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On saving the butterfly, or at least the euro


The fate of the Monarch butterfly may offer insights into the fate of the euro and the global monetary system, as both have undergone dramatic evolution in the past 20 years. As its last act in 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it is considering declaring the Monarch Butterfly an endangered species.

The fate of the Monarch butterfly may offer insights into the fate of the euro and the global monetary system, as both have undergone dramatic evolution in the past 20 years. As its last act in 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it is considering declaring the Monarch Butterfly an endangered species.

 

Monarch butterfly

 

Population of the orange-and-black Monarch, which typically flies more than 2,500kilometers a year to enjoy winter in Mexico and summer on the Canadian tundra, has dropped by 97%.

The usual explanation for the demographic collapse is that pesticides have killed off Milkweed plants, which are the sole food and habitat of the caterpillars that turn into Monarchs. Indeed, prairie grasslands have taken a deeper hit, as 98% of them have ceded ground to the corn belt.

But people like the monarch for its iconic reminder of seasonal rhythms, and so gardeners around North America have taken to planting milkweed in hopes of providing themwaystations.

But a recent study suggests all that civic effort is harmful. It turns out that the butterfly brigade are planting a kind of milkweed that turns migratory butterflies into sedentary ones. Typically, milkweed types wilt, effectively spurring the butterflies to keep moving along their migratory circuit. But the kind being planted – the kind whose seeds are most commercially available to the animal’s champions – is a tropical variant that keeps producing foliage and flowers well into the autumn and even into the winter.

Just as hunting peoples tend to be more robust than agricultural ones – skeletons of people living in the old Roman Empire are notably shorter than those of the barbarians living just beyond the fringe –so butterflies that don’t fly longer get pudgy. They are also more vulnerable to a parasite that worms its way inside and hijacks nutrient flows, shortening butterflies’ bodies and lifespans and actually deforming their wings, making it impossible for them ever to revert to their migratory passions.

Interestingly the sedentary butterflies tend to have faster breeding cycles and higher larval density. In a way the idea that evolution amounts to “survival of the fittest” is stood on its head. Something similar to the Monarch’s American destiny is the European fate of the Spanish white stork, which now skips its tiring passage to Africa and just hangs out near land-fills eating trash all winter.

So, um, the global monetary system.Andy Haldane of the Bank of England has suggested on several occasions that policy makers study biology and ecology to learn how to promote financial stability. Letting a forest fire burn – um, letting banks collapse – might lead to less overall damage than stomping out fires immediately, as bankers would presumably approach risk differently if they understood their survival was at stake.

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