The frog in the equation

In this story, the sting is in the tale

By David Salt

Frogs figure heavily in cautionary moral fables. But some frog tales are more helpful than others in serving as a guide to sustainable living. Consider these batrachian parables.

The boiling frog

Possibly best known is the parable of the boiling frog.

So this frog notices the water it’s in is warming, but doesn’t sense danger because the increase in temperature is so gradual that it doesn’t think to get out. Unfortunately, at a certain point, the water becomes so hot the frog dies.

This the fable of the frog in the saucepan, often referred to as the boiling frog story*. It’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of ignoring small changes and has been much used to warn of us about a variety of concerns from environmental degradation through to the rising tide of communism. Indeed, I alluded to it in my last discussion on humanity ignoring the increasing frequency of ‘natural’ disasters due to climate change.

While the story itself is has no basis in reality, frogs don’t hang around when the temperature increases beyond its comfort zone** – they are ecotherms, hard wired to respond to changing temperatures – the moral of the metaphor is important; don’t take incremental changes for granted when the trend suggests it will take you to a bad (even disastrous) place.

As metaphors go, it’s a great cautionary story; simple, evocative and brimming with intuitive truth. Don’t take cumulative little changes for granted.

And it’s been much used in campaigns on sustainability to warn us about where our rampant consumption of the Earth’s resources is taking us. We think it’s okay to clear that patch of bush (it’s only a tiny piece of nature); to turn a blind eye to a few more parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (parts per million! for God’s sake how insignificant is that); and to not even notice sea levels are rising (we’re talking millimetres, tides and waves are measured in metres, sea level rise is nothing by comparison) – we take it all for granted, only think of ourselves in the short term and, before you know it, we’re roasting in hell like a boiled frog.

So, the message and the metaphor is clear; be alert, be alarmed, temperature’s rising, do something. Don’t wait till tomorrow.

The drowning frog

Then there’s scorpion that wants to cross a river. It asks the frog to carry it over. The frog says: “No, you’ll sting me.”

“But then I’d drown with you,” responds the scorpion, “that simply doesn’t make sense.”

The frog acknowledges this, allows the scorpion to climb on its back and begins swimming. Half way over the scorpion stings the frog. As they go under the frog wants to know why: “Why did you do that? Now we’re both going to die!”

The scorpion responds: “Because I’m a scorpion.”

Of course, what the scorpion means is that scorpions, by their nature, will always sting. It’s not rational; it’s just how things work.

It’s been pointed out by some that this is a strange fable; there’s no obvious moral here. Everyone dies. And yet I suspect the ‘drowning’ frog is possibly more instructive than the ‘boiling frog’.

The disappearing frog

Actually, this final tale is not a parable but it alludes to an important metaphor – take note of the ‘canary in the climate coal mine’.

Species of frogs are disappearing all over the world. Over a third of all known species of frogs (and amphibians more generally) are considered at risk of extinction making them the most at risk group of vertebrates on the planet.

Frog populations have declined dramatically since the 1950s, coincidently the same period that saw unbounded economic growth begin to distort the Earth system, the so called Great Acceleration. The Great Acceleration continues to this day, but it now underpins an exploding biodiversity crisis.

More than 120 species of frog are believed to have gone extinct since the 1980s. Among these species are the gastric-brooding frog of Australia and the golden toad of Costa Rica. Habitat loss and degradation, pollution, disease, invasive species and climate change are the main threats putting amphibians at risk of extinction though in some cases what’s knocking them off isn’t clear.

Many environmental scientists believe frogs are good biological indicators of broader ecosystem health because of their intermediate position in food chains, their permeable skin (making them sensitive to toxins in the environment), and their aquatic/terrestrial life cycles. If something is slowly disturbing natural balances, it’s expected impacts will show up first in frog populations.

It’s not known why populations of the golden toad in Costa Rica crashed in 1987, along with about 20 other frog species in the area. These species lived in the pristine Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and the population crash could not be linked directly to human activities, such as deforestation; but something was happening. Are frogs our planetary early warning system, our canaries?

Canaries were once used in coal mines to detect carbon monoxide and other toxic gases. The little birds would keel over before the gas was detected by the miners.

Temperature’s still rising

So what should we take away from these tales of frogs?

Clearly something is killing them at rates never before seen. Most of the drivers of their extinction are well understood (though not all) but humanity is not responding to the many small (and sometimes big) changes we’re seeing around us.

There’s a lot we could do immediately to slow their rate of loss: stop clearing native vegetation, invest more in our protected area system, and better resource research into frog disease (especially the chytrid fungus disease).

And the ‘elephant’ in the room is climate change as it multiplies all the other stressors impacting on frogs. And tackling climate change requires a transformation of the way humanity does business.

As it stands, humanity is doing neither (that is acting on immediate or longer term threats to frogs) and this is reflected in our abysmal multiple failures on meeting agreed targets of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

On the one hand, it’s all so ‘boiling frog’; except it’s humans not frogs who are basking in the slowly heating water, relishing the warmth while wondering why the canary has just fallen off its perch; could it have anything to do with that elephant over there that no one wants to talk about? What a menagerie of metaphor we find ourselves in.

For me, however, the ‘boiling frog’ fable simply doesn’t cut it. We can claim that we, as individuals, aren’t experiencing the changing ‘climate signal’ because it’s lost in the ‘weather noise’ – “gee it was hot last summer, wasn’t it?; and what about those fires”; “but summers are meant to be hot, and we’re always having fires”…

However, as a society, we can’t hide behind the incremental nature of global change. With an overwhelming scientific consensus coupled with over 50 years of empirical evidence, we can’t deny the ‘rising water temperature’ around us or the consequences of what all this means for future generations.

Which is where the ‘drowning frog’ (with the stinging scorpion on its back) comes to the fore. Except in this parable, it’s we humans who are the scorpion (and the frog is the Earth system that sustains us).

Why did we do it? It’s simply in our nature.

*Here’s another telling of the boiling frog story, a rather more eloquent version, from Daniel Quinn’s book The Story of B: “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.”

**Whit Gibbons from the University of Georgia wrote up this rebuttal on the truth of boiling frogs back in 2007. Quoting Dr Vic Hutchison, Whit recorded: “The legend is entirely incorrect! The ‘critical thermal maxima’ of many species of frogs have been determined by several investigators. In this procedure, the water in which a frog is submerged is heated gradually at about 2 degrees Fahrenheit per minute. As the temperature of the water is gradually increased, the frog will eventually become more and more active in attempts to escape the heated water. If the container size and opening allow the frog to jump out, it will do so.”

Image by David Salt

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