine for our gadgets and products, if we can transport them. There's even a whole planet made entirely of diamonds, orbiting a pulsar in the constellation Serpens, about 4000 light years away[5]. This planet is five times larger than the Earth in diameter and 300 times heavier. It could even be just one huge diamond that would make the Kohinoor diamond seem like an inconsequential speck.

Even science, that most rigorous of all knowledge disciplines, is now telling us that intelligent Life is much rarer than diamonds in the universe.

The Butterfly culture is the culture of Life. This goes beyond sustainability. The UN Brundtland commission defined sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs[6]." This is why sustainability is commonly understood to be about maintaining the status quo on planet Earth, about living without making more of a mess than we have already made. But the Butterfly culture is about cleaning up the mess, about actively undoing the damage that has been done to the biosphere of the earth, while recognizing that it may not be possible to maintain the status quo of a damaged planet. It is about "Gardening back the Biosphere[7]," to use the words of the Indian environmentalist, Suprabha Seshan. It is about "dancing with Nature" instead of "enslaving Nature."

In Nature, Life and the environment evolved together and were perfect for each other before we came along with our dynamite, our bulldozers, our industrial processes and our chemicals. It was Life that sequestered the arsenic, the lead and the mercury in the coal seams that we are digging up today and releasing into the biosphere. It is Life that will have to trap all the poisons that we have dispersed throughout the environment and re-sequester them back into the bowels of the Earth. Trees do precisely that, storing the pollutants in their trunks and transpiring the filtered ground water into the atmosphere. These trees will eventually die and become the coal seams of the future with these poisons stored away, once again, deep underground. Therefore, it is trees and especially forests that we need to regenerate in order to repair the damage that we ignorantly did during the Caterpillar stage of our industrial revolution.


[1] The Planetary Society pinpoints the modern Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence to the paper published in 1959 by Cocconi and Morrison. Please see, e.g., http://planetary.org/explore/topics/seti/seti_history_02.html

[2] Here are the web resources for the SETI at Home project. http://setiathome.berkeley.edu/

[3] M. Mayer and D. Queloz, "A Jupiter-mass Companion to a Solar-type Star," Nature 378, 1995. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v378/n6555/abs/378355a0.html

[4] The estimate of the number of planets in the Milky Way can be found in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milky_Way . Estimates of the number of galaxies in the Universe varies. Edwin Hubble's estimate was 200 billion galaxies.

[5] International Business Times, "Planet Made of Diamonds DIscovered 4,000 Light Years Away," August 26, 2011. http://www.ibtimes.com/articles/204319/20110826/planet-made-of-diamonds-discovered-diamond-planet-university-of-manchester-earth-serpens-oxygen-carb.htm

[6] Gro Harlem Brundtland, "Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future," 1987. http://www.un-documents.net/wced-ocf.htm

[7] Quote found in Chris Lydon, "Real India: A Land Soon WIthout Tigers and Maybe Orchids," August 3, 2010. http://www.globalconversation.org/2010/08/03/real-india-land-soon-without-tigers-and-maybe-orchids