A Tale of the Perils of Adaption
Examining the Myth of Cooking a Frog in a Pot of Cool Water and then Slowly Heating It Up to Cook the Frog
There is a myth that frogs cannot sense a slow change in the temperature of the water around them. Supposedly, if you plunge them into boiling water they’ll immediately jump out, but if you place them into room temperature water and slowly heat it to boiling, the frog won’t notice and will slowly cook to death. Now while this story turns out to be a myth I still find a useful metaphor for human adaption to unacceptable situations that eventually kill us.
This myth came to my mind after a chat last night with my niece from Australia. After our lovely Shepherd’s Pie dinner we got to the topic of the fires in Australia. Her response was interesting to me. Basically she said this: “Yes, there are bad fires now, but there have been fires my whole life. And while there are more this year, Australian summers have always been full of fires – so why get excited?” On the other hand, I had just spoken with my sister who is in Canberra (the capital) right now after having escaped from their cottage on the ocean that was covered in smoke from the fires. She was VERY upset by the fires and saw them as a big disaster that was clear evidence of both climate change and government incompetence. Why the difference between how the two of them see the same situation differently?
Current Fires in Australia
Clearly my sister is older and remembers a time when many out of control fires was not the norm. Also, she grew up in Canada while my niece grew up in Australia. So the difference could be ascribed to the fact each of their definitions of “normal” is different. This “normal” varies, in their cases, by where they grew up and their age. Clearly I side with my sister that this Australian fire season can in no way be considered “normal” yet I find it instructive that my young niece, who most of us baby boomers would assume think of climate change as a big deal, is not upset or worried about the fires. My theory is the “boil the frog slowly” metaphor I presented at the start of this little rant explains her lack of horror at the fires. She has slowly got used to fires becoming a bit more frequent and intense every year and has adapted to consider summer fires being “normal”. She accepts them and sees no need to make any changes to her life and her worldview. Life will go on, you just need to avoid certain regions and have air purifiers (and not use the air conditioner) on smoky days because a few smoky days are “normal”.
It turns out that the latest theory on the decline of Easter Island uses this same logic of people adapting to a decline in their environment and quality of life by considering it a new “normal” and thus not taking action to fix the root causes of the problem. The logic goes like this:
“Rather than a case of abject failure,” what happened to the people on Easter Island “is an unlikely story of success.” Professors Hunt and Lipo say fossil hunters and paleobotanists have found no hard evidence that the first Polynesian settlers set fire to the forest to clear land — what’s called “large scale prehistoric farming.” The trees did die, no question. But instead of fire, Hunt and Lipo blame rats. Polynesian rats (Rattus exulans) stowed away on those canoes, Hunt and Lipo say, and once they landed, with no enemies and lots of palm roots to eat, they went on a binge, eating and destroying tree after tree, and multiplying at a furious rate. As the trees went, so did 20 other forest plants, six land birds and several sea birds. So there was definitely less choice in food, a much narrower diet, and yet people continued to live on Easter Island, and food, it seems, was not their big problem. For one thing, they could eat rats. As J.B. MacKinnon reports in his new book, The Once and Future World, archeologists examined ancient garbage heaps on Easter Island looking for discarded bones and found “that 60 percent of the bones came from introduced rats.”
Why is this a success story? Because, say the Hawaiian anthropologists, clans and families on Easter Island didn’t fall apart. It’s true, the island became desolate, emptier. The ecosystem was severely compromised. And yet, say the anthropologists, Easter Islanders didn’t disappear. They adjusted. They had no lumber to build canoes to go deep-sea fishing. They had fewer birds to hunt. They didn’t have coconuts. But they kept going on rat meat and small helpings of vegetables. They made do. I think this “success” story is just as scary. What if the planet’s ecosystem, as J.B. MacKinnon puts it, “is reduced to a ruin, yet its people endure, worshipping their gods and coveting status objects while surviving on some futuristic equivalent of the Easter Islanders’ rat meat and rock gardens?” Humans are a very adaptable species. We’ve seen people grow used to slums, adjust to concentration camps, learn to live with what fate hands them. If our future is to continuously degrade our planet, lose plant after plant, animal after animal, forgetting what we once enjoyed, adjusting to lesser circumstances, never shouting, “That’s It!” — always making do, I wouldn’t call that “success.” https://www.npr.org/sections/krulwich/2013/12/09/249728994/what-happened-on-easter-island-a-new-even-scarier-scenario
We can go out with a bang or a whimper. Past theories on the decline of Easter Island I would categorize as “going out with a bang” – environmental destruction caused by over-population, forest and soil loss with resultant starvation & war/cannibalism. Most doomsday environmentalists see this option in our future too as a distinct possibility. However, very few of us are considering the “going out with whimper” option as highlighted by both my niece’s response to the Australian fires and the above described explanation for the demise of Easter Island. We should.
I see most people about me simply adapting to climate change, to the loss of our ash trees, to species extinction, to the mental health/opioid crises, to the rise of autism and allergies as a new ‘normal’ in young kids, to cancer being a “normal” way to die…. None of this is “normal”.
None of this is acceptable.
None of this allows for a quality of life that makes life worth living.
In other words, only adapting is a disaster – it makes our stupidity acceptable.
As I wrote in last week’s article existing is not the same as living – and being an Easter islander subsisting on a diet of rats as my only option in a landscape devoid of trees is not a “success story” that I think we should repeat. That is existing. That is not living. So what should our response be?
Outrage. Anger. Explosive, loud and extreme rage.
What the Bible calls “Righteous Anger”
Yes, there is a time for ‘illegal’ action. It is called civil disobedience. It is now.
I propose to you that NOT being so totally “pissed off” with the road we are now on means you are either unbelievable stupid/ignorant or you are an immoral beast that should be thrown into a psychiatric hospital and declared insane. Why?
Because our current actions and values are killing us, killing other species, destroying the ecosystems that we rely upon for our survival. Suicide may be considered a viable option for some – because that is what we doing now – committing suicide – but I do not consider it a valid response to stress.
Don’t be like a frog and stay in the pot of slowly warming water.
Jump out of the pot! Please get angry! Please be abnormal.
Please change how you live so that instead of contributing to the destruction of life you become a healer.
You become a peace maker. You bring hope and joy.
But not merely by your words – but rather by your actions.
Good ideas only have value if they lead to right action.
Most of you reading this know what the problems “out there” are – now you must act.
So jump. Jump for your life. Jump for the lives of your children and grandchildren.