Thursday, April 17, 2008

Chaos Theory, The Fate of Earth . . . and Clutter

Edward Lorenz, often called "the father of chaos theory," passed away on Wednesday. The award-winning ninety-year-old meteorologist and MIT professor discovered through his mathematical analysis of weather systems that "small differences in a dynamic system . . . could trigger vast and often unsuspected results." This breakthrough led him to entitle a 1972 academic paper, "Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly's Wings in Brazil Set off a Tornado in Texas?"

The "Butterfly Effect," according to MIT, "marked the beginning of a new field of study that impacted not just the field of mathematics but virtually every branch of science -- biological, physical and social." The term and its implications are also popularly invoked by eco-conscious and spiritually-inclined people as a way of demonstrating the significant interrelationship of all living things on our small planet. Of course, some Native Americans (among others) figured out all of this long ago: the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy mandated that all decisions should be made while keeping in mind their impact on the next seven generations.

And what does this theory have to do with the daily life of the average person? It should make us acutely aware of our personal responsibility to acknowledge that everything we do will have consequences that affect others and, therefore, we should act accordingly. Does using Styrofoam coffee cups contribute to global warming? Does driving an SUV result in the extinction of an exotic species of tree frog? Will that flashlight battery tossed carelessly into the trash come back to haunt some family in the distant future who's struggling to find a source of clean water? If so, we need to change our behavior.

However, I've written in the past about shopper's compassion fatigue in which we become overwhelmed by the demands of making the "right" choices when shopping. It's certainly even easier to feel fatigued if we believe that the fate of the entire world is on our shoulders with every single decision we make. (Those of us with perfectionist tendencies can really get into trouble with this kind of thinking and become paralyzed with indecision due to fear of making the wrong choice. My solution when this hits me is to hyperventilate and eat chocolate. But I digress.)

While our individual responsibilities and obligations are clear, we are all human and can do only the best we can based on our circumstances and abilities. The world will simply have to muddle along with each of us making some effort to steer it in a direction that will benefit all of its inhabitants (of course, electing responsible politicians would help this process, too). And yet, because the world population is rapidly approaching seven billion people, much of what will happen obviously is out of our hands.

So, rather than getting completely bogged down by the enormity of the larger global crises that we face, let's think on a smaller scale. Rather than struggling with trying not to have a negative impact on the entire Earth, let's just try not to demolish the "ecosystems" of our own homes.

Let's also see if we can invert our thinking: consider the Butterfly Effect in a way that focuses on the power of accomplishing something positive.

Most of us dealing with clutter issues have our own less scientific definition of "chaos theory," i.e., the way things usually work around the house. Let's also work with our less scientific definition of the Butterfly Effect, giving it a more direct cause-and-effect relationship than it has in mathematics (just in case there are some literalist sticklers reading!).

It seems obvious that if we continue to avoid dealing with those piles of papers, crowded closets and packed-to-the-rafters garages, we'll just keep adding more and more stuff. Then the clutter difficulties we face will get worse and adversely affect even more of our lives. Toss one piece of paper on the floor and the Butterfly Effect says that you'll be eating junk food later that day. Let the laundry pile up and the Butterfly Effect says that you won't be able to find your wallet tomorrow. However, unclutter one small area on your kitchen counter and keep it that way, and next week you'll get a raise at work!

Okay, all this may be an exaggeration, but the point is that if we pay attention to making the "right" decisions in our own homes, we will reap the benefits. Unclutter the linen closet and we'll find the motivation we need to tackle the attic. Give away all the old clothes that we no longer want and soon we'll be able to part with the books that have spilled onto the floor around the bookcase. Clear off the dining room table and we'll feel like inviting friends over for a dinner party.

The Butterfly Effect can help keep us moving in a direction that will lead to a clean, comfortable, welcoming environment in our homes in which we can live joyously and productively. Just the way we'd like everyone on the planet to be able to live.

Who knows? Maybe getting rid of our clutter will lead to world peace. Don't laugh. Thanks to Edward Lorenz, we know that the Butterfly Effect can be very powerful. Let's try it and see what happens!

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob

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