Being dragonflies

Dragonflies are nature’s perfect flying machines. They hold their centre of gravity right at the base of their wings.

Dragonflies are nature’s perfect flying machines. They hold their centre of gravity right at the base of their wings. This not only gives these flyers unparalleled stability for both forward and upward flight, it enables they to reach speeds in excess of 100 kilometres an hour. Nothing outflies them. They are ravenous eaters and have no trouble pulling down a snack.

Their perfect design accounts for their longevity as a species. They predate and have certainly outlived dinosaurs. Some dragonflies have been memorialized, by being fossilized, in rocks that are over 300 million years old. Those fossils tell us that in those millions of years there has been no new aerodynamic retooling, no new high performance tweaking of the wings, no new rounded bumpers, airfoils or curved glass. Dragonflies got it right early on.

Science writer Chet Raymo gives them good reviews: they don’t bite and are an “iridescent exterminator” of insects that do. They are simply “a 300-million-year-old beauty on the wing.”

If only humans had been so fortunate.

We are slow and top heavy. It takes very little to make us topple over. Our bowling ball-weighted heads aren’t even engineered to turn with the sophistication of an owl’s. We can twist our heads about a quarter turn and they lock up.

Ever watch a newborn trying out the new legs? They are poster-perfect examples of instability powered by pent-up exuberance. They weave on rubbery legs, leaning heavier to the right then left, eyes glued on nothing in particular in a sort of glazed over glee. A comic spin or two and kerplunk, face-plant. Caribou calves right out of the sack do it better.

But for two and a half million years we have somehow gotten by. But in that period of time we have devilishly managed to overbreed our species and needlessly polluted our planet. We have undernourished a third of our population, outright starved a 10th. We are now bent on manufacturing air that is toxic and water that is beginning to look more like sand.

And in between starvation, dehydration and disease, we have found both time and motivation to undertake perpetual warfare with friends and foes alike.

The world we have made for ourselves is facing unprecedented challenges going into the 21st century: terrorism, global warming, globalization and an aging population.

While it is going to be extremely difficult to come up with solutions to these problems, we must. In so doing, one thing is clear: we have to find a system that works “more perfect” than what we now have.

As western democracies continue to set people free by offering them more rights, freedoms and opportunities, the world’s biosphere becomes less livable, its future less certain.

The countries that have deregulated democracy and opened it to more and more people are also the countries that have systematically destabilized much of the world and consumed a disproportional share of its natural resources. Those two facts are not unrelated.

As nations, corporations and individuals cash in on the gifts of democracy, the gap between rich and poor widens. There is no other way.

Money, like oil, is a finite resource and the obvious wealth of a few comes at great expense to many.

Our human state of affairs makes the 300-million-year-old beauty on the wing just that much more astonishing.

But let’s not rush to judgment here. Babies do learn to walk, eventually. And we did invent the rearview mirror as a way of going head-to-head with the owl. Humans are insatiable learners and they are compassionate beyond compare. Both facts give me great hope.

As we continue to marvel at the dexterity of the dragonfly — effortlessly scooping up dozens of mosquitoes with its netted legs — we interpret its natural efficiency as one of immense wonder and great beauty.

Humans have an innate longing to interpret — scientifically and artistically — what goes on around them. And it is perhaps this fact of nature that will save us. We have the senses and the good sense to mimic the “perfectness” of dragonflies if we so choose.

Vaclav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic, reminds us of our good sense.

“We must draw out standards from the natural world. We must honour the bounds of that natural world and the mystery which lies beyond, admitting that there is something in the order of being which evidently exceeds all our competence.”

There is, of course, no reason humans cannot become perfect beings. There is no reason we cannot love the world and all the folks in it rather than heartlessly exploiting them.

Back some 300 million years ago the dragonfly began to slowly pull its intricate and compatible design elements together, piece by piece. It was a long evolutionary learning curve, but it was highly successful. We can follow her lead.

The development of universal compassion is on our evolutionary learning curve and I am more than hopeful we are putting it all together piece by piece.

The Dalai Lama gives us one piece: “My only religion is kindness,” he said. Pope John Paul gives us another: “We can develop a civilization of love.”

Nelson Mandela survived his tortuous time in jail by befriending his jailers and “exploiting their good qualities.” All people, he felt, are “kind at their core.”

Mandela suggests we can tap into this natural quality of humanness by developing the ability to “arouse others inherent goodness.”

Our liberal democracies — which are nothing short of simple extensions of this potential for goodness — can work. With their robust economies and superior technologies, they are well positioned to address such concerns as global warming, oil and gas depletion and the rapid disappearance and pollution of our global water supply.

We have to rebuild our broken political systems and breath new life into our civic institutions.

Both our politics and our civic institutions must become sustainable. In order to do so, they must be built on a foundation of form, elegance and kindness, all working perfectly together.

When we become discouraged at what we have done to our places and to each other, one of us always seems to step up and deliver a bit of wisdom.

Alphonse Karr once said, “I am thankful that thorns have roses.” Humans, even with all their imperfections, are also rich with compassionate possibilities. By learning to perfect this ability in our institutions and in ourselves we are going to give the dragonfly a run for its money.