Mathematician and meteorologist Edward N. Lorenz once asked, “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?” The small initial action of a butterfly might amplify into big unpredictable results, through an accumulation of events starting with that butterfly’s first move. And, as Lorenz points out, “If the flap of a butterfly’s wings can be instrumental in generating a tornado, it can equally well be instrumental in preventing a tornado.”
Any animal or plant on the globe might provide the initial conditions that help set the trajectory for an ecosystem. That trajectory matters for ecosystem services, such as pollinated crops and clean drinking water, which matter to people and have economic value. Policies and regulations that protect the Earth’s species likewise can help protect ecosystem services.
Of course, federal projects such as highways and dams also matter to people, have economic value, and contribute to well-being at the large social scale. And where these projects collide with natural systems, some policies try to preserve the environment without breaking the bank. The US Endangered Species Act is one example of a policy that aims to balance these needs.
Lorenz’s butterfly helped him consider the limits of our ability to make predictions. Can we predict what happens if a change to policy influences how butterflies are protected? What happens if a butterfly does not flap its wings in Brazil?