Jason Goodwin: ‘We may not know what, but we know that something happens when a butterfly beats its wings in China’

Our Spectator columnist lampoons the practice of providing a hasty solution without thinking through the consequences of that decision, be it regarding pest-control or the search for a new planet to call home.

Back in her Cork Street days, Kate knew a man called Dr Pepper, who was a leading authority on Guido Reni. The dealers and auction houses brought him in whenever there was a question of attribution and everyone deferred to his opinion. He was also convinced that mankind, having trashed this planet, would go off and find another one to live on. This suggested to me that a) Dr Pepper was a fruitcake and b) he wasn’t quite as attached to Guido Reni as everyone supposed.

‘Very much of its time, I thought, as I put the handbook back on the shelf. Short-term thinking.’

Although I thought at the time that he sounded eccentric, I’ve heard that his views were shared by several US presidents. It’s a simple way of seeing the world. You identify a problem, find a solution and blithely ignore its more complicated parts, like how we are all to fit into the rocket and who will fire it, or the fact that we don’t have the technology and, anyway, there’s nowhere else to go.

Old-school boffins were always recklessly developing ways to enhance man’s dominion over the natural environment and farmers followed in their wake.

Leafing the other day through my copy of the Calcutta Tea Traders Association handbook for 1975, wondering whether after all these years I might chuck it out, I came across an advertisement from Bangalore Pesticides Ltd addressed to ‘Planters, friends and fellow teamen!’

Wittily riffing on Maoist dogma, the rubric goes on to declare: ‘It is our firm belief that “Mite is not right” and “Power over pests comes from the nozzle of a spray gun”!’ Very much of its time, I thought, as I put the handbook back on the shelf. Short-term thinking.

Chairman Mao himself set a typical example of the old problem-solution paradigm. In 1958, he created an anti-pest campaign, exhorting the people to kill sparrows to prevent them eating so much grain. Mobs roamed the streets, shouting, clapping and banging pots together whenever they spotted a bird and destroying nests, eggs and chicks. For days and nights, birds were chased from bush to tree and back as ‘animals of capitalism’ until they dropped dead of exhaustion.

Close up of Glasswing butterfly, Greta oto

Sparrows very nearly became extinct and, within two years, unimaginably huge clouds of insects descended on northern China and ate all the greenery down to the root, contributing to a famine that killed 40 million people.

The boffins saw things in terms of direct cause and effect. When rabbits seemed to be a nuisance, myxomatosis was released from a laboratory to decimate the rabbit population. Energy was expensive and badly distributed, so atomic power was hailed as the answer to our needs. No wonder Dr Pepper meant to jet away from the whole mess.

People don’t think like this so much any more, mercifully. The boffins have moved on. For all its claims to impartiality, science is susceptible to fashion like everything else and, these days, scientists are inclined to see the world as a network of interdependent systems, both fragile and unpredictable.

‘We may even stop trying to solve our problems, one by one’

The computer age has opened our eyes to the complexity of matter. The internet has an awful lot of pages, after all, and we are all aware of neural networks, complex algorithms, webs of connectivity and the linkages between the environment and ourselves. We may not know what, but we know that something happens when a butterfly beats its wings in China.

Unlike in the 1950s, today’s scientists will be studying the subtle interactions between trees and soil, the effect of gut flora on your mood or the injury inflicted by cruelty or neglect. Knowing that our brains are complex and that greenery promotes wellbeing, ugliness breeds unhappiness, scale creates anomie and brown hares are now dying from myxomatosis, we may even stop trying to solve our problems, one by one.