The butterfly effect and you

November 28, 2019
Mike Paul, DVM
Mike Paul, DVM

Dr. Paul is the former executive director of the Companion Animal Parasite Council and a former president of the American Animal Hospital Association. He is currently the principal of MAGPIE Veterinary Consulting. He is retired from practice and lives in Anguilla, British West Indies.

Making a change in this world doesnt necessarily require an army of people or millions of dollars. All it really takes is you.

(pkanchana /

“You could not remove a single grain of sand from its place without thereby … changing something throughout all parts of the immeasurable whole.”

-Johann Gottlieb Fichte (The Vocation of Man, 1800)

A few days ago, as I was walking on the beach at Anguilla's Rendezvous Bay, I found myself thinking about the countless grains of sand on countless beaches on countless islands throughout the world. In constant flux, beaches change perpetually as a result of tides, winds and currents. Wave action is affected by initially subtle changes almost at a molecular level that compound into swells and currents half a planet away. That is never more obvious than when a storm forming in Western Africa moves mountains of sand and builds or destroys an entire coastline in the Eastern Atlantic.

What is the butterfly effect?

A few years ago the “butterfly effect” was all the rage as a way of conceptualizing the notion that seemingly insignificant actions can have a huge impact on unrelated systems. The butterfly effect is imagined with a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world and causing a typhoon half a world away. Of course, while a single act such as a butterfly flapping its wings cannot cause a typhoon, small events can indeed serve as catalysts that act to initiate dramatic change.

Can you really make a difference?

Can an individual, ordinary person change the course of the world? When we think about making a difference, we often think that what we do has to be great, grand and glorious to have any effect. But not all changes need be quantum in scale. We each have within us the power to make ostensibly small changes with potentially large effects.

How can an ordinary person make a difference in the world? Start by believing in something bigger than yourself. Do something that doesn't benefit only you. Think of all the problems in the world and then choose one to take hold of. Making a difference won't happen unless we remove our own self-interest and ego. Find your mission. Dream your dream. What is it that is going to help you to make a difference in this world? 

Be the example you wish to see in the world

Use your own actions as a demonstration of how others can create change. Become the doer and show the complainers through your own example how they can make a difference, too. You make a difference without even realizing it.

Consider the following once-unknown individuals who started as an army of one but went on to change the world.

A frail little man named Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi with a long history as a human rights activist had a vision of an independent India. Swathed in a traditional dhoti and advocating nonviolent resistance, Gandhi captured the imagination of the Indian people with his ideas about winning “hate with love.”

Gandhi's contribution to the Indian freedom movement cannot be measured in words. In 1947, he and other freedom fighters successfully and peacefully compelled the British to leave India after 250 years of British rule.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist minister and civil rights activist who relied on stirring rhetoric and nonviolent civil disobedience, had an unimaginable impact on race relations in the United States beginning in the mid-1950s until his assassination in 1968.

King had a dream that has not yet come to fruition. He was a champion of all poor and oppressed people. If we truly want to honor his legacy, we'll struggle to finish his work. Today more than ever, we need to be that champion of working people.

Almost a year before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a crowded, segregated bus in Montgomery, Ala., 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white woman. While not nearly as well known, and certainly not as celebrated as Parks, Colvin served as a star witness in the lawsuit that ended segregation of public transportation in Alabama. Few know her name or her realize her part in putting an end to segregation. And Colvin is one of thousands of unnamed individuals who played a key role in civil rights history.

Greta Thunberg is a 16-year old Swedish teenage environmentalist whose passionate campaigning on behalf of our planet has gained international recognition. Her activism began when she became aware of global warming at age 13. She would spend her school days outside the Swedish Parliament holding a sign that read "School strike for the climate." Similar protests sprang up in other communities and, today, students around the world organize weekly protests under the name Fridays for Future.

In her short life, Thunberg's efforts have been recognized globally and countless people are “woke” at last to the urgency of climate. And it began with a teenage girl and a hand-painted sign.

Pick your grain

Global and local environmentalism, intolerance, world hunger, mental illness, homelessness … there is no shortage of beachfronts and certainly no shortage of grains of sand in this world. Pick your grain and get started. Every small step matters.

As Benjamin Franklin said:

For the want of a nail the shoe was lost;

For the want of a shoe the horse was lost;

For the want of a horse the battle was lost;

For the failure of battle the kingdom was lost-

And all for the want of a horseshoe nail."

Dr. Paul is the former executive director of the Companion Animal Parasite Council and a former president of the American Animal Hospital Association. He is currently the principal of MAGPIE Veterinary Consulting. He is retired from practice and lives in Anguilla, British West Indies.