By: Andrew Yonko
When thinking about climate change, people tend to think in large scales (mass extinction, melting glaciers, and severe weather, etc.). However, climate change is a much more complicated subject than it seems at first glance. In fact, the changing climate is so ingrained in our lives that almost anything in our surroundings can be related to it. We tend to focus on just the large scales of the planet, but in doing so, we lose valuable information and the chance to create a personal connection with the issue. Rather than focusing on the broad vista of the entire planet, we should consider small, detailed scales to see what lessons can be learned. By shifting perspectives to a much smaller scale, it becomes possible to understand a great deal about a specific subject’s interactions with the world, and subsequently, the world itself. One example of a subject that we could do this for is the monarch butterfly. Because it is a popular cultural symbol and is physically affected by climate change, the monarch is a perfect teacher to better understand the relationship between climate change and human society. By focusing on dependence, metamorphosis, and migration of the monarch butterfly, we can learn about climate change through a new perspective.
The first lesson monarch butterflies teach us is the danger of dependence. Monarch butterflies have a unique dependence on the plants in the milkweed family. Adult monarchs will only lay eggs on milkweed plants because they contain a toxin that the butterflies ingest to become poisonous to would be predators (Elderd et al.). This relationship is at risk, however, because higher temperatures cause milkweed plants to become more toxic and the increased toxicity kills growing caterpillars (Elderd et al.). In this way, an ecological mechanism that once saved the monarch from death has become a cause of their decline. Like the butterflies, humans are dependent creatures. Modern people require technology to provide to survive. We have built our modern society on the foundations of industry in which goods are acquired through second-hand means. Because of this, self-sufficiency no longer exists. We all depend on economies and societies to some extent. Also, like monarchs, the thing we depend on is toxic. Technology is a wonderful human construct. It protects and provides for humanity, but it inevitably comes at a heavy price: the devastation of our environment. As eco-critics like Timothy Morton have suggested, the day the world ended was the day the steam engine was created. The industrial revolution marked the beginning of human interference with the environment on a global scale. As modern society progresses, we continue to increase our reliance on harmful technology and, as such, we are trapped like the monarchs. Our trap, however, is not an ecological trap, it is, quite literally, by our own design.
Another characteristic of monarch butterflies that is useful to better understand climate change is seasonal migration. Every winter, millions of monarchs migrate to the oyamel fir forests in the mountains of Mexico; however, the regions that are suitable for overwintering are beginning to vanish as the climate changes (Malcolm). In fact, it is predicted that none of the current migration sites will be suitable within just 50 years (Oberhauser 5). Although (most) humans do not migrate yearly in warmer climates, we all have places to go when the going gets tough. While the butterflies escape their troubles (or cold temperatures) by migrating to Mexico, humans tend to avoid problems by simply ignoring them. The old saying, “out of sight, out of mind” is especially relevant here. Most people try to live their lives within a comfortable bubble where the majority of life’s problems are trivial. This ignorance helps prevent the terror of looking at true face of the Earth’s problems and keeps the status quos of society intact. With climate change, however, the bubbles that people live in are rapidly disappearing. Real problems such as poverty, inequality, and environmental disasters are becoming so pronounced that it is no longer possible to run from them. The situation with the monarchs teaches us that escapism is not a good way to deal with current issues. We can no longer take shelter from the issues of the world in the comfortable, warm mountain forests of our daily lives.
Lastly, the monarch teaches us through the process of metamorphosis. The beautiful transition from unappealing caterpillar to graceful butterfly is something everyone is familiar with; however, most people are not aware of the dangers of this process. Because metamorphosis requires rapid, extreme transformation, it leaves the butterflies extraordinarily vulnerable to external pressures. Disturbances such as temperature fluctuations and pollution are causing abnormal metamorphosis in which butterflies emerge with stunted or no wings (Matsuda). The metaphor of monarch metamorphosis is a perfect way to describe the current climate situation. Like monarchs, human society and the climate are undergoing a transformation that is widespread, entirely transformative, and irreversible. You could even say that society and the environment are metamorphosizing. Although we cannot stop these transformations, we can prevent an abnormal metamorphosis. If we take the necessary steps to protect the environment, climate change does not have to result in cataclysmic disaster. Likewise, the radical changes in social ideologies within the past century do not need to result in conflict. If we nurture and ease the growing pressures on our planet we may just emerge, like the monarch, in a new and beautiful form.
Clearly, monarch butterflies are ideal subjects through which we should view the world. Their popularity in modern culture and hardships that surprisingly parallel our own allow us to reflect on our own position on the planet. By focusing on monarch dependence, migration, and metamorphosis, it is easy to see how intricately our lives are woven into the lives of other species on this planet. Understanding the lessons taught by monarch butterflies and other small subjects like them is the first step in understanding where humans stand on the ecological ladder. Once we truly know where we belong, we can look back to the grander scales of the environment and begin to enact drastic, beneficial change.
- Elderd, Bret D., et al. “Climate Change and an Invasive, Tropical Milkweed: An Ecological Trap for Monarch Butterflies.” Ecology, vol. 99, no. 5, 2018, pp. 1031–38. Wiley Online Library, doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/ecy.2198.
- Malcolm, Stephen B. Biology and Conservation of the Monarch Butterfly. Los Angeles, Calif., 1993, http://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015029274746.
- Morton, T. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. University of Minnesota Press, 2013.
- Oberhauser, K., and A. T. Peterson. “Modeling Current and Future Potential Wintering Distributions of Eastern North American Monarch Butterflies.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 100, no. 24, Nov. 2003, pp. 14063–68. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2331584100.