2.2 The Caterpillar and the Butterfly

Caterpillar Butterfly.jpg

In my 2011 book, Carbon Dharma: The Occupation of Butterflies[13], I used the metaphor of the Caterpillar and the Butterfly to recast the human story in a positive light, where we do belong exactly as we are. It is a metaphor that has been used by numerous other authors before me. It is an apt metaphor based on the observation that we have currently organized our society around consumption as the core value and we are transitioning towards a society organized around compassion as the core value. As Judith Anodea writes in her book, Waking the Global Heart [14],

“When a caterpillar nears its transformation time, it begins to eat ravenously, consuming everything in sight. The caterpillar body then becomes heavy, outgrowing its own skin many times, until it is too bloated to move. Attaching to a branch (upside down, where everything is turned on its head), it forms a chrysalis—an enclosing shell that limits the caterpillar’s freedom for the duration of the transformation.

Within the chrysalis a miracle occurs. Tiny cells, that biologists call “imaginal cells,” begin to appear. These cells are wholly different from caterpillar cells, carrying different information, vibrating to a different frequency—the frequency of the emerging butterfly. At first, the caterpillar’s immune system perceives these new cells as enemies, and attacks them, much as new ideas in science, medicine, politics, and social behavior are viciously denounced by the powers now considered mainstream. But the imaginal cells are not deterred. They continue to appear, in even greater numbers, recognizing each other, bonding together, until the new cells are numerous enough to organize into clumps. When enough cells have formed to make structures along the new organizational lines, the caterpillar’s immune system is overwhelmed. The caterpillar body then becomes a nutritious soup for the growth of the butterfly.

When the butterfly is ready to hatch, the chrysalis becomes transparent. The need for restriction has been outgrown. Yet the struggle toward freedom has an organic timing.”


Imagine the Caterpillar that has engorged itself to bursting point. Entering the pupal stage, its world is turned upside down.

War is peace.

Debt is wealth.

Slavery is freedom.

Misery is happiness.

Isolation is friendship.  

The Caterpillar struggles to maintain its growth phase as it encounters the physical limits of the planet. The dominant class throws up one last “savior,” one who promises to make it great again, to restore its glory days when the hierarchical, authoritarian lines were clearly drawn[15]:

God above Man.

Man above Woman.

Whites above Coloreds.

Straights above Gays.

Winners above Losers.

Rich above Poor.

People above Animals.

Us above Them.

But this is the last hurrah of the Caterpillar as it tries to cope with the systemic symptoms of its engorged state.

Climate change is systemic.

Biodiversity loss is systemic.

Desertification is systemic.

Toxic pollution is systemic.

Inequality is systemic.

Poverty is systemic.

Slavery is systemic.

Sexism is systemic.

Racism is systemic.

Casteism is systemic.

Homophobia is systemic.

Speciesism is systemic.

Any socioeconomic system that is organized around consumption as a core value and competition as a core principle is bound to exhibit these symptoms. But the metamorphosis is inexorable. “Imaginal cells” addressing each of these symptoms have sprung up throughout its body politic. These imaginal cells are the precursors of the Butterfly. The Caterpillar’s system has been in a continuous state of war against these cells.  One by one, the battles for ideas have been lost by the Caterpillar.

Slavery is now politically incorrect.

Sexism is now politically incorrect.

Racism is now politically incorrect.

Casteism is now politically incorrect.

Homophobia is now politically incorrect.

Though these oppressions are still continuing in society, the Caterpillar now has to use guarded language and dog whistle politics to exploit them. On the surface, it promotes “equality”, meaning a level playing field for the competitions that determine its privileged classes. But environmentalism and speciesism are still considered fair game for open repression in mainstream circles. This is where the Caterpillar is mounting a last-ditch defense of its divide and conquer strategy to promote its endless growth ideology. Worldwide, over 100 environmental activists have been murdered annually, culminating in the brutal assassination of Berta Caceras and her colleague, Nelson Garcia, in Honduras[16] in March 2016. In the US, the Caterpillar has openly designated environmental activists and animal rights activists as the number one domestic terrorism targets of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)[17]. Such activists now all have dossiers, their every move watched.

It is illegal to take photographs or videos of animal enterprise operations!

It is illegal to know where your food comes from!

It is illegal to picket oil pipelines!

It is illegal to quench the thirst of slaughterhouse bound animals!

It is illegal to do anything that would reduce the profits of corporations!

But the imaginal cells are becoming too numerous. They are overwhelming the Caterpillar’s immune system. They are clumping together to form coherent groups, precursors of the Butterfly’s organs. They identify the limits of the chrysalis: no more than half the land area of the Earth must be used for human purposes, while the other half must be returned to Nature to let biodiversity recover and flourish[18]. They recognize that in reality, it isn’t the endless economic growth of the Caterpillar that we truly want, but economic security.

It isn’t unlimited consumption that we truly want, but unlimited happiness.

It isn’t the pangs of isolation that we truly want, but the bonds of community.

Thus from a systems perspective, the metamorphosis from the Caterpillar to the Butterfly requires much more than just restoring the balance in all the major bio-geophysical cycles of the planet, the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle, the phosphorous cycle, the hydrological cycle, the species birth-extinction cycle, the materials cycle, and so on. The Butterfly is a state of being that can persist forever and is therefore, infinitely sustainable. Hence it is a state of “moral singularity,” in which liberty, equality and the pursuit of happiness are a lived reality for all of humanity, not just words in our national constitutions.

For freedom is infinitely sustainable. Slavery is not.

Equality is infinitely sustainable. Inequality is not.

Peace is infinitely sustainable. War is not.

Justice is infinitely sustainable. Injustice is not.

Happiness is infinitely sustainable. Misery is not.

Compassion for all Creation is infinitely sustainable. Violence towards any part of Creation is not.

In short, all that we know as “good” is infinitely sustainable. All that we know as “evil” is not.
Therefore, the metamorphosis calls us to do social engineering as well as engineering of the material kind. Social justice activists of all stripes, gender rights activists, civil rights activists, LGBT activists, environmental activists and animal rights activists, are all fellow seekers in our global quest for sustainability today. This moral aspect is why the major religions of the world have been weighing in on climate change, with prominent declarations from the Hindu[19], Christian[20], Islamic[21], Baha’i[22], Buddhist[23], Jewish[24], Sikh[25], Unitarian Universalist[26] and Interfaith[27] communities, exhorting all adherents to take action.

At first, the imaginal cells, the social justice activists, need to set up a framework to ensure that they operate within the limits of the chrysalis. They must unite together under the organizing value of compassion as opposed to consumption, so that they consciously cease to enslave and exploit animals. This will free up land, water and energy resources that are being currently wasted for Animal Agriculture to heal the planet during the metamorphosis. Then the Butterfly will be ready to break free.

Once the Butterfly is born, there will be no need for the limits of the chrysalis. For the Butterfly is fundamentally a life-sustaining presence. Then the Butterfly will wield all the tools and technologies that the Caterpillar had developed to fulfill its life-sustaining purpose. This is the crucial moment of uniting the two processes: waste and transformation, almost like Yoga, literally, “union.” As the ancient Yogis have repeatedly said, separation is a delusion, the greatest of all the delusions that the human ego has used to nourish its false, separate identity[28].

Nothing in Nature is ever separate from Nature. Human beings are no exception. We belong in Nature and we belong exactly as we are!


[13] Rao, Sailesh, Carbon Dharma: The Occupation of Butterflies, Climate Healers, ISBN-13: 9781467928458, Oct. 2011. http://www.carbondharma.org

[14] Anodea, Judith, Waking the Global Heart, Energy Psychology Press, ISBN-13: 978-0972002899, Jan 2010. http://amzn.to/1NLCuTF

[15] The reference is to Donald Trump’s campaign to “Make America Great Again,” while purging it of Muslims, Mexicans and other minorities. Of late, such nationalistic campaigns have proliferated in the Western world.

[16] A Global Witness report found that 116 environmental activists were murdered in the year 2014, more than double the number of journalists murdered. Most of the environmental activists were indigenous people protesting mining and hydro projects. https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/environmental-activists/how-many-more/
Berta Caceras and Nelson Garcia were murdered within the span of two weeks in Honduras. http://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/Another-Member-of-Berta-Caceres-Group-Assassinated-in-Honduras-20160315-0049.html

[17] Please see, e.g., Will Potter, Green is the New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege, City Light Publishers, April 2011, ISBN-13: 978-0872865389, http://amzn.to/1s0UKi0

[18] Please see E. O. Wilson, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, Liveright, March 2016, ISBN-13: 978-1631490828, http://amzn.to/1Rfrzwb

[19] http://www.hinduclimatedeclaration2015.org/

[20] http://bit.ly/1XDSxoB

[21] http://bit.ly/1WBlJvA

[22] http://bit.ly/1sEsIcR

[23] http://bit.ly/1W5CRep

[24] http://bit.ly/22hP6Vl

[25] http://bit.ly/23ZmPlv

[26] http://bit.ly/1XDTeOJ

[27] http://www.interfaithdeclaration.org/

[28] Leslie, Robert, Yoga Psychology: The Science of the Inward Connection, iUniverse, Apr 2006, ISBN-13: 978-0595393688, http://amzn.to/2c9IPHz