TEDxUCLA 2018: Waves

The butterfly effect


About Nurit 

UCLA Chief Sustainability Officer, Nurit Katz is working to foster partnerships among academic, research, and operational departments to facilitate creating a world class living laboratory for sustainability at UCLA. As Executive Officer for UCLA Facilities Management, Nurit provides strategy support to make the university more operationally efficient and coordinates with Emergency Management on resilience planning. Facilities Management provides energy to the campus through a highly efficient cogeneration plant, as well as managing landscaping, renovations, operations, and maintenance. Nurit is also an Instructor for UCLA Extension’s Sustainability Certificate Program. Before starting in this position she founded the UCLA Sustainable Resource Center to provide resources for the community on sustainability. She then served as President of the Graduate Students Association & assisted Dr.Charles Corbett in developing a new interdisciplinary graduate certificate Leaders in Sustainability.


Imagine you walk into a grove of trees and as the afternoon sunlight hits, you catch this glimpse of color and you stop and you look closer and you realize those aren’t leaves: those are actually thousands of monarch butterflies. This is the magic of stepping into a monarch grove.

West of the Rockies they winter here in California, and east of the Rockies, they winter all the way down in Mexico. Despite weighing less than a penny, they travel over 5000 miles south. Scientists are still trying to figure out how the next generation comes back to the same trees. It’s truly amazing.

I took this photo in Elwood grove near Santa Barbara, and in prepping for this talk I thought I’d go back. So I checked the website where they usually have the butterfly counts and I discovered that the grove is closed indefinitely because the trees are dying due to disease and drought.

Unfortunately this is not an isolated case. Monarch populations have declined over 80 percent in the last couple decades, and other insect pollinators are declining globally. You might have heard about colony collapse disorder or massive bee die-offs. Habitat loss, pesticides, climate change: they all play a role. It’s a complex system.

The Butterfly Effect and chaos theory describes how a small change can create large impacts in a nonlinear system. The classic example is how a huge tornado can be impacted by the tiny fluttering of a butterfly’s wings in a distant area weeks earlier.

And just like that butterfly, our insect pollinators have far-reaching impacts. They play a critical role in our global food systems. More than a third of global crop production, six hundred billion dollars in value, millions of agriculture jobs depend on insect pollinators.

Can you imagine your life without fresh fruits and vegetables? Without coffee? Without chocolate? These pollinators are small, but in our complex ecological and food systems, their impacts can be far-reaching and their decline has these cascading effects.

In The Sound of Thunder, Ray Bradbury illustrates the butterfly effect when the main character travels back in time and he ends up crushing a butterfly under his shoe. When he returns to the present day, the world has changed. The fascist political candidate has won. Familiar, right?

So we get that. We know that if we’re going to travel back in time, you’ve got to be really careful. Don’t touch anything, you might mess up the present. And yet we often don’t think about how our small actions today can transform the future.

Take these seeds: this is milkweed, critical habitat for monarch butterflies. It turns out it’s really easy to grow. And if you plant it, they will come.

Planting pollinator-friendly plants, like these at the UCLA Botanical Garden, not only bring bees and butterflies and hummingbirds, but they create beautiful spaces.

Right now our environmental science students are studying the intersection of insect pollinators and native plants, and researchers in our Sustainable LA Grand Challenge are figuring out these cutting-edge techniques in urban ecology.

They’re using conservation genomics to transform how we manage wildlife in urban spaces. Basically what they do is they figure out these genetic diversity hotspots that are important to protect, which informs our planning as our region continues to grow.

But the good news is you don’t have to be an expert scientist in order to have an impact on urban ecology and protect our pollinators.

The film Flight of the Butterflies tells a story — an incredible story — of how people all over North America helped tag monarch butterflies and map their migration. And this was long before the Internet.

Now it’s even easier. You just go to monarchwatch.org and they have all the info about how to plant milkweed, how to raise butterflies, they even have these tagging kits in case you want to participate in citizen science and help map migration.

I got inspired by my Grandma Barbara who raised butterflies and monarchs when I was growing up. I decided I wanted to give it a try so we could do it together. So I started with a couple of caterpillars, very hungry caterpillars, and I fed them until they grew from tiny size to full-grown and transformed into their chrysalises which is amazing to see in person. Then they emerge, they dry their wings, and soon they’re ready for release.

One year I got so excited we were able to raise 50 monarchs. And when one bee or butterfly can pollinate five thousand plants in a day, that really adds up. And no matter how many times I watch that transformation, it was pure wonder every time. And I got to share that wonder with my grandma. And it’s a tradition I really hope will continue for many generations if we protect our pollinators.

So now I’d like you to close your eyes for a moment and think about your neighborhood. Pick a lawn or dirt area or balcony. And now imagine that transformed by brightly-colored wildflowers. Breathe in that scent and open your eyes.

My mom tore out her lawn and scattered wildflower seeds and not only did she bring bees and butterflies and birds like this one who like to eat the seeds, but she basically created this meadow in her front yard.

Now think of all the lawns and dirt areas in your neighborhood. If each of us just planted a few seeds, the entire city could be transformed.

We’re facing these significant challenges right now: drought and poverty, pollinator decline, climate change. You hear about it and it feels overwhelming. You feel like, “What can I do? I’m just one person out of 7 billion people on the planet.” But the thing is that means we have 7 billion potential change agents.

Just imagine if all of us understood the power that small actions can have. Even in a bustling metropolis, a tiny bit of habitat can go a long way.

A staff member at UCLA found this hummingbird nest right next to a parking structure. And even though it was surrounded by concrete she was able to raise her babies until they were big and fluffy and ready to leave the nest. I know, they’re really cute.

And a colleague who is passionate about hummingbirds started with just one feeder, and soon the project grew ’til there were over 200 hummingbirds. She earned the nickname “The Hummingbird Whisperer,” and soon people were coming from all over campus to enjoy their colorful presence.

A couple of my former students are now doing a project where they’re trying to plant milkweed all over the nation, and another former student helped pass the first biodiversity ordinance in LA to protect our pollinators and our flora and fauna.

And we’re collaborating here with the Healthy Campus Initiative to create spaces like this where people can come and enhance human health and biodiversity together because it turns out wonder and awe, more than any other emotions, lead people to collaborate and cooperate, share resources, and sacrifice for each other, which we need in our collective life.

And just being around nature really enhances your wellness. It actually lowers your heart rate, it reduces muscle tension, stress hormones, it even reduces mortality. So those wildflower seeds that you plant, they might not just protect the butterflies and our pollinators, they might actually protect your health and your life.

See, if you stop and look, even in a bustling metropolis, life and wonder are all around you and so is opportunity for impact.

So what is your butterfly effect? As you move your wings through life, what future are you creating? You might just plant one seed, save one butterfly, or touch one person’s life. But in the complex systems we live and work in, the impacts and ripples can be vast. So it’s in your hands.

As Nan Alexander Doyle said in her book Dig Right Where You Are, “Plant those wildflowers, sow those seeds, and flap your wings, no matter how small. You never know how far the waves will reach or how far they will carry you.”

Thank you.