Wicked Frog Problem

We are the metaphorical frog. We’re sitting calmly in this lovely personal pond. It’s warm and comforting. There are no predators. True, the food is a wee bit scant, but we are fat. We can hold off on eating. We are happy.

We are happy. Except for the little nudges from under our skin. There’s a whisper of urgency, telling us that there is increasing danger in these waters. There is something uncanny and silently threatening in this puddle. It might be bad to feel this lethargic. This heat is perhaps clouding our senses. We aren’t breathing freely. Maybe we need to get out. 

We ignore all that. We don’t want to leave — even if we could figure out how to do that. And why bother with all that thinking? Because it’s so very nice, sitting here. Feel the warmth of the water caressing our skin. Fear is silly, we tell ourselves. We are happy.

By the time we recognize the problem, we will be too close to death to stop it.

In the metaphor, climate change is the boiling pot and we are the frog. Climate change is insidiously slow, the changes barely perceptible. We are fairly certain that it is dangerous, likely even lethal, but the threats are remote. The concerns of our daily lives are much more pressing. Moreover, those who have the power to get us out of the pot are the most comfortable in it. They face economic loss in whatever action is taken to mitigate our problems, and they refuse to accept economic loss for the sake of others — even their future selves. So nothing is done.

But climate change is not merely a perception problem, nor even a problem merely because of our tendency to discount the future in favor of the present. Climate change is a wicked problem. A wicked problem is a societal predicament that is difficult — maybe impossible — to solve because of the following: deficient and contradictory information, solutions that entail resource allocations that are considerable and may be larger than the existing burden of the problem itself, a large and diverse number of affected people and all their conflicting opinions and needs, and the weaving of multiple problems together in inextricable fashion.

Climate change is a hydra-headed mess that defies all simplification. It is complex. It is hard to understand its nature and hard to comprehend its effects. We don’t know what will happen and are only beginning to suspect how bad things will be. It is not one problem. There are many linked complications and disruptions feeding into climate change, most of which do not now have known, viable solutions. Some may have solutions for one group of people that cause harm to another. Some may not be solvable at all. All solutions are costly. Most require more resource outlay than just staying with the status quo — though of course the costs of doing so will be unimaginably great as time goes on. In any case, even were we inclined to hop out of the boiling pot, we can’t figure out how to do that together, we don’t have the energy to make the leap, and we suspect that there may be no safe place to land. Tends to dampen the enthusiasm for hopping.

Just let this nice warm water lull us into oblivion.

What is particularly annoying about this particular parable is that it is false. The frog will not want to be in the pot at any temperature. Frogs don’t like blocked vision. Frogs resent not being able to see what is coming. Frogs will always try to escape the pot merely to avoid entrapment. But if you toss a frog into already heated water, he will immediately climb out. If you somehow get him to tolerate the pot and then turn up the temperature, he will jump as soon as he feels heat on his feet. Of course, there is only one, presumably non-schizophrenic frog, and both problem and solution are somewhat simple. But the frog does not fall prey to delusions of security. The frog does not weigh any present benefit more than any future harm. The frog reacts to suspected danger as soon as he suspects it. The frog is more sensible than human society.

So we are not the frog. And climate change is not a boiling pot. And we have to do so much more than merely jump before we get burned. We will not be able to fix everything, may not be able to adapt everywhere, may not even be able to mitigate some disasters. We will certainly need to expend resources to the benefit of others both geographically and temporally distant from us. We must do this work with incomplete information and conflicting data. We won’t know if what we do is effective. We may not even know what effective means. We can merely do our rational and creative best. But we are humans; we are not merely frogs. Our rational and creative best is quite awe-inspiring. 

That said, if we decide to be stupider than frogs and remain in this boiling pot of our own making, then we will certainly die. In that respect, the parable is truth. So what do you think we should do? How will you leap from this pot and who will you bring with you? What is your rational and creative best?


©Elizabeth Anker 2021

Wednesday Discourse

Time to talk. The rules of engagement: No rudeness. Absolutely nothing foul. (Herself is quite proper, thank you very much, and expects the same standards from you.) Also nothing personal. If you want to talk direct to me, there is the contact page linked on every post. Send me email. I like it. Most days.