December 1, 2006
An old friend in Crested Butte confessed recently that the rapid pace of land development there has suddenly hit him with a shock: “I was like the frog doing a slow boil,” he said, “and suddenly the water became too hot for me.”My friend was referring to an experiment: If you drop a frog in boiling water, it leaps back out, but if you put a frog in warm water and gradually heat it to a boil, the frog fails to recognize the change – a fatal mistake.There are plenty of people in the Roaring Fork Valley who have reacted the same way to rapid growth. For years they were feeling the heat, but only gradually were they getting burned. Now, like my friend, many react with shocked realization followed by anger, remorse, regret and blame.”The American small town, like the bald eagle, is vanishing from our landscape and our minds,” Peggy Clifford lamented in her 1970 book “Aspen/Dreams & Dilemmas: Love Letter to a Small Town.” Clifford’s sensitive paean for the long-gone Aspen of the early ’60s warned: “The pressures that are making our cities increasingly intolerable are reaching into rural America, too. All small towns are in jeopardy in our affluent society.”Clifford’s sorrow for Aspen caused her to leave and never look back. She felt something breaking in the wake of hotels, condos, ritzy subdivisions and other homogenizing influences; it was her heart. Clifford lost one of the loves of her life, and that was the comfortable scale and irreplaceable sense of graceful spontaneity that was Aspen.We’re all frogs in the slow-boiling pot. The water is getting hot, but we’re still far from jumping out to save ourselves, let alone figuring out how to turn down the heat. For most of us, it would be a lot easier to be thrown into the boiling water and react immediately to a flash of realization than to wait patiently until we’re part of the soup.But that’s not human nature. Instead, we tolerate increments of discomfort. That’s why global warming is such a daunting issue.Last weekend, my family and I watched Al Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth.” The immediacy of the message struck each of us. The most stunning graphic for me was the forecast of encroaching sea levels on low-lying areas inhabited by millions of people – followed by projections of CO2 levels rising astronomically over the next 50 years.This global slow boil will inundate whole cities and vast coastlines. Few of us can grasp the dramatic human displacement of tens of millions of refugees, and the resulting political, social and economic upheavals that are in store.Still, most of us go on living without much awareness of the changing temperature of the water in the pot where we live. We are immersed in our successes and failures, our needs and wants, our hopes and dreams, our material comforts. Meanwhile, the water creeps toward boiling.Last week, Stephen Hawking, author of “A Brief History of Time,” urged that humans should colonize distant planets or face extinction. He cautioned human life on earth could end with a meteorite or a nuclear war. “But once we spread out into space and establish independent colonies,” said Hawking, “our future should be safe.”Hope springs eternal for the celebrated cosmologist, but it’s evident that distant colonies would simply provide more pots in which to slow-boil everything we love and cherish. Also, we would exhaust Earth’s resources trying to locate and establish these panacea space colonies.The good news is we are not frogs. We have the intelligence to mark changes in our world, from global climate change to changes in our small towns, and we have the moral obligation to act upon them. But rather than look to distant planets, we need to address our challenges here … on this earth, in this valley, in this place we call home. I just hope we can do so before the water boils.Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.The Aspen Times, Aspen, Colo.
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