With a wingspan of over two inches, the Large Blue is the largest and rarest of all British blue butterflies. Researchers declared it extinct in the UK in 1979. The sad decline of this majestic species is just one of many in recent times. WWF’s 2020 Living Planet Report shows that our planet’s wildlife populations have now plummeted by 68% since 1970–and there are no signs that this downward trend is slowing.
Confronted with these stark figures and warnings of ecological collapse, it is easy to get disheartened and switch off. But there’s much to be hopeful about in the story of the Large Blue butterfly. On 27 May 2020, Britain’s rarest butterfly returned to the UK after a journey from Sweden in an ecologist’s campervan. The caterpillars survive by feeding on the flowers of wild thyme before dropping to the ground where they are picked up by tiny red ants, Myrmica sabultei. An experimental cattle grazing scheme was necessary to support the growth of the thyme and ant colonies.
The Large Blue’s entire existence depends on this ant, which is tricked into thinking the parasitic larvae of the Large Blue are one of their own. They carry it to their nest, joyfully, even “singing” to it along the way. It’s at this point that the caterpillar turns from harmless herbivore to cunning carnivore as it feeds on ant grubs until it’s ready to emerge the following summer.
To understand how this momentous change came about, it helps to think of the whole interconnected system that has evolved over centuries to support life for the butterfly. Each element of the system and the relationships between them are vital to the survival of the Large Blue, if one breaks the entire system would collapse.
We can apply this mode of thinking to every walk of life and the success of this project should provide encouragement for us all. But the destruction of nature is also a raw reflection of the ‘transitional times’ we are living in. Transition Design is an emerging framework that acknowledges this and stresses the need for societal transition (systems-level change) to more sustainable futures. It melds futures-based narratives, foresight, and systems-thinking with other disciplines including science, philosophy and anthropology. This pushes us beyond traditional social innovation practices to envision radical new images of the future, and pathways towards more sustainable ways of being in the world.
The concepts of ‘transition’, and ‘systems-level change’ are part of an emerging ecological/holistic worldview calling for empathy, self-organization and a willingness to collaborate. Instead of thinking in terms of one-off solutions that are completed within short time frames, Transition Design designs ‘systems interventions’ are implemented at multiple levels of scale across short, mid and long time horizons.
This is the approach we adopt through our projects in Athenry. By considering the long-term implications of our work we are directly challenging the notion the progress must happen overnight. The reality, however, is that intentional and inclusive community development can only move at the speed of trust and relationships take time to fully form. The story of the Large Blue butterflies reintroduction highlights the importance of considering each and every factor within an interdependent system if we are to successfully build sustainable communities.