Political butterfly effect

Among my favorite movies is The Butterfly Effect. The 2004 film features Ashton Kutcher as a troubled time traveller who discovers, to his chagrin, that attempts to correct mistakes in the past can generate unintended consequences for the future. 

“Change one thing – change everything” as the promotional tag line goes.

The film was only a modest success with critics and ticket-buyers, although it did generate enough interest to spark two widely-panned sequels, with which Kutcher was fortunate enough to escape involvement.

But the concept intrigues nonetheless. 

The “butterfly effect” is the idea that a change in starting conditions as subtle as the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can lead to vastly different outcomes.

In our current timeline, as we face devastating impacts of climate change, a world roiled by war and political discourse so polarized many question the future of established Western democracies, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to go back and just change a few little things?

Where to start? Well, it’s our first try, so we won’t go back a century to prevent the assassination of the Arch Duke and thus the First World War, or even the decades needed to prevent the development of the atomic bomb. Let’s stick to the current millennium.

What if we could change the composition of the U.S. Supreme Court that halted a recount of Florida presidential votes in 2000 and gave the world President George W. Bush instead of Al Gore? Had Gore, who became for a time the face of the climate change action movement through his role in the ground-breaking film An Inconvenient Truth, become president, could he have set turning the wheels of a carbon reduction revolution in time to turn down the temperature before it became too late? Sadly, we’ll never know. 

Not to pick on “Doubleya,” but a reversal of that same election would likely have meant avoiding the second Iraq war, one of the most pointless conflicts in history (yeah, funny thing, turns out there were no weapons of mass destruction – Oops!), saving literally hundreds of thousands of lives and decades of mounting tension in the Middle East.

Closer to home, where might Canada be today if transitionary Prime Minister Paul Martin hadn’t been tarred with the brush of his predecessor’s “sponsorship scandal” and managed to win the 2006 election. As finance minister Martin won renown for eliminating the federal budget deficit and actually reducing the country’s overall debt for the first time in decades. Could he have stayed the course for a few terms and left the country in a more enviable financial and socially-cohesive position today? 

Here in Ontario, what could have been had Conservative Party partier Patrick Brown not been forced to resign as Ontario Tory leader prior to the 2018 election? Would he have bested Kathleen Wynne in civil fashion and brought a conciliatory tone to provincial politics? Who knows – we instead got Doug Ford and regressive decision-making reigns supreme.

Many major improvements, from enhanced global stability to personal peace of mind, could probably be affected by stopping some of the dominoes that fell on Donald J. Trump’s road to the White House. 

What if Russia hadn’t intervened with social media manipulation? What if someone had convinced FBI director James Comey to maintain tradition and keep quiet about “her emails?” What if there just weren’t so many intellectually myopic Yanks?

It’s not likely coincidence the election of a classless, clueless and cruel U.S. president freed society’s racists, conspiracy theorists and haters in general to speak their poisonous minds, accelerating a political polarization that had been in motion for several decades already.

Would COVID-19 have claimed over one million lives in the US had Trump not been there to rail against the public health measures advocated elsewhere in the world. Could that number have been cut by half or better had he just advocated for reasonable caution rather than attacking his own public health experts? 

Without a Trump’s rejection and weakening of American democracy and the established world order would Russian warmonger Vladimir Putin have felt emboldened to invade Ukraine, a move that has brought death and destruction to a peaceful people and led to global shortages sparking inflation and supply chain issues planet-wide?

Unlike The Butterfly Effect protagonist, we can’t go back and avoid yesterday’s mistakes to change today’s painful realities (Have you tried finding flux capacitors or spare Delorean parts these days? Supply chain issues again?, I suspect). 

What we can do is make better decisions going forward. For that to happen it behooves us all to become informed about the leaders we choose and the causes we champion.

Will we tell our grandchildren we let the planet burn, either from climate change or nuclear exchange, because we choose our leaders based on their opposition to public health measures and fear of the powerless advisory organizations like the World Economic Forum? Were we too busy honking our horns and disrupting commerce and traffic to gain understanding of how truly “free” we already are?

Canada is often considered a minor player in global affairs, but we have impact beyond our economic reach by virtue of the respect our country has earned over time on the global stage – respect earned in part by the quality of leaders we have put forward for decades.

Going forward we need to pressure potential leaders to put forward clear policy platforms so voters can chose from those designed to advance the collective good.

What we don’t need re politicians who attain high office based on the same sort of sloganeering and rage farming tactics that put helped put Trump in power. 

If our national politics are allowed to continue devolving into nothing more than a partisan circus it will be a long time, if ever, before we manage to turn our collective focus back to dealing with the truly pressing issues we face together.

Canadians should not let our enduring mantra become “if only.”