Fractal Nature

Fractal Nature

Photograph courtesy Bruno Poinsard/Trunk Archive


words by willow defebaugh

Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers an aerial view of the latest events in climate and culture—and how they all fit together.

Photograph courtesy Bruno Poinsard/Trunk Archive
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“In a fractal conception, I am a cell-sized unit of the human organism, and I have to use my life to leverage a shift in the system by how I am, as much as with the things I do. This means actually being in my life, and it means bringing my values into my daily decision making. Each day should be lived on purpose.”

Adrienne Maree Brown

The root of the word fracture is the Latin frāctūra, which means “the act of breaking,” derived from the past participle of frangere, to shatter. It is a fitting word for the week we’ve had, in which eight people—six of them being women of Asian descent—were murdered in Atlanta on Tuesday, the latest in a series of attacks on the AAPI community that have escalated since the pandemic started one year ago.


Stop AAPI Hate, an organization that tracks anti-Asian violence, reported almost 3,800 instances of discrimination against Asian Americans in the past year, a number that represents only a fraction of the incidents that actually occurred. According to a recent analysis by California State University at San Bernardino, 16 major American cities saw a nearly 150% increase in anti-Asian hate crimes in 2020. Patterns like this make it hard to feel like our nation is anything short of broken.


The word fracture shares an etymological link with fractal, which refers to a pattern that repeats itself no matter how much you break it down. It’s critical that we look at these attacks against the AAPI community in the context of the larger patterns they represent because patterns define everything in our universe. Just as the pattern of our DNA defines our constitution and the pattern of our actions defines our character, the same is true for our country.


The patterns of injustice we have witnessed in the United States over the past year are evidence of a country with white supremacy woven into its very DNA, replicated at every level. Changing that pattern means recognizing our place in it—examining where it lives around and within us. As author and activist Grace Lee Boggs put it, “You cannot change any society unless you take responsibility for it, unless you see yourself as belonging to it and responsible for changing it.”


What is perhaps the most prolific pattern of white supremacy is that it creates separation, which is, in many senses, a synonym for violence. It fractures, breaks things apart—not only people, but our relationship with the Earth, as well. When we talk about racial justice and climate justice being one and the same, this is what we mean: They have a common enemy in white supremacy, the extractivist mindset that has looted and polluted both people and planet.


While undeniably overwhelming, understanding that we are part of the pattern can be empowering, as well. We may be reflections of the whole, but the whole is also a reflection of us. Think of it this way: If one part of a fractal changes, by the nature of it being a fractal, the rest has no choice but to follow suit. We are fractions of a whole, fractals within fractals, capable of affecting systemic change by changing ourselves—a spiral that leads both outward and in.


There is an old saying: “The way one does one thing is the way one does everything.” When I first heard this, it fundamentally shifted my perspective and the way I perceive the patterns in my life. More than a proverb, it’s an imperative: an invitation to see everything as intersectional. Living a life of purpose and intention means getting clear on our values so that we can see them reflected in our everyday actions. And where they’re not? Well, that’s where our work lies.

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