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Sunday, April 14, 2024

The Many Metaphors of Metamorphosis

We are being pitched futures all the time. Every advertisement, every political campaign, every quarterly budget is a promise or a threat about what tomorrow could look like. And it can feel, sometimes, like those futures are happening, whether we like it or not—that we’re simply along for the ride. But the future hasn’t happened yet. We do, in fact, get a say, and we should seize that voice as much as we possibly can. But how? I’ve spent the past eight years making over 180 episodes of a podcast about the future called Flash Forward. Here, in a three-part series, are the big things I’ve learned about how to think about what’s possible for tomorrow. (This is part 3. Read part 1 and part 2.)

As a moth, Uraba lugens isn’t particularly noteworthy in appearance. Its wings are mottled gray and brown, only about 25 millimeters across. But as a caterpillar, the gum-leaf skeletonizer is full of surprises—and perhaps lessons. 

Many caterpillars go through several molts before they hole up in their chrysalis—shedding their outer skin as they chomp on plants and grow bigger. And when they shed a layer of skin, usually they eat it. But the gum-leaf skeletonizer has put its own twist on this process. “It retains its old head and just puts it, like, atop its current head,” explains Sabrina Imbler, author of How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures and a recent essay on the metaphorical power of metamorphosis. “And after five or so molds, it just has this little tower of heads on the top of its head.”

Entomologist Gwen Pearson once called the gum-leaf skeletonizer the “mad hatterpillar.” And for Imbler, this stack of heads offered a new metaphor for change. “What are the past selves that I want to cling to in the same way that this caterpillar retains all of its past selves?” they ask. “Maybe hoarding these things makes molting easier, a way of holding onto my past selves. Maybe I will find my way back to them in new ways,” they write in their essay.

Normally, when we encounter metaphors related to metamorphosis they center around butterflies, not skull-stacking moths. Normally, these metaphors are about upgrading. The caterpillar is always the stodgy, slow-moving thing confined to the ground. In some versions of the story the cocoon represents crisis and depression, the whole “it’s always darkest before the dawn” thing. 

And butterfly pupation is a gnarly business. “I like the idea that we can transform radically inside ourselves and that's natural and normal,” says Dean Spade, a professor at Seattle University School of Law and the author of Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next).  “I love that they become nothing like themselves at all, and then show up some other way.”

For others it’s the caustic dissolution that makes the metaphor appealing. “I like it because a major part of that process is that squeeze,” says Ruha Benjamin, a professor of African American studies at Princeton and the author of the new book Viral Justice: How We Grow the World We Want. “You know, that sense of pain and discomfort that comes with leaving that safe haven.” Changing yourself isn’t easy. Confronting power dynamics and your own internalized bias isn’t easy. “There's a lot of squeeze and discomfort that's part of that metamorphosis. It's got to be messy.” The butterfly is the dawn. The beautiful, free, floaty, flying thing. 

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As far as metaphors for change go, this is a potent one. Yet when we think about the future and the change we might want to make, the natural world provides all kinds of models and lessons. 

“What about the lowly cockroach or the lowly earwig?” says Jessica Ware, an associate curator of invertebrates at the American Museum of Natural History, rolling her eyes. (Or Imbler’s gum-leaf skeletonizer.) By some estimates, around  60 percent of all animals go through what scientists call holometabolism—a fancy word for reforming your entire body like butterflies do. Ladybugsbeetles, beeslacewings, and flies all wrap themselves up and go through an incredible transformation. “You know, there's a lot of really cool insects out there, but they get no press, they get no greeting cards. It's all butterflies, butterflies, butterflies,” Ware says.

The natural world is full of stories of transformation, collaboration, and change. Stories that we could all probably learn from. 

Some sea slugs, for example, eat algae and actually extract the chloroplasts from that algae and use it to be able to photosynthesize themselves. Other sea slugs that eat poisonous sponges store that poison in their bodies to use as a defense mechanism. For Spade, this connects with the idea that a group could share different skill sets and attributes with one another. “We could all get skilled up, and we could gain the most interesting skills that various people in the group have brought.” For Dean, it’s a reminder that “we are each a very small part of something very big.”

For Liz Neeley, a science communicator and founder of the firm Liminal, it’s a giant, dorky-looking fish that offers a metaphor for change. She points to the mola mola—also known as the giant ocean sunfish. And giant is no overstatement—by the time they’re adults, these fish can weigh over 4,000 pounds. But they do not start life this big. When they’re born, they’re 3 millimeters long—about half the length of a grain of rice. Over the course of its life, a mola mola increases its body mass 60 million times. And that changes almost everything. “Your ability to perceive your environment, the things you find frightening, even how much effort it takes to move through water,” says Neeley. “At that size, water is heavy, it's thick, it's gloppy. You're kind of swimming through syrup.”

So that giant, car-sized fish is swimming through the ocean with some inkling of what it was like to be tiny and vulnerable, swimming against the muck. “I don't know exactly what size I am as a fish,” says Neeley. “But I hope I can continue to build a practice of revisiting those core assumptions I have about myself in the world and what's a threat to me and how I move through it.”

I bring this all up because, fundamentally, my podcast, Flash Forward, was about change. How does one change the future? How do we get to the tomorrows we want and not the ones we don’t? And a core piece of that question has to do with the way in which insects melt themselves into goo. Must we fully dissolve ourselves and our world in order to get to the futures we want? Do we have to burn it all down, destroy it all, and rebuild from that melted space? Or can we change more gradually, more incrementally, more like the hermit crabs, upgrading slowly as we go? 

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Spade says that it’s kind of both. “I do appreciate the sentiment of ‘burn it down.’ I think it's actually really essential in a society in which we're encouraged to be demobilized and passive.” But also, in reality, we cannot encase our entire world in a cocoon of acid and regrow it in one fell swoop of a butterfly’s wing. “That's not how change happens. It happens on really complex, multiple levels with lots and lots of autonomous groups and people trying different things everywhere, and trying to get inspired by each other, and sharing ideas and influencing each other and debating.”

These metaphors for change should not be mistaken for metaphors of personal responsibility. You alone are not going to end climate change by recycling, no matter what the fossil fuel corporations tell you. But change, personal and communal, can happen in all kinds of ways that might not seem huge and radical—that might not be turning our whole world to goo—but that are impactful. In Viral Justice, Benjamin highlights small projects that have big, rippling impacts—a budgeting reform movement in Seattle, a small universal basic income project in Mississippi, local abolitionist education projects in Minneapolis, Oakland, and Roxbury, Massachusetts. “Something that seems small can build and accumulate and change things over time,” she says. A fish half the size of a grain of rice can grow to 4,000 pounds.

Not every transition must be a caterpillar into a butterfly or a solitary trek through terror and pain. Change can look like hermit crabs, lining up and shuttling between shells. When a hermit crab needs to find a new shell it has to scurry about with its vulnerable backside hanging out until it fits into its new place. Scientists have documented that hermit crabs will essentially line up in size order, so they can all trade with each other and shuffle into their new shells at once. 

It can look like caterpillars stacking their heads to remember past bits of themselves that are still useful. It can look like sea slugs sharing skills. It can look like giant fish remembering what it was like to be tiny. It can look like jellyfish, who spend part of their lives attached to the ocean floor as polyps before they detach and float about the seas—and in some cases can move back and forth between life stages in ways almost no other creatures can. 

As Octavia Butler once said, “There’s no single answer that will solve all our future problems. There’s no magic bullet. Instead, there are thousands of answers—at least. You can be one of them if you choose to be.”

We all are going to have to go through our own individual pupations to get to the world we want. But we will need to remember how we were before, and imagine how we might yet change. We all have things to unlearn, relearn, learn for the first time. We are all going to have to become uncomfortable in order to get to the future that can nurture and sustain us all equitably. You don’t need to have hope to do that, but it can help. And if you do have hope, it doesn’t need to be for  some idealized future version of you, alone, being a beautiful butterfly. It can be about how you fit into the great strange, changing world that’s morphing in a thousand different ways all around you.

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