Photo by @katetparker
The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here…
Our dream of safety has to disappear.
W.H. Auden, Leap Before You Look
In college I took E.O. Wilson’s famous course on evolutionary biology. If I’m honest, I don’t remember too much about it, other than the fact that Wilson, who’s the world’s leading expert on ants, looked just like a praying mantis. That distracted me a lot. But I do remember one lecture he gave on the topic of the mulberry beetle. He began by explaining that all species who face extinction because their habitat is under imminent threat exhibit three universal behaviors: they increase their rate of reproduction roughly two-fold; they increase their food consumption by 50% and decrease their sleep by the same amount. In short, they go into hyperdrive mode, which rapidly accelerates their own extinction.
Sound familiar? But just at this point in the depressing tale, Professor Wilson pounced across the room, waving the chalk in one of his raptorial forelegs, and wrote on the board in large letters: BUT NOT THE MULBERRY BEETLE!
He proceeded to recount a famous moment in annals of evolution when mulberry trees were rapidly disappearing in the Himalayan foothills. The Mulberry beetles were at the very peak of their hyperdrive activity when, inexplicably, one mulberry beetle (and here he drew the little bug up on the board, with his tiny face looking toward the horizon) made the leap to a nearby blueberry bush. Other beetles decided to follow, and from there, natural selection took its course: the ones who developed the stomach enzymes necessary to digest blueberries survived and the others died. This is what mutation looks like. Wilson made a point of explaining that there’s no clear scientific consensus around the causes of mutation, just the fact that it happens. Why that mulberry beetle decided to leap, we’ll never know. We can only describe what the consequences were.
Whatever happens next will require a perspective aimed at radical rethinking and retooling, not returning.
Over the years this story has stuck with me as a perfect metaphor for human behavior when our current way of life starts to fall apart. Mutation also mimics the process of human innovation which is, in effect, a seismic step change as contrasted with the normal process of incremental evolution. That is what I believe we’re facing right now, and what will become especially evident in the wake of this global pandemic. The orthodoxies that define nearly all industries, systems, institutions, professions, and individual patterns have been suddenly upended, and while we all long to “go back to normal,” many of us also have a sinking suspicion that it’s goodbye to all that. Whatever happens next will require a perspective aimed at radical rethinking and retooling, not returning. We’ll be called upon to reshape our world, micro to macro, still traumatized by the sudden recognition of our inescapable interconnectedness and alarming vulnerability.
If we’re going to summon the energy, courage, and focus required to do that, we must somehow retain the clarity that comes from imminent threat while avoiding the panic and self-pity that exhausts our imagination and saps our collective resolve. I don’t see this next phase as one where we “shore up” the world we were in by plugging the holes, stockpiling reserves, or fixing the bugs in the system. Of course some of that will be necessary, but it’s not going to get us to where we need to be. Instead, I see the next phase as one where individually, institutionally, systemically—we take transformative measures to fast-forward our advancement toward our boldest visions. Whatever we’re involved in, we must abandon the illusion of incremental progress, which seems in the light of current events like Zeno’s paradox—the mathematical oddity that if you try to get from A to B by taking steps that are each half the length of the one before, your destination is infinitely out of reach. In other words: no more half-stepping.
All the norms around planning and action that belonged to the pre-COVID world were based on unquestioned assumptions of safety and time. We are not safe. We have no time. And therefore, we all need to define the power moves that will catapult us toward whatever dreams we have before it’s too late. If you’ve wanted to change your life, take that bold step now. Move to where you’ve always wanted to live, change your job, marry that person…or leave. And that lovely vision statement on your institution’s website? Take one giant step to get there sooner. Our tolerance of broken systems and structures has been made possible by the assumption that they will survive long enough for us to fix them. They won’t, so now is the time to dismantle and rebuild. Tick tock.
We are the mulberry beetle; we must leap.