Paul Greenberg’s fascinating new book Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, examines the reasons why humans chose to seek out salmon, tuna, bass, and cod, the four staples of our seafood diet, and questions the sustainability of our efforts to continue doing so. I recently lived in Japan for three years, and had my fair share of Toro sashimi, fatty blue fin tuna, along with other delicacies. Having lived in that seafood-based culture, and having fished for salmon myself, I understand the appeal of the current staples of seafood. I was really impressed with the background and the framework with which Greenberg examines these fisheries.
Greenberg grew in Connecticut, fishing along its namesake river (Connecticut comes from the Algonquin word quonehtacut, or ‘long coastal river’), and developed a love of fishing from an early age. He understands fisheries management and aquaculture, and deftly explains how our fisheries came to be in their current state. At root, the book is examining four fish, “Or rather four archetypes of fish flesh which humanity is trying to master in one way or another, either through the management of a wild system, through the domestication and farming of individual species, or through the outright substitution of one species for another.” In fact that is where Four Fish is particularly insightful – Greenberg identifies some potential sustainable aquaculture candidates that are efficient and safe (for both humans and the marine environment), that you probably never heard of, like barramundi and Kona Kampachi.
I recently attended a public hearing about proposed fisheries regulations in Rhode Island, and what became immediately apparent to me was that most of the audience, stakeholders in the fisheries industry, spoke an entirely different language than the fisheries scientists, employees of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM). There were both commercial and recreational fishers of a wide range of aquatic species, ranging from soft-shell clams to cod, stripers to monkfish. Their individual economic incentives often conflicted with each other; party boat captains relied on a large bag limit of tautog, because the state regulations were more liberal than in neighboring states; divers and waders for shellfish fought for different season opening dates, to get an advantage on each other. The fisheries scientists spoke of maintaining sustainable fisheries through regulation, while the fishermen complained they would be unable to make a profit with ‘micromanagement.’
Greenberg’s Four Fish examines the economic aspects of fisheries as well, and he recommends that artisan fishers replace factory trawlers; subsidized fishing fleets should go away and in their place, respectful fishermen-herders who will steward the species as well as catch them. He also argues that blue fin tuna and other species that travel across oceans are unmanageable, and should be protected like tigers and whales. Having seen the Japanese fish markets, I know how difficult that will be, but mercury-laden tuna is simply not sustainable or manageable. Here in Rhode Island, fishermen at the hearing spoke of resources and jobs; while they may sometimes disagree with the fisheries scientists, both will need to work together in the long term to create sustainable fisheries, sustainable jobs, and sustainable seafood. Ultimately, that will require “a profound reduction in fishing effort,” and open-minded consumers.
You may have missed it last week, but there was an excellent piece on the opposition to smart meters in California in the New York Times. PG&E has installed 7 million smart meters in California since 2006; they transmit real time data on consumers’ electricity use to the utility, helping them to allocate power more efficiently. The goal is to give consumers information about how they use power, and incentivize them to use less of it. However, opposition to the smart meters comes largely from two different constituencies: Tea Party conservatives and consumers afraid of EMF. Initially, you may remember, opposition to smart meters came when electricity bills increased; critics first charged that the meters were inaccurate, but it soon became apparent that the old meters were undercharging. Now, opposition from Tea Party conservatives to smart meters is predictable; doubtlessly PG&E is just the latest Big Brother out to destroy their lives. However, the anti-EMF opponents are a constituency that PG&E can work with, and should have worked with. After all, it would be easy enough to find a way to connect these meters to broadband lines.
However, if we step back and examine this problem, a lot of the fuss comes down to stakeholder engagement. Both Santa Cruz and Marin Counties put up obstacles to these meters because PG&E did not effectively engage with them beforehand. Ultimately, we are going to have difficulties adapting to our warming climate; as we make policy changes, it will be more important than ever to properly engage and address concerns before and during rollout. Unanimous consent is probably an unrealistic goal, but acknowledging and working with people is a must.
Van Jones spoke at a TED event in Santa Monica in November, about the economic injustice of plastic, and the culture of disposability that permeates our society. He brings up a really interesting point when he compares the person who recycles their plastic water bottles and the person who throws them away. Typically, the person who recycles their bottle will feel satisfied that they are doing their part for the environment. However, the cost of plastic manufacture and recycling are borne by the poor of the world. The stretch of American known as ‘Cancer Alley,’ along 85 miles of the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, produces plastic and petrochemicals, and has disproportionately high cancer rates. Van Jones points out that plastic is often shipped to China for recycling, where more poor people process it. When we satisfy our thirst conveniently with disposable containers, there are costs borne outside of the direct transaction, what economists call externalities.
However, our culture celebrates convenience and consumption, and many of us don’t understand the true costs of how we live. Bill Gerlach talks about Mindful Consumption in his blog, The New Pursuit. He writes about restoring our balance with the natural world, and becoming present to our lives, the world around us, and our place in it. He offers some helpful strategies for mindful consumption, including buying less plastic, single-tasking, and pausing before making a purchase. Becoming more mindful is difficult in today’s world, with the litany of communication media, and our go-go-go lifestyles. However, we have crucially lost touch with what it is that makes us human. Thomas Berry, author of The Dream of the Earth, was a Catholic priest and a deep ecologist. He wrote that our culture is distorted, and is “the origin of the deteriorating influence that we have on the life systems of the Earth.” We would be smart to rethink our throwaway culture, because honestly, there is no ‘away.’
Today, the last roll of Kodachrome film was developed into slides in Parsons, Kansas, at Dwayne’s Photo, the last store in the world to process the film. This story brings to mind the Season One Finale of Mad Men, the famous Carousel scene, when Don Draper speaks about how “technology is a glittering lure, but there is the rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash, if they have a sentimental bond with the product… a deeper bond: nostalgia; it’s delicate, but potent… In Greek nostalgia means the pain from an old wound. It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.” He then goes on to show images of his family taken with Kodachrome film.
In the months leading up to today, people flocked from all over the world to Dwayne’s Photo in Parsons, Kansas to get their film developed. This is the reverse of a story like the release of the iPad, or a new iPhone, because Kodachrome is nostalgia personified. Unlike the new smartphones, which will be outdated in a few years, Kodachrome managed to stick around for 75 years. Paul Simon wrote an unforgettable song about it. The nostalgia which Don Draper talks about is indeed potent. In fact, nostalgia is under-appreciated when it comes to marketing sustainability. While technology increases in leaps and bounds, it can overwhelm us; the simplicity which will be necessary to shift towards sustainability is channeled through nostalgia. Nostalgia is the long letters we used to write, the joy we used to find in our communities, and the pleasure of making things for ourselves. Nostalgia is the emotional key to our collective hearts. The folks who flocked to Parsons, Kansas certainly felt it.
There is much debate about what exactly it would mean for humans to “consume” sustainably. Tim Jackson confronts that question in the excellent new Earthscan Reader in Sustainable Consumption, which he edited. The essays are divided into four parts: Framing Sustainable Consumption, Resisting Consumerism, Resisting Simplicity, and Reframing Sustainable Consumption. That last part is key to solving the big problem facing policymakers and activists: finding consensus about what exactly sustainable consumption would be in a world of inequality, and how to best achieve the behavior change necessary to limit resource throughput, lower energy consumption, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally. There are plenty of good intentions, but little progress. In fact, the efforts to date may provide a false sense of accomplishment.
Take energy efficiency, for example. Elizabeth Shove examines consumption in the United Kingdom in her essay “Efficiency and Consumption: Technology and Practice.” She finds that despite a national program to encourage energy efficiency, consumers actually increased their consumption by raising their thermometer, and increasing the use of appliances like dishwashers, freezers, and washing machines, even after new efficient models are installed. In fact, she identified consumers that consciously increased their consumption as an intentional use of the gained energy efficiency. This conundrum is pertinent because the public case for sustainably is primarily framed around efficiency: the consumer can still have it all, but lose that guilty conscience! However, efficiency will not take us to the top of Mt. Sustainability, to borrow a metaphor from Interface Inc.’s Ray Anderson.
One big problem may come from the frame ‘consumer.’ In a country whose former President responded to an unimaginable terrorist strike by encouraging Americans to go shopping, we are taught that the consumer has sovereignty, that we can each buy whatever we need, and the free market will meet those needs. In sustainability circles, the same frame is adopted: we ‘vote with our wallets,’ we support the businesses that make the more sustainable product. That type of effort certainly helps; companies like Seventh Generation have penetrated markets dominated by the conglomerates, and have reduced the toxic chemicals in our homes. However, the ‘consumer’ cannot consume his or her way out of the problems we face in the world. How can we start? We might want to stop calling ourselves consumers. Instead of defining humans as consumers, what about stewards? Stewardship is central to the behavior we need to encourage.
Merriam Webster defines stewardship as “the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care.” Boy Scouts are taught to leave the campground cleaner when they leave than when they arrive; one problem is that people don’t necessarily appreciate their impact on Earth, and don’t feel a responsibility to leave it in a better condition for future generations. The Iroquois Nation had a Law that encouraged its people to think about their actions and the impact they would have on the Seventh Generation. Today we lack that kind of mentality, and think only about immediate gratification. The gratification becomes more immediate through advances in technology, but also seems to pass quicker as a result. To successfully frame sustainable consumption, and thereby change behavior, a frame like the Iroquois’ seventh generation is a start. On top of that, finding a way for stewards to become aware of what they consume, and the impact that consumption has on resources, is paramount. Most people don’t know how many gallons of water and fossil fuels go into a Big Mac; most people don’t even realize that potable water is a scarce resource. Making that resource intensity transparent for stewards is a good place to start. In the end, Mt. Sustainability is a steep climb, and the fall from its icy slopes is perilous. Finding a more effective way of inspiring people to take the long view is the challenge of the moment.
As the last two years of the Obama Administration have made clear, crafting effective policy is complicated, difficult, and divisive; the proverbial comparison of the process of crafting laws with that of making sausage still rings true. However, the challenges which our President confronted in the first two years of his Administration, health care reform chief among them, pale in comparison to ‘Mount Sustainability,’ as Interface, Inc. CEO Ray Anderson likes to call the change required to make our consumption patterns, and more broadly, our lifestyles, sustainable. Sustainability is not an academic exercise; as the throughput of resources in our economies continues to grow, as those resources become more scarce, and as the ability of the Earth’s ecosystems to provide services like fresh water and carbon sinks diminishes, we are confronted with a huge challenge: in a world of inequality, how do we craft policy that will help to move us onto a path of sustainability?
In the United States today, environmentally friendly choices are framed as the “Green” thing to do. However, Americans like to frame these decisions around choice; each individual is free to make their own choice, to live their own lives as they see it. As a result, sustainably-minded businessmen and policymakers provide information to consumers, and empower them to make their own decisions. Companies like Seventh Generation make the case that their products are the better choice because they use less toxic chemicals, or use recycled materials. The growth of these types of products, and the efforts of multi-national companies to begin to “Green” their products is undoubtedly a good start. However, when it comes to toxic chemicals and the harm that they have on human lives, there is much disagreement. It becomes difficult for the consumer to know what the responsible decision is, for their family’s health, for their community’s watershed, for their planet. We don’t fully understand the impact of certain carcinogens, or products like cellular phones, on long-term human health. As Barry Schwartz writes, too much choice can confuse consumers, and make them feel unsatisfied:
“So whereas a life without any freedom of choice would not be worth living, and whereas giving people choices enhances their freedom and their welfare to some degree, it appears not to be the case that more choice means more freedom and more welfare. Indeed, a point may be reached at which choice tyrannizes people rather than liberating them. And we may be at that point. The significant implication of this news, both for individuals andfor policy makers, is that even if wealth is a proxy for freedom of choice, it does not follow that wealth is a proxy for well-being.If well-being is what we ultimately care about in setting social policy, we will have to look elsewhere. And if we cant assume that we can make people better off just by giving them more to choose from, we can no longer avoid addressing difficult questions about what enhances human welfare by throwing options at people and letting them find their own answers.”
Schwartz argues for a kind of “libertarian paternalism,” whereby consumers would face simple choices, with information about the impact and benefit of each decision. Clear and common-sized information about the impacts of our economy and our consumption on resources is certainly needed. For example, water and fossil fuel use could be provided for each product sold on the marketplace, in a standardized, visible format. Communities should mandate home energy inspections which provide consumers with a clear indication of the costs of their resource use, where resources are being wasted, and how investments in insulation and more efficient systems could help consumers save money over time. States and cities should publicly finance installation of renewable energy systems, so that the long term cost and benefit of those systems can be passed onto a new homeowner when a house is sold.
Efficiency is not enough, though. As resources become more scarce, there will be economic pressure on consumers to reduce their consumption. People will eventually have to live closer to their workplace, and to live more simply. Today, when many Americans still believe that exponential growth is a guaranteed right, it is difficult to get them to make decisions and investments for the long term. The challenge to policy makers is to change that paradigm. It is not enough to simply be more efficient, we need to maximize the benefit we get from the resources we have. Consumers need to realize that the choices they make today will impact the way we live in the coming decades, and the world that their grandchildren will inherit.
Yesterday was Black Friday, the now traditional day after Thanksgiving, when stores discount their wares, shoppers line up before dawn, and every few years, one of those shoppers is stampeded into the hospital. Apparently the deals were so good at Best Buy in Oakland that college student Jan Paulo Patena lined up Thanksgiving eve, with a chair, blanket, and Thanksgiving dinner leftovers. Of course, 200 fellow travellers joined him in spending the night in the Best Buy parking lot. Was Patena buying a gift? Nah… he was buying an external harddrive. Analysts quoted by the times noted that the parking lots were full, people felt like spending money again, and many, like Patena, were buying goods for themselves. Black Friday shows just how much the consumer we have all become. Give us a Holiday weekend, and we find an excuse to go to the store and buy stuff. I considered paying heed to the Buy Nothing Campaign, but I decided to head to Whole Foods and pick up supplies for dinner. Now, one could make the argument that I am just the same as Patena, and any other person who braved the busy roads on Black Friday. Consumption is not an evil in itself. However, consumption in America jumped the shark long ago. Landfills are full of the fruits of our shopping soul. The stuff we buy is designed to be replaced, designed to be thrown out. The problem is that the stuff we buy uses too many resources. The act of firing up the Chevy Suburban, heading 15 miles to the mall, buying the stuff, eating the hamburger, it is all an investment of resources that are being consumed in an unsustainable manner. By and large, people don’t realize it. Instead, we celebrate a successful Black Friday, as if this can go on forever. What about spending the rare Holiday with family and friends, instead of strangers in the parking lot of Best Buy? I guess the family and friends just don’t offer the right Sale Extravaganza. This Friday, spend the afternoon throwing a football around with your son, for 35% off! Buy one family game of Scrabble, get one free! It just doesn’t have the same ring.