Journal Column – The Butterfly Effect

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The Butterfly Effect

One of my favourite films is the 2004 supernatural thriller ‘The Butterfly Effect’ staring Ashton Kutcher in the leading role.  In the movie, Kutcher’s character, Evan Treborn, has supernatural powers that allow him to go back in time and do things differently in order to help save his friends from tragic accidents or evil deeds.  The problem is, every time he goes back and changes something to prevent a particular tragedy, nature later delivers up an even nastier set of events to afflict his friends and family and the price they pay increases each time. There is no happy ending.


The ‘butterfly effect’ is the name given to the concept that “small causes can have larger effects”.  Of course, the movie was a daft piece of science fiction, but there are, perhaps, a number of things in society today that may well have a created a butterfly effect of their own?


How often, particularly when looking to justify an unpopular policy, course of action or expenditure, do those in power say“…The first duty of any government is to protect the public…” often followed by “…If it saves just one life, it’s a price worth paying…”  

Well, they are right about one thing; there is always a price to pay for everything but it’s important too, that we ensure the price we pay is balanced against the benefits we receive and the unintended consequences or butterfly effects that may arise from the actions undertaken.

For example, in the past decade there have been 30,000 fatalities on UK roads.  Despite, statistically, being one of the most dangerous things to do, most of us are happy to drive our cars or be a passenger in someone else’s.  So, are road deaths a ‘price’ we are seemingly prepared pay for the freedom to drive vehicles on the roads?

car crash1

Put like that it’s an interesting poser, particularly in light of the recent motorway tragedy.  In my column today I’d like to deliberate if the ‘price is right’ on some topical areas of everyday life.  I will lay out the specifics, but will leave it to you, the readers, as to whether the price is worth paying.

First off; are we being over protective of our children?  Of course, the safety and welfare of the nation’s youth is important, but have we taken things too far in trying to prevent any instances of pain or discomfort? The selling of playing fields, closing of swimming pools and sports centres, overcautious health and safety policies and an increased fear of ‘stranger danger’ has discouraged outdoor recreation. Instead, children today tend to spend too much of their leisure time watching television or playing computer games. The consequence being, we now have an explosion of obese children with fatty livers and diabetes. According to the NHS, the price of treating obesity alone is now around £6bn per annum.


Next, cheaper food and goods.  Despite what many may think, food has never been cheaper than it is today. However, while this is clearly welcome news to many, the butterfly effect is impoverished farmers in developing countries, animal cruelty from intense farming practices and, more recently, drug resistant superbugs from livestock being pumped full of antibiotics.  Everyday products are also comparatively much cheaper than in days gone by too. This is generally the result of them now being made in lower cost economies such as Asia and South America.  Over time though, the result has been a marked decline in UK manufacturing.  Indeed, in 1980 manufacturing accounted for almost 30% of Britain’s national income and employed 6.8 million people. Today, it represents less than 11% of the economy with a workforce of just 2.5 million people.

chicken farm

How about online retailing? Be it via a desktop computer, tablet, phone-app or even a smart-watch, few people would argue that internet shopping has transformed the way we search for and buy our goods and services today; particularly in terms of flexibility, price and convenience.  Undeniably, online retailing is growing and with advancing technology set to rise even more in the years to come. Internet giant Amazon, for example, now employs around 6,000 permanent staff in the UK.  While impressive the consequence is a decline in the traditional high street shops.  Since 2012, 5,200 major high street stores closed with the loss of over 70,000 retail jobs.

closed shop 2

Without doubt though, today’s must have gadget must be the mobile phone. Incredibly, according to Ofcom, there are now more mobile phones in the UK than people. Undeniably the mobile or Smartphone offers an abundance of benefits, the list is long and we all have our favourites. But even this marvel of technology is not without its butterfly effect.  Many leading psychologists are now beginning to raise concerns about changes in social interaction and the impact of mobile phones on human behaviour; citing the 2009 assault on a young girl in America as an example. As many as 20 witnesses watched the attack, it was vicious and shocking, but perhaps more disturbing was, despite many having mobile phones, nobody called the police or emergency services; some of the bystanders reportedly even laughed and took photos of the assault with their phone cameras. A disturbing side effect indeed.

Mobile phone 2

Often in the enthusiasm to improve our lives, we perhaps don’t always see the butterfly effects, but they’re there nonetheless along with a price to pay. Question is, is the price worth paying?


This article was first published in the Newcastle Journal newspaper 7th September 2017