Movement strategist and nonviolence trainer Arthur Romano reflects on 3 creative metaphors for social change – critical mass, critical yeast, and the butterfly effect – drawn from complexity theory and the study of adaptive systems.
So when we think about critical mass, we think of that moment after people have been doing work, having events, raising awareness about issues, and people have been activated, they’ve been educated, and been in a creative process of education with each other. And all of a sudden there’s a movement moment where a critical mass of people are working on the issue and then are able to bring new people into the fold… So the critical mass is something that is important for activists looking for the clay and the kind of raw materials of thinking about “What’s the stuff of social change?”. Well, creating a strategy to get to the point where we have critical mass is really important.
Creative metaphors for social change: Critical mass | Arthur Romano
The thing about yeast that is powerful and makes it all work, is that yeast distributes and then it rises. So while yeast is this tiny percentage of the overall mass, it affects the whole, it changes the structure of the whole. So in terms of starting to think about critical yeast in terms of social change, this is the effect where we are connected to networks of people across lines of difference… So you can have a small, distributive group of people working together, and then you have social change as it rises, and they therefore activate their networks.
Creative metaphors for social change: Critical yeast | Arthur Romano
The Butterfly Effect
Because [open] systems are vulnerable to change…
When a butterfly flaps its wings in China, it’s possible that it can through a series of effects then create let’s say a hurricane of the east coast of the United States… It takes a lot of kind of you could say “magic” or what do you want to say coincidence or an alignment of a lot of variables to make it possible… It’s not like dominoes, [systems are] complex and so many different things are going on. So if you can affect one thing slightly its impossible to even predict the set of consequences that that is going to effect… It’s not something that you can really engineer, but it is a reminder that there is a sort of world of possibility, a politics of possibility, a way of living of possibility that is beyond our ability to predict and control… Does that mean that we give up strategic action? No way…But it also means that we might experiment in a little bit more creative and dynamic kind of way.
Creative metaphors for social change: The butterfly effect | Arthur Romano