[Slowly] Boiling a Frog

boiling frog

If you don’t already know this tale about perceiving change, it goes like this. If you drop a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will immediately try to jump out. But if you put it in the pot and slowly raise the temperature, it will remain there until it is cooked. The story may not be biologically accurate, but it does metaphorically describe the failure of people to observe very slow changes until it is too late to do something about it.

The growth and diffusion of the usage of the word “sustainability” fits the “boiling the frog” tale. Our public concerns about the deteriorating conditions of the Planet go back centuries to the times of soft coal burning in crowded London in the 17th Century. Maybe the cave dwellers had similar concerns about their sooty abodes. In what is generally accepted as the first published critique of environmental conditions, John Evelyn’s, Fumifugium, or, The inconveniencie of the aer and smoak of London dissipated together with some remedies humbly proposed by J.E. esq. to His Sacred Majestie, and to the Parliament now assembled, complained about the terrible state of the atmosphere.

It is this horrid Smoake which obscures our Churches, and makes our Palaces look old, which fouls our Clothes, and corrupts the waters, so as the very Rain, and refreshing Dews which fall in the several Seasons, precipitate this impure vapour, which, with its black and tenacious quality, spots and contaminates whatsoever is expos’d to it:

He proposed a surprisingly modern solution: to move the most serious production facilities away from the city, and a not so modern one: to ring the city with gardens planted with sweet smelling plants and shrubs. One huge can of Glade.

That these Palisad’s be elegantly planted, diligently kept and supply’d, with such Shrubs, as yield the most fragrant and odoriferous Flowers, and are aptest to to tinge the Aer upon every gentle emission at a great distance: Such as are (for instance amongst many others) the Sweet-briar, all the Periclymena’s and Woodbinds; the Common white and yellow Jessamine, both the Syringa’s or Pipe trees; the Guelder-rose, the Musk, and all other Roses; Genista Hispanica: To these may be added the Rubus odoratus, Bayes, Juniper, Lignum-vitae, Lavander: but above all, Rosemary, the Flowers whereof are credibly reported to give their sent above thirty Leagues off at Sea, upon the coasts of Spain; and at some distance towards the Meadow side, Vines, yea Hops.

Fast forward to the 20th century when the same problems were arising in the United States. Not much happened until the situation became intolerable in places near power plants and steel mills, and rivers started to catch on fire. The frog jumped out of the environmental pot and pushed the Congress to pass a series of Federal pollution statutes that remain the centerpiece of our concerns about the world we inhabit.

Then in the late 1980’s with deteriorating environmental and social conditions around the globe, another frog jumped out and gave us the concept of sustainable development, a way to continue modernity’s economic progress without further damaging the world already showing signs of devastation.

Now it is 25 or so years later and the last surviving frog is still sitting in the pot. The metaphor has taking on more real meaning as the Earth is slowly warming up in real, not metaphorical, terms. This frog has been calling out to us to get moving on lowering the thermostat, but not too fast, arguing that we might be able to keep things cool by staying on the track called forth by sustainable development. “I like it in this pot,” the frog has been saying, “so do something to keep the powers that be from turning up the heat further.” The response began with a few saying, “Sustainable development is for the UN and governments; what I will do is to be called greening, really the same thing, but something I can claim to be contributing to.” This lasted for a while, but then it became clear that greening wasn’t enough to cover all the problems, particularly those involving people and some ethical concerns that couldn’t be handled by mucking around in the market. At some moment, some clever person said, “Well then, let’s call what we are doing ‘sustainability.’ That has a nice ring to it.”

Greening, which, while it was not going to solve the problems it was designed to do, at least had represented what individual actors were doing. The water was now, perhaps, heating up more slowly and the frog remained happy. The use of “sustainability” grew and grew until just about everyone was using the word. The frog stopped taking the temperature of the pot and instead started listening to those who said, look at what we are doing, don’t worry about the hot water.

Well, that’s where we are today, sitting in a pot of ever-hotter water, but oblivious of the fact that it is getting to the point where we will probably not be able to jump out. The misuse of “sustainability” lulls us into neglecting to take the “temperature” and observe how it is continuing to rise. Even as those who are doing “sustainability” are being recognized for their work—for example, membership in the Sustainability Hall of Fame or building larger market share—the temperature continues to rise. And will continue to as long as “sustainability” is misunderstood and misused.

The primary reason for this continuing approach to collapse is that “sustainability” as it is being used and practiced (set in quotes in this post) is not lowering the flames under our pot—the world we inhabit. And while we are putting out some fires, maybe, the critical source of heat goes merrily along unquenched. The fire that is heating up our pot is not the inefficiency and inequity characterizing the ways we make and use things, although these are the two sources that “sustainability” is treating. The real fire is fueled by our cultural beliefs (see my recent post of January 25, 2013.

We must begin, quickly, to point our fire extinguishers towards the real source or we will discover that, as I noted, we can no longer jump out of the hot pot into a safe place. That requires that we start, right now, to call sustainability by its right name. Again see that recent post for a definition.

It is critical top get the words right, not just the intent behind them. Language is the medium of human action and coordination. Words guide our actions. If someone says “Dinner is ready” to me, I do not start the bath water. If someone says sustainability, I start to think about changing the culture, but all those Chief Sustainability Officers (CSO’s) and Sustainability Hall of Famers think about eco-efficiency or CSR or something similar. I start to think about care and complexity; they still think about market share and tuning up the [market] machine.

Try as I might I cannot find anything much in common. Sustainability to me is a vision of a flourishing world; to them it is little more than picture of the past becoming the future. But even their past is only a mirage; the world has never been what we have fooled ourselves into believing it was. No matter how many folks get named to the Sustainability Hall of Fame, the temperature is going to keep rising. Words always precede coordinated action. The wrong words may produce actions that seem to do something good, but also can and do produce unintended consequences. It’s those unintended consequences (We have called them unsustainability.) that are turning up the heat. First, let’s get the words right. Then and only then can we begin to collectively act to cool down the Planetary pot enough to live comfortably within it.

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