the article “The Boiling Frog Theory”

the article “The Boiling Frog Theory”

The Boiling Frog Theory on Population

Systems thinkers have given us a useful metaphor for a certain kind of human behavior in

the phenomenon of the boiled frog. The phenomenon is this. If you drop a frog in a pot of

boiling water, it will of course frantically try to clamber out. But if you place it gently in

a pot of tepid water and turn the heat on low, it will float there quite placidly. As the

water gradually heats up, the frog will sink into a tranquil stupor, exactly like one of us in

a hot bath, and before long, with a smile on its face, it will unresistingly allow itself to be

boiled to death.

We all know stories of frogs being tossed into boiling water – for example, a young

couple being plunged into catastrophic debt by an unforeseen medical emergency. A

contrary example, an example of the smiling boiled frog, is that of a young couple who

gradually use their good credit to buy and borrow themselves into catastrophic debt.

Cultural examples exist as well. About six thousand years ago the goddess-worshipping

societies of Old Europe were engulfed in a boiling up of our culture that Marija Gimbutas

called Kurgan Wave Number One; they struggled to clamber out but eventually

succumbed. The Plains Indians of North America, who were engulfed in another boiling

up of our culture in the 1870s, constitute another example; they struggled to clamber out

over the next two decades, but they too finally succumbed.

A contrary example, an example of the smiling-boiled-frog phenomenon, is provided by

our own culture. When we slipped into the cauldron, the water was a perfect temperature,

not too hot, not too cold. Can anyone tell me when that was? Anyone?

Blank faces.

I’ve already told you, but I’ll ask again, a different way. When did we become we? Where

and when did the thing called us begin? Remember: East and West, twins of a common

birth. Where? And when?

Well, of course: in the Near East, about ten thousand years ago. That’s where our

peculiar, defining form of agriculture was born, and we began to be we. That was our

cultural birthplace. That was where and when we slipped into that beautifully pleasant

water: the Near East, ten thousand years ago.

As the water in the cauldron slowly heats, the frog feels nothing but a pleasant warmth,

and indeed that’s all there is to feel. A long time has to pass before the water begins to be

dangerously hot, and our own history demonstrates this. For fully half our history, the

first five thousand years, signs of distress are almost nonexistent. The technological

innovations of this period bespeak a quiet life, centered around hearth and village – sun-

dried brick, kiln-fired pottery, woven cloth, the potter’s wheel, and so on. But gradually,

imperceptibly, signs of distress begin to appear, like tiny bubbles at the bottom of a pot.

What shall we look for, as signs of distress? Mass suicides? Revolution? Terrorism? No,

of course not. Those come much later, when the water is scalding hot. Five thousand

years ago it was just getting warm. Folks mopping their brows were grinning at each

other and saying, “Isn’t it great?”

You’ll know where to find the signs of distress if you identify the fire that was burning

under the cauldron. It was burning there in the beginning, was still burning after five

thousand years … and is still burning today in exactly the same way. It was and is the

great heating element of our revolution. It’s the essential. It’s the sine qua non of our

success if success is what it is.

Speak! Someone tell me what I’m talking about!

“Agriculture!” Agriculture, this gentleman tells me.

No. Not agriculture. One particular style of agriculture. One particular style that has been

the basis of our culture from its beginnings ten thousand years ago to the present moment

– the basis of our culture and found in no other. It’s ours, it’s what makes us us. For its

complete ruthlessness toward all other life-forms on this planet and for it’s unyielding

determination to convert every square meter on this planet to the production of human

food, I’ve called it totalitarian agriculture.

Ethnologists, students of animal behavior, and a few philosophers who have considered

the matter know that there is a form of ethics practiced in the community of life on this

planet – apart from us, that is. This is a very practical (you might say Darwinian) sort of

ethics, since it serves to safeguard and promote biological diversity within the

community. According to this ethics, followed by every sort of creature within the

community of life, sharks as well as sheep, killer bees as well as butterflies, you may

compete to the full extent of your capabilities, but you may not hunt down your

competitors or destroy their food or deny them access to food. In other words, you may

compete but you may not wage war. This ethics is violated at every point by practitioners

of totalitarian agriculture. We hunt down our competitors, we destroy their food, and we

deny them access to food. That indeed is the whole purpose and point of totalitarian

agriculture. Totalitarian agriculture is based on the premise that all the food in the world

belongs to us, and there is no limit whatever to what we may take for ourselves and deny

to all others.