The Boiling Frog

Systems thinkers have given us a useful metaphor for a certain kind of human behaviour 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 hearts 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. 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.

When did we become we? Where and when did the thing called us begin? In the Near East, about 10,000 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, 10,000 years ago.

As the water in the cauldron slowly heats, the frog fells 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 of our history, the first 5000 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. 5000 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 stress if you identify the fire that was burning under the cauldron. It was burning there in the beginning, was still burning after 5000 years . . . and is still burning today in exactly the same way. It was and is the great heating element of our revolution.

No, not agriculture. One particular style of agriculture. One particular style that has been the basis of our culture from its beginnings 10,000 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 its unyielding determination to convert every square metre on this planet to the production of human food, I've called it totalitarian agriculture.

Totalitarian agriculture was not adopted in our culture out of sheer meanness. It was adopted because, by its very nature, it's more productive that any other style (and there are many other styles). Totalitarian agriculture represents productivity to the max. You simply can't outproduce a system designed to convert all the food in the world into human food.

Totalitarian agriculture is the fire under our cauldron. Totalitarian agriculture is what has kept us "on the boil" here for 10,000 years.

Food availability and population growth

The people of our culture take food so much for granted that they often have a hard time seeing that there is a necessary connection between the availability of food and population growth. For them, I've found it necessary to construct a small illustrative experiment with laboratory mice.

Imagine if you will a cage with movable sides, so that it can be enlarged to any desired size. We begin by putting 10 healthy mice of both sexes into the cage, along with plenty of food and water. In just a few days there will of course be 20 mice, and we accordingly increase the amount of food we're putting in the cage. In a few weeks, as we steadily increase the amount of available food, there will be 40, then 50, then 60, and so on, until one day there is 100. And let's say that we've decided to stop the growth of the colony at 100. I'm sure you realize that we don't need to pass out little condoms or birth-control pills to achieve this effect. All we have to do is stop increasing the amount of food that goes into the cage. Every day we put in an amount that we know is sufficient to sustain 100 mice -- and no more. This is the part that many find hard to believe, but, trust me, it's the truth: The growth of the community stops dead. Not overnight, of course, but in very short order. Putting in an amount of food sufficient for 100 mice, we will find -- every single time -- that the population of the cage soon stabilizes at 100. Of course I don't mean 100 precisely. It will fluctuate between 90 and 110 but never go much beyond those limits. On the average, day after day, year after year, decade after decade, the population inside the cage will be 100.

Now if we should decide to have a population of 200 mice instead of 100, we won't have to add aphrodisiacs to their diets or play erotic mouse movies for them. We'll just have to increase the amount of food we put in the cage. If we put in enough food for 200, we'll soon have 200. If we put in enough for 300, we'll soon have 300. If we put in enough food for 400, we'll soon have 400. If we put in enough for 500, we'll soon have 500. This isn't a guess, my friends. This isn't a conjecture. This is a certainty.

Of course, you understand that there's noting special about mice in this regard. The same will happen with crickets or trout or badgers or sparrows. But I fear that many people bridle at the idea that humans might be included in this list. Because as individuals we're able to govern our reproductive capacities, they imagine our growth as a species should be unresponsive to the mere availability of food.

But we have considerable data showing that, as a species, we're as responsive as any other to the availability of food -- 3,000,000 years of data, in fact. For all but the last 10,000 years of that period, the human species was a very minor member of the world ecosystem. There was some growth, of course, through simple migration continent to continent, but this growth was proceeding at a glacial rate. It's estimated that the human population at the beginning of the Neolithic Age was around 10,000,000.

Then, very suddenly, things began to change. And the change was that the people of one culture, in one corner of the world, developed a peculiar form of agriculture that made food available to people in unprecedented quantities. Following this, in this corner of the world, the population doubled in a scant 3000 years. It doubled again, this time in only 2000 years. In an eye blink of time on the geologic scale, the human population jumped from 10,000,000 to 50,000,000 -- probably 80% of them being practitioners of totalitarian agriculture: members of our culture, East and West.

The water in the cauldron was getting warm, an signs of distress were beginning to appear.

5000 B.C.E. - 3000 B.C.E.

It was getting crowded. Think of that. People used to imagine that history is inevitably cyclical, but what I'm describing here has never happened before. In all of 3,000,000 years, humans have never been crowded anywhere. But now the people of a single culture -- our culture -- are learning what it means to be crowded. It was getting crowded, and overworked, overgrazed land was becoming less and less productive. There were more people, and they were competing for dwindling resources. It's during this period, starting around 5000 years ago, that we see the first states formed for the purpose of armed defense and aggression. It's during this period that we see the standing army forged as the monarch's sword of power.

Now note well that no one thought that the appearance of states and armies was a bad sign -- a sign of distress. They thought it was a good sign. They thought the states and the armies represented an improvement. The water was just getting delightfully warm, and no one worried about a few little bubbles.

3000 B.C.E. - 1400 B.C.E.

The fire burned on under the cauldron of our culture, and the next doubling of our population took only 1600 years. There were 100,000,000 humans now, at 1400 B.C.E., probably 90% of them being members of our culture. The Near East hadn't been big enough for us for a long time. Totalitarian agriculture had moved northward and eastward into Russia and India and China, northward and westward into Asia Minor and Europe. Other kinds of agriculture had once been practiced in all these lands, but now, agriculture meant our style of agriculture.

The water is getting hotter -- always getting hotter. All the old signs of distress are there, of course. And as the water heats up, the old signs just get bigger and more dramatic. War? The wars of the previous age were piddling affairs compared with the wars of this age.

1400 B.C.E. - 0

The fire burned on under the cauldron of our culture, and the next doubling of our population took only 1400 years. There were 200,000,000 humans now, at the beginning of our "Common Era," 95% or more of them belonging to our culture, East and West.

Famine became a regular feature of life all over the civilized word, as did plague, ever symptomatic of overcrowding and poor sanitation. Slavery became a huge, international business, and of course would remain one down to the present moment.

0 - 1200 C.E.

The fire burned on under the cauldron of our culture, and the next doubling of our population would take only 1200 years. There would be 400,000,000 humans at the end of it, 98% of them belonging to our culture, East and West. War, plague, famine, political corruption and unrest, crime, and economic instability were fixtures of our cultural life and would remain so.

1200 C.E. - 1700 C.E.

The fire burned on under the cauldron of our culture, and the next doubling of our population would take only 500 years. There would be 800,000,000 humans at the end of it, 99% of them belonging to our culture, East and West. It's the age of the Black Death, the Inquisition, the first known madhouse, and the first ghetto.

These signals of human evil are reactions to overcrowding -- too many people competing for too few resources, eating rotten food, drinking fouled water, watching their families starve, watching their families fall to the plague.

1700 C.E. - 1900 C.E.

The fire burned on under the cauldron of our culture, and the next doubling of our population would take only 200 years. There would be 1,500,000,000 humans at the end of it, all but 0.5% of them belonging to our culture, East and West. It would be a period in which the opium trade would become an international big business; in which Australia, India, and Africa would be claimed or carved up as colonies by the major powers of Europe; in which indigenous peoples all around the world would be wiped out in the millions by diseases brought to them by Europeans, with millions more herded onto reservations or killed outright to make room for white expansion.

This isn't to say that native peoples alone were suffering. 60,000,000 Europeans died of smallpox in the 18th century alone. Tens of millions died in the cholera epidemics. And anyone who doubts the integral connection between agriculture and famine need only examine the record of this period: crop failure and famine, crop failure and famine, crop failure and famine, again and again all over the civilized world. The numbers are staggering.

As the cities became more crowded, human anguish reached highs that would have been unimaginable in previous ages, with hundreds of millions inhabiting slums of inconceivable squalor, prey to disease borne by rats and contaminated water, without education or means of betterment.

1900 C.E. - 1960 C.E.

The fire burned on under the cauldron of our culture, and the next doubling of our population would take only 60 years -- only 60. There would be 3,000,000,000 humans at the end of it, all but perhaps 0.2% of them belonging to our culture, East and West.

What do I need to say about the water steaming in our cauldron in this era? Is it boiling yet, do you think? Does the first global economic collapse, beginning in 1929, look like a sign of distress to you? Do two cataclysmic world wars look like signs of distress to you? Stand off a few thousand miles and watch from outer space as 65,000,000 are slaughtered on battlefields or blasted to bits in bombing strikes, as another 100,000,000 count themselves lucky to escape merely blinded, maimed, or crippled. I'm talking about a number of people equal to the entire human population in the Golden Age of classical Greece. I'm talking about the number of people you would destroy if today you dropped hydrogen bombs on Berlin, Paris, Rome, London, New York City, and Hong Kong.

I think the water is hot, ladies and gentlemen. I think the frog is boiling.

1960 C.E. - 2000 C.E.

The next doubling of our population occurred in less than 40 years, bringing us to the present moment, when there are more than 6,000,000,000 humans on this planet, all but a few scattered millions belonging to our culture, East and West.

For some four decades the water has been boiling around the frog. One by one, its cells have shut down, unequal to the task of holding on to life. We bewail the collapse of everything we know and understand, the collapse of the structure on which everything has been built from the beginning of our culture until now.

The frog is dead.