“The Butterfly and the Boiling Point”: Rebecca Solnit on the spark and sustenance of global change in 2011


In the midst of simultaneous eruptions of resistance and escalating global turmoil, one can't help but wonder why, after years of repression, these particular people have found the strength and the will to organize and rebel? In a beautifully written article, Rebecca Solnit recently examined global events the context of social boiling points and the necessary conditions for revolution. Solnit, an acclaimed author, historian and activist, begins her piece with a poetic survey of recent uprisings:

Revolution is as unpredictable as an earthquake and as beautiful as spring. Its coming is always a surprise, but its nature should not be.

Revolution is a phase, a mood, like spring, and just as spring has its buds and showers, so revolution has its ebullience, its bravery, its hope, and its solidarity. Some of these things pass. The women of Cairo do not move as freely in public as they did during those few precious weeks when the old rules were suspended and everything was different. But the old Egypt is gone and Egyptians' sense of themselves-and our sense of them-is forever changed.

Solnit goes on to trace the relationship between individual and collective acts of resistance both past and present, encapsulating her observations in a narrative of empowerment and inspiration:

That the flapping of a butterfly's wings in Brazil can shape the weather in Texas is a summation of chaos theory that is now an oft-repeated cliché. But there are billions of butterflies on earth, all flapping their wings. Why does one gesture matter more than another? Why this Facebook post, this girl with a drum?

Even to try to answer this you'd have to say that the butterfly is born aloft by a particular breeze that was shaped by the flap of the wing of, say, a sparrow, and so behind causes are causes, behind small agents are other small agents, inspirations, and role models, as well as outrages to react against. The point is not that causation is unpredictable and erratic. The point is that butterflies and sparrows and young women in veils and an unknown 20-year-old rapping in Arabic and you yourself, if you wanted it, sometimes have tremendous power, enough to bring down a dictator, enough to change the world.

Solnit concludes her piece by turning her attention to the US. Focusing primarily on the Wisconsin protests, Solnit comments on the unique conditions of domestic anti-revolutionary repression and engages American citizens in a final call to action:

In the United States, the communion between the governed and the governors and the public spaces in which to be reborn as a civil society resurgent often seem missing. This is a big country whose national capital is not much of a center and whose majority seems to live in places that are themselves decentered.

At its best, revolution is an urban phenomenon. Suburbia is counterrevolutionary by design. For revolution, you need to converge, to live in public, to become the public, and that's a geographical as well as a political phenomenon.


It's all very well to organize on Facebook and update on Twitter, but these are only preludes. You also need to rise up, to pour out into the streets. You need to be together in body, for only then are you truly the public with the full power that a public can possess. And then it needs to matter. The United States is good at trivializing and ignoring insurrections at home.


Hard times are in store for most people on Earth, and those may be times of boldness. Or not. The butterflies are out there, but when their flight stirs the winds of insurrection no one knows beforehand.

So remember to expect the unexpected, but not just to wait for it. Sometimes you have to become the unexpected, as the young heroes and heroines of 2011 have. I am sure they themselves are as surprised as anyone. Since she very nearly had the first word, let Asmaa Mahfouz have the last word: "As long as you say there is no hope, then there will be no hope, but if you go down and take a stance, then there will be hope."

Rebecca Solnit is the author of several books, including Wanderlust (Verso 2006), A Paradise Built in Hell, and  A Book of Migrations (forthcoming as a new edition from Verso August 2011). Visit Guernica to read her article in full.


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