April 11th, 2016
Every so often I have the good fortune — or perhaps I mean misfortune — of getting my paradigm shifted. My father’s stint as a fisherman was past before I came along, but on occasion it would make its presence known, like once when he commented that the bounty of the sea was too vast to ever be exhausted.
I didn’t think about it, just accepted it as a verity. And though neither of us knew it, there was data to back it up, too; the authority on such things, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N., collected numbers that show an inexorable climb in the tonnage of fish pulled from the sea in the 20th Century. Trouble is, those numbers were an illusion.
Eminent marine biologist Daniel Pauly has been sweating FAO’s numbers to conform them to reality and the reality is not one we want. It turns out we’ve been catching — intentionally or not — fifty percent more fish than we realized. That’s not good news, confirming the ocean’s riches. It’s appalling news, because even at the lower numbers, the catches were far too high, way past anything resembling sustainability; “peak fish” is already ten years back in the rear view. Callum Roberts, author of the paradigm reshaping Unnatural History of the Sea, has an article glossing the news, so I won’t give you the details here.
What I will do is wonder what to do with this new intelligence. The point of these pieces on Hogsalt is to “educate and entertain.” I am fortunate to belong to a company which is curious about the larger history it is a part of and further fortunate in that the history we are talking about encompasses more or less everything. My great discovery as a researcher of the intersection of food and culture is that it’s almost impossible to separate the two.
The fact that I had to learn this instead of knowing it from infancy is emblematic of my vantage in time and culture, a vantage that is singularly confused about the fact that the dominant questions of human history are not “what did King So-and-So do on such-and-such a date,” but rather “what’s for dinner?” Until the Industrial Revolution, no one needed to be reminded of this; you’d have to have been an idiot not to notice that feeding ourselves was the great human preoccupation. Yes, most kings and clerics spent their days scheming, but for almost everyone else, food was either your work, or the work of people you personally knew.
It took England’s industrialization (and the invention of “unemployment”) to start the obfuscation process which we have finally perfected. The vast majority that once directly fed themselves are now — in western societies, at least — a vast majority so awash in cheap and ubiquitous calories that they’re the fattest society in history. I’m not pining for a return to a predominantly agrarian society here, but rather pausing to note that, for such a clever species, we are easily distracted. For instance, money.
The first taxes were paid in the form of barley, so there was no confusion; the fruit of your labors was simultaneously edible and transactional. That sort of payment endured for thousands of years, existing in parallel with money economies for the simple reason that most people saw very little of money. They didn’t need it, as they and their neighbors produced all the necessities of simple and local lives. But money was available to the movers and shakers, and over time its function shifted from a store-of-value like grain, to something more pernicious, a signifier of status.
Any monkey will tell you that status is inescapable. But in the world of hairy primates, social status is about who eats first. Our money-status retains hints of that; if you’re rich as Croesus, then you can get any food, from anywhere in the world, at any time you feel like it — the 21st Century equivalent of eating first. But we’ve completely lost the visceral connection to where it all comes from, misplaced the secret knowledge that the “value” of “status” was a better shot at staying alive.
In its place, we have a money-status system (AKA “The Economy”) that, though rooted in the need to eat first, is wrecking pretty much every we depend upon to eat at all. That’s a profoundly difficult thought to internalize. The tangibly full shelves at the grocery outweigh the distant and abstract warnings, the melting glaciers, vanishing topsoil, dying forests. Yes, the weather’s oddly warm at odd times of year, but all any of us really believe about the weather is that it’s always changing.
The apparent solidity of stock-on-the-shelf is in reality a flow, constantly depleted and replenished so seamlessly as to appear permanent. That, of course, is an illusion, as any stocking clerk will tell you, the effect of an awesomely efficient supply chain. But underlying that solidity is another reality, that we are — as a British minister confronting a trucking crisis once said — “only nine meals away from anarchy.” Aside from the sloppy confusion of anarchy with chaos, he’s got a point; how many meals can you miss before food becomes your central preoccupation?
But out of sight, out of mind and what could be more out of sight that what lies hidden in the sea… except maybe an absence hidden in the sea? The waves will still crash and the sunsets look just as lovely when the living sea is all but lifeless. That’s troublesome, and not just because the oxygen that fills our every second breath comes from tiny lives in the waves.
So, as I mentioned before, it’s a puzzle about how to educate and entertain when this sort of intelligence comes your way. The slow death of the sea isn’t remotely entertaining and if there’s anything our predicament has taught us, it’s that global society is not particularly educable, at least when it comes to choosing biosphere over The Economy. (We will be, of course; even the most recalcitrant schoolboy pays attention when teacher starts killing students, at least if they’re in nearby seats.) But until then — what to do as I trip down the path?
Keep flogging the bummer stories, while full-well knowing that information deficit is not the problem? Cheerfully feature those who have found a way to better their corner of the world? Revel in the absurdity and enjoy the comedy of errors since it’s what we’ve got? Looking back, I can see that I’ve chosen an “all of the above” strategy, hoping that there’s something for everyone on the menu.
But that, I think, is where the problem lies, because there isn’t something for everyone. There’s another audience out there, almost universally curious, inherently exploratory, quite certain that they don’t know everything and completely accepting of transformative change. There’s only two things that this audience lacks, and one of those things is all-important — any real stake in keeping things the way they are. The other thing is enough years under their belt to vote.
My missing audience is still in school, or playing hooky from it. They’re the ones who will grow up to look back and think “WTF was so hard to understand about ‘don’t wreck the things that support life?’” With any luck, they’ll come of age without being too angry at their forebears. But I’m not counting on it. After all, they’re already suing. And winning, too.