Is This the Boiling Frog Era?

Have we entered the Era of the Boiling Frog? Or are we at the end of it? Or have we always been in it? These are questions that don’t exactly keep me up at night. There are plenty of other things these days that do that. But the question did pop into my head in the early hours of this morning, particularly in light of where we seem to be as a human race in 2017. In the chapter of “The History of the Universe” that involves our Blue Marble, people who have dedicated their lives to seeking order – geologists and the like – have broken time into neat little packages that date back to when accretion (yeah, I had to look that one up, too) laid the groundwork for my garden, around 4.5 billion years ago. They came up with supereons (actually there is only one of these, the Precambrian, covering 88% of the Earth’s existence), eons, eras, periods, epochs and ages. It’s all quite humbling, but cutting to the chase, we occupy the Quaternary Period – or, in the interest of accuracy, the Holocene Epoch — during which we have experienced everything from the evolution of warfare to poetry to the Rolling Stones. By that time the controlled use of fire had already been handed to us by Homo erectus. Also in the interest of accuracy, the subject of this post should be the Boiling Frog Epoch; the more formal, but not yet official moniker is actually the Anthropocene Epoch, but “Boiling Frog Era” has more punch. By the way, if you think this is getting too far into the weeds, you should read what I just did to get here. Fascinating stuff.

Side note: For an entertaining trip through history – and I really mean that – read Bill Byson’s book, A Short History of Nearly Everything. Now, back to our regularly-scheduled blog…

For any of you who missed the first paragraph because you were scratching your head about the term “boiling frog,” here’s the deal: also called “creeping normality,” it refers to the proposition that dropping a frog into hot water will cause an immediate exit, while a frog lounging in cool or tepid water will remain even as the temperature is raised ever so gradually until the frog boils to death. The accuracy of this rather grim experiment is summarily dismissed by at least one professor, Victor H. Hutchison, who cites the physiological “critical thermal maximum” of “most frogs” that will set the jumping in motion. It also has something to do with the effect of heat on muscles. But I’m not interested in ending the life of an amphibian just to see for myself, so I’ll defer. Still, as a metaphor, it does speak to life in the Twenty-first Century. At least.

The application of the term has meant, for me, the normalization of current environmental conditions, among other things. We humans tend to have the annoying habit of ignoring things until they burn our feet, and climate change sits right at the top of the list because, you know, extinction. Of course, there are plenty of stages prior to the lights going out for good, which means there are ample opportunities to keep the lights on. To that end, there are broad-based efforts going on by very forward-thinking people like Paul Hawken, with whom I had the great fortune of meeting “back in the day.” Paul wrote The Ecology of Commerce in the 1990s (revised in 2010), and most recently is engaged in Project Drawdown, a comprehensive plan to reverse global warming. The Top Ten out of one-hundred proposed solutions include actions (1) already in place (wind and solar generation), (2) trending (food options) and (3) expensive (refrigerant management). Regarding “expensive,” the expense of no action dramatically exceeds the “do something” option.

Under the heading of “We’re not totally screwed yet,” another blueprint for a sane future can be found in Reinventing Fire, the result of thirty years of research from the leadership and staff of the Rocky Mountain Institute, led by Co-founder and Chief Scientist Amory Lovins. Among its proposals are gains to be made in transportation, building efficiency, industry and electricity. The transition proposed in this plan will admittedly not be easy, particularly in the current political environment. But the potential is more than a little impressive, with a 158% growth in Gross Domestic Product and a significant reduction in fossil fuels. This may sound on the edge of unlikely, but this and Project Drawdown are well-researched proposals that could give our greatgrandchildren a fighting chance at a decent planet, or at least a blueprint for them to help their greatgrandchildren.

I’ve had many “NPR Driveway Moments.” Those are times when one sits in the driveway to finish listening to a particular story before dashing inside to the bathroom; OK, that’s an old-person joke. Anyway, the particular story that held me to the driver’s seat was an interview with an astronomer. The question posed was, “How do you feel about working on questions you’ll never live to see resolved?” His answer (paraphrased) was relevant to anyone who gets caught up in the angst of trying to affect change in this world: “I just take comfort in knowing I’m part of the process.” One thing is certain. I’m not going to see many of the fruits of any efforts to alter the course we’re on. But that’s OK. It still has to be done.

The “Boiling Frog Syndrome” doesn’t make a great bedtime story, but it does illustrate the tendency to normalize virtually anything, from age-related creaky bones to global governing. Since it doesn’t seem we’ll generally change our ways anytime soon – although “mindful living” is starting to be a thing – it would be good to occasionally drop in on the idea for a reality check. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to apply “creeping normality” to a host of other societal and cultural ills, from dietary choices to rush-hour traffic to Internet security. But seeking to not sound like a grumpy old guy on my porch starting every sentence with “in my day…,” I’ll avoid going down that road. For now.