I’m thinking about the problem of disappearing frogs. Where do we stand with that?
Well, Amphibians.org has the Disappearing Frog Project, a global effort to save the frog from the ravages of economic development. The latest update to this site was February 17, 2017, and if you go back a few years, you find scary news stories: American’s frogs and toads are disappearing fast, study warns. The source is the authoritative U.S. Geological Survey, no less.
You can watch a show on how humankind has for 100,000 years been greeted with a “croaking lullaby” at night but thanks to the horror of prosperity, this is going away. Silent night!
Capitalism is killing the frog. That’s bad! Bump back a few years, and you find more predictions of the global frog holocaust. The National Science Foundation warned in 2009 that kids in the future would not hear croaking or feel the squiggly energy of a tadpole. Other predictions date from 2006. And before: an article from 1999 on FEE.org deals in great detail with the claims that frogs were as good as extinct, so therefore we need massive government spending and regulation.
Then you have the organizations you can donate to, such as Save the Frogs, with intensely alarmist claims: frogs are the most endangered species on the plant, all due to deforestation, climate change, pesticides and pollution, overharvesting, and habitat destruction.
Actually, we know what all that means: capitalism is killing the frog. That’s bad!
Really this line of thinking has been going on for half a century. You might believe that capitalism is cool, that it gives you more food, medicine, clothing, technology, brings happiness to millions and billions, but all of that is on the surface. Look deeper and you will find a profound disturbance in the matrix, something deeply disorienting such as mass bird or frog death, polar bears standing precariously on melting icebergs, beaches vanishing – all of which symbolize the screams of earth mother who is spiritually pained by the persistence of financial capitalism which exploits and offends her.
Hold the Presses
But wait! Just when you think you have the hang of the narrative, it changes. Now we have a story highly recommended by the New York Times, that appears in Outsideonline.com, titled “Frogpocaplyse Now!” The problem, the truly grave threat, turns out not to be too few frogs but vastly too many!
In South Florida, cane toads are so numerous that they seem to be dropping from the sky. They’re overtaking parking lots and backyards, can weigh almost six pounds, and pack enough poison to kill pets.
These frogs are themselves a gigantic threat to nature. They are not singing croaky lullabies. They are carnivorous monsters who eat baby birds out of their shells, pizzas out of the trash can, vex our pets, stare at us hungrily at night, because, as it turns out, they can kill us!
Cane toads have these things going for them: they are bigger than other toads (the biggest cane toad on record weighed 5 pounds 13 ounces, almost as much as a Kalashnikov rifle); they lay huge numbers of eggs, perhaps 30,000 in a breeding season (the southern toad, a species they appear to be displacing in Florida, lays about 4,000); and they are highly poisonous (their venom, carried in glands in their shoulders, kills animals, and could kill a person, though so far no Floridian is known to have been poisoned by it).
On top of all that, they can eat almost anything. All amphibians are carnivorous, but cane toads stretch the description. Besides insects, they vacuum up snakes, worms, grubs, snails, mice, small rats, bats, young birds, other amphibians (sometimes their own young), pet food, and garbage. They differ from most other frog species in that they can identify food that is not moving. Cinnamon Mittan, a graduate student who has done field work on cane toads, told me that once, behind a Home Depot in Florida City, she saw a cane toad sitting in a pizza box and eating the cheese off a slice.
Dammit, why did we save these horrible things? If a dog or cat gets hold of one of these things, they “salivate, cry, and rub at their foaming tongues with their paws. Their gums turn bright red. Soon they may go into convulsions and die.” It turns out that “toad envenomation” is a leading cause of death of household pets. These frogs “have no fear.” There is no known poison that can wipe them out.
And this is not just Florida. Australia, it turns out, has a huge and growing problem. “Today the country has a population of about 24 million humans and an estimated 1.5 billion cane toads.” Yikes. The problem became worse after gun control in Australia, since shooting them was the only known method of controlling the population. Now that is not even possible.
Dammit, why did we save these horrible things?
Now we have another crisis. It’s strange: we have two simultaneous crises, and two different movements working at cross purposes, one to save and multiply, the other to kill and destroy, both claiming the mantle of science and the urgency of time.
What interests me is the rhetoric. The old narrative: frogs are loveable things that sing us to sleep with pretty songs, but they are being wiped out. New narrative: frogs are poisonous predators that threaten our very lives, can’t be killed, and are multiplying without limit.
And here we have a paradigmatic case of why so many people are rather skeptical of these environmental frenzies. Even more interesting is the causative element here, which is to say: what are the political implications of the frogpocalypse? Well – you might suspect I’m making this up but I’m not – it turns out that frogs “prefer lawns and shopping centers to swamps and woods. They like our fast-food restaurants and ongoing sprawl as much as we do.”
Do you see? We used to believe that capitalism was causing frogs to become extinct. Now we know that capitalism is causing frogs to take over the world! In either case, the solution is obvious: get rid of capitalism.
And here we have a paradigmatic case of why so many people are rather skeptical of these environmental frenzies. I’m not a scientist much less a zoologist or a wildlife biologist. But I do recall a moment from my childhood, after a rain, when I collected a thousand tadpoles in jars, filled up a hole in my backyard, and created a Biblical scene outside my own house in a mere 10 days. Based on this mortifying experience, I suspect that if we harness more of nature, we can have as few or as many frogs as we want.
It’s also possible that frogs are likely to be around no matter what we do. And we can’t always get them to do what we want.