The Boiling Frog Theory on Population

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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...
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