FROG BOILING

FROG BOILING:
An Intersection of Epistemology
and Self-Organizing Systems

I wrote this somewhere around 20 years ago, maybe only 15.  It seems timely now with what has been billed as perhaps the last chance Climate Conference to happen next month.

I am indebted to Gregory Bateson for the story of the Boiled Frog.  It goes like this:  Put a frog into a pan of cold water.  If you heat the water slowly enough the frog will not try to jump out and will eventually be boiled.  Why?  Because the frog (or any other animal) can only know whether it is in a “too hot” or “too cold” environment by comparing its core body temperature to its skin temperature.  Since the frog is cold-blooded, its core temperature can vary greatly.  Presumably, there is some threshold of difference between core and skin temperature that will alert the frog to a problem and stimulate it to jump.  The trick is to not exceed that difference … without a perceptible difference there is no perception.  What the frog cannot percieve, it cannot know and cannot act upon.

We humans appear to be having a similar difficulty.  Our environment is, according to some observers, getting warmer.  But, it is doing this very slowly, too slowly for our large scale decision making institutions to be able to perceive an immanent threat to their and their constituencies’ survival.  As a group we are not seeing a large enough difference fast enough to allow us to achieve a broad consensus (a) that something can and must be done about it, (b) what to do about it, (c) who should do it, or (d) who will bear the cost.  We do not understand the planetary climate system well enough to say with consensual certainty how fast or far the process can go, how much difference any given cange in our behavior can make, or even whether or not it may already be too late to make any significant difference before the consequences to our societies and the natural systems on which they depend become catastrophic.

Some Paleoclimatologists are saying this sort of change has happened before, about 10-12,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age.  Whatever social memory we might have of that shift is now lost in myth and legend, and unavailable as a guide to what may be happening now.  Then, the world climate warmed significantly and rapidly, and settled into the large patterns which our urban civilizations have taken for granted for the last 5,000 years.  We have multiplied our numbers and invested generations of effort in settled patterns of distributing that population with the assumption that these climatic patterns were permanent.

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