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Submitted by jdp on Thu, 01/06/2022 - 09:00 am

The parable of the boiling frog holds that if you drop the frog into boiling water it will do everything possible to get out immediately and avoid being cooked alive. On the other hand, if you gently place the frog into a pot with water at room temperature it will stay calm. Then, as you very gradually turn up the heat, the amphibian will get ever groggier until the water reaches the boiling point and kills it. The frog parable/metaphor has been employed many times in many ways to reflect human tendencies to be able to accept and adapt to minor incremental changes (or to not even notice them) until finally some threshold is reached whereby we realize things have, not to put to fine a point on it, gone to shit. The frog is boiled.

In terms of actual biology and frog behavior there is no evidence that the parable is accurate. But as a metaphor for out perceptions, it is often right on target.

Recently, in dealing with an elderly relative who has become virtually helpless, I thought that I would never let myself get that way, and told my wife to take action if I did. But it is not like you simply wake up one morning and your memory is gone, your hearing is shot, you can’t move around without a wheelchair or walker, and other things that I won’t mention have set in. It happens little by little, and maybe you don’t even notice it on a day-to-day basis, and if you do, you just deal with it. And then, over the course of just a few years, it is too late. You no longer have the wherewithal to punch your own ticket, and you can’t really ask a loved one to do it for you, especially when they can’t even be sure you’re in your right mind when you ask.

The frog parable is apt in many cases of adapting or surrendering to human impacts on the environment. Take urban sprawl—every year the air gets just a bit dirtier, the traffic gets a little worse, the infrastructure is strained a bit more, and then you have southern California. Or Atlanta. Or Houston. Or Washington. And so on, ad infinitem.

We need to keep the parable in mind as we study, plan for, and actually adapt to climate change. It is happening now, has been going on for a while, and will continue. Some changes will be incremental and more-or-less gradual—ocean temperatures increase, crop yields rise or fall, biogeographic ranges expand or contract, sea-level creeps up, etc. But sooner or later the metaphorical boiling point is reached. The ocean doesn’t just get warmer, but tips into a new normal with respect to tropical cyclone regimes or global thermohaline circulation. Crop yields don’t just change, but whole agricultural systems become untenable (or newly tenable). Species don’t just spread or contract their ranges, but invade vast new territories or decline to local extinctions. Water levels don’t just creep up, but trigger geomorphological and ecological regime shifts.

These transformational boiling points do not occur just in response to major global environmental changes or to human impacts on the environment. They are how nature works. In my recent Landscape Evolution book I put this in terms of TREE: Transformational, Reciprocal, Emergent Evolution. The transformational term reflects the fact that Earth systems change over time by transforming, by changing states. Geomorphological, pedological, ecological, and hydrological systems are all governed by thresholds. In many cases these thresholds correspond to tipping points, regime shifts, and wholesale transformations—sea ice to open water; savannah to desert; freshwater to saltwater; eutrophic to oligotrophic; farmlands to badlands, etc., etc. As it gets hotter, colder, wetter, drier, stormier, and so on sooner or later biological, ecological, or physical thresholds will be crossed. Transformations will occur.

If you doubt that major transformations can take place under our noses in a couple of generations, or a single lifetime, I suggest Jack Davis’ book The Gulf, about the Gulf of Mexico and its coastal zones. Or for a similar example closer to (my) home, Glenn Lawson’s Troubled Waters (Hadnot Creek Books, 1990). It doesn’t take a strip mine or a nuclear meltdown or an armada of excavators and paving machines to transform a system.

So what does this mean for Homo sapiens? First, we need to recognize that transformations will happen (and are happening: for many examples, see the regime shifts database). Second, we need to better understand when and how these state changes happen, so that we can anticipate them. Many will be unavoidable, but some may be so damaging that they need to be mitigated (and some we may want to embrace or encourage). Third, we need to think in terms of adaptation and fostering our own transformations, as opposed to just attempting resist climate-fueled changes or try to put things back as they were. This was the theme of a previous post.