If you drop a frog in a pot of boiling water, so they say, it will hop right out again. Frogs aren’t stupid. Well, OK, but they’re not THAT stupid.
However, if you put a frog in a pot of cool water, and gradually turn the heat up under it, the frog will not notice what’s happening. It will happily sit there until the water boils, and it dies.
Now, I have never carried out this experiment personally — I prefer my frogs’ legs fried — so I can’t vouch for the truth of it. It’s just a story the environmentalists like to tell.
Besides, I already knew that human beings have trouble in detecting slow-moving threats. You can watch us failing to do it every day: we persistently ignore the fact that we are running into trouble at a civilizational level, even though the evidence is all around us.
The foundation of every civilization is an adequate food supply: human beings simply cannot live at the density of population that civilization implies without a reliable agriculture. But the supply of good agricultural land is limited, and the number of human beings is not.
You can postpone the problem for a while by increasing the yield of the available land: irrigate it, plant higher-yielding crops, fertilize the soil artificially, use pesticides and herbicides to protect the crops as they grow.
But even these techniques have limits, and in many cases we have reached or exceeded them. So we are running into trouble. Why isn’t anybody taking action?
Governments everywhere are well aware of the problem: we are now 7 billion people, heading for an estimated 11 billion by the end of this century, and the food situation is already getting tight. So tight, in fact, that the average price of the major food grains has doubled in the past ten years. But everybody finds local reasons to ignore that fact.
The developing countries know that they are under the gun, because the standard predictions of global warming suggest that it is the tropics and the sub-tropics where the warming will hit food production first and hardest.
A (still unpublished) study carried out by the World Bank some years ago concluded that India (all of which is in the tropics or subtropics) would lose 25 percent of its food production when the average global temperature is only 2 degrees C higher. China would lose an astounding 38 percent, even though most of it is in the temperate zone. And all that is before their underground water sources are pumped dry. Most governments in the developing countries know the facts, but the short-term political imperative to raise living standards takes precedence over the longer-term imperative to curb the warming.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.