Owing to its large size and its distinctive orange, black, and white color pattern, the Monarch is probably the most easily recognizable butterfly in North America. Many people know the Monarch for its annual north-south migration between the northern United States and southern Mexico, a migration which takes two to four generations. Many people may not know it’s also a pollinator species.
And it’s probably going to disappear in my lifetime or my children’s lifetime.
The reasons have to do with pesticides and herbicides, habitat loss, loss of their sole food source (Milkweed), and climate change. One study has predicted that the species has only 20 years until population collapse. Some areas have already seen declines up to 86%.
And right now, President Trump is planning to bulldoze a butterfly sanctuary on the U.S.-Mexico border so he can build a wall to keep out human immigrants. The National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas is host to over 200 species of butterflies, including the Monarch.
It’s not just butterflies either. The area is home to more than 1,500 species, 62 of which are considered vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered. The border wall would cut the habitat of 346 species in half. According biologist Rodolfo Dirzo, the wall will cause many animals and plants to become “zombie species—populations that are demographically and genetically doomed.”
I’m sure there will be people who will roll their eyes when anyone suggests they should care about an insect species, or any species for that matter. (Remember the Spotted Owl, which became a symbol for anti-environmentalists in the 1990s?) But the disappearance of the Monarch is not insignificant, nor is it merely an aesthetic loss (though I would not downplay that).
Both humans and the Monarch are part of the same web of life. What happens to one affects the other. Throughout their life cycle, butterflies are food for other animals, especially birds. Fewer butterflies means fewer birds. And fewer birds means more of other insects, like mosquitoes which carry diseases to which humans are susceptible.
And it’s not just butterflies. Insect populations generally are plummeting. In some places, the number of insects is down 98%! Anybody who has ridden in a car over the last 30 or so years can attest to this by the absence of smashed insects on their windshields and grills. While we tend to see most insects as nuisances or just gross, they are a critical part of the ecosystem which we depend on. Biologist Brad Lister foresees a “bottom-up trophic cascade”, in which the knock-on effects of the insect collapse surge up through the food chain. He explains:
“I don’t think most people have a systems view of the natural world. But it’s all connected and when the invertebrates are declining the entire food web is going to suffer and degrade. It is a system-wide effect. … We are essentially destroying the very life support systems that allow us to sustain our existence on the planet, along with all the other life on the planet.”
I can’t help but see the loss of the Monarch as a harbinger of things to come. Ironically, in Greek myth, the butterfly was a symbol of immortality … and of the human soul. The multi-generational migration of the Monarch is a special object lesson in the importance of thinking beyond our lifetimes to the impact of our actions on future generations. And the loss of the Monarch is a testament to our short-sightedness.
Donna Haraway’s fictional “Camille Stories: Children of Compost”, written in 2016, tells the story of people living in a time of ongoing extinction due to climate change, the effects of which last for centuries. The Children of Compost form small communities who migrate to damaged places and develop practices to heal the species in those places. This involves intentionally reducing human numbers, while increasing the flourishing of the species who inhabit the place.
In the Compost communities, children are rare, but precious. When a decision is made to bring a new human infant into being, an other-than-human animal or plant symbiont is chosen for the child from among species who are threatened with extinction. The human child’s formative years are spent learning how to nurture the symbiont species, as well as the other species on whom the symbiont depends. This commitment to a symbiont species is meant to bind five generations of humans.
Haraway’s short “Camille Stories” relate the stories of five generations of humans named Camille, living between 2025 and 2425 in a part of West Virginia devastated by mountaintop removal. The Camilles are bound symbiotically to Monarch butterflies, who migrate between Mexico and Canada, and work to promote their flourishing.
But despite their work over three generations, the fourth Camille is faced with the loss of Monarch migrations–along with the loss of 50 percent of all species planet-wide. Camille 4 must prepare Camille 5 for a new role, as a “Speaker for the Dead”, one who will mourn and remember the Monarch.
Last year I planted milkweed in my yard, but I’m afraid our role now may be as “Speakers for the Dead”, and our task, not to save but, to memorialize the Monarch, and so many other species.
I have Monarch corpse pinned inside a shadow box on my bookshelf. A few years ago, I found it dying and waited for it to die before taking it inside. One day, I will show the corpse of the Monarch to a grandchild and tell them the story of the Monarch’s multi-generational migration. And I will tell them that my generation and those before mine forgot the lesson of the Monarch.
About the Author
John Halstead is a native of the southern Laurentian bioregion and lives in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. He is one of the founders of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which works to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the Region. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment”. He strives to live up to the challenge posed by the statement through his writing and activism. John has written for numerous online platforms, including Patheos, Huffington Post, PrayWithYourFeet.org, Gods & Radicals, and A Beautiful Resistance. He is Editor-at-Large of HumanisticPaganism.com. John also edited the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. He is also a Shaper of the Earthseed community which can be found at GodisChange.org.