Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Twenty-First Century Alchemical Imagination

Last night, I fell asleep thinking of ethanol (I had been drinking bourbon and had a brief, sleep-threatening panic: what if ethanol demand affects bourbon supply? Cold sweats ensued.)

I woke thinking of a book I’ve been reading – Taras Grescoe’s Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood (thanks to Ethicurean for the recommendation). Among Grescoe’s principal arguments is the suggestion that eating lower on the oceanic food chain is both safer (it’s in the big, old, meaty fish like tuna that toxins accumulate over time) and smarter. Little, delicious critters – the gently-fished (by international standards) Portuguese sardine, grilled and healthy-oily; the oyster (now 95% farmed, a good thing for oysters and the bodies of water they’re farmed in) – replenish more quickly than the disappearing fish at the top of the food chain and they eat stuff we can’t eat – algae, plankton, and all the other even tinier things at the very bottom of the food chain.

More importantly, however, farming of the bigger fish is threatening to deplete these more plentiful smaller, younger fish faster than would our simply eating them directly, given the desire to raise marketable fish quickly. That short-circuiting of the oceanic feeding cycle – accomplished in order that we can continue to eat fish that are disappearing and take too long to grow big on their own – may mean we wind up with nothing to eat, in the end. But farming species like salmon (DO NOT EAT), steelhead trout, and bluefin tuna requires huge inputs of the smaller fish.

Industrial fishing off the coast of Senegal, Grescoe writes, has reshaped that country’s national dish, thieboudienne, traditionally made with grouper. A ship like “Ireland’s Atlantic Dawn, the largest fishing boat in the world . . . which works off the coast of Senegal and Mauritania, has been known to haul in 400 tonnes of such small fish as horse mackerel and sardines a day” (140). The result? Though the grouper has largely disappeared because of overfishing of both it and the species it eats, and though the Senegalese have “taken to making thieboudienne with sardines” which they have to import in cans back from Europe, sardines themselves are becoming more dear, given that “much of the sardine catch off the coast of West Africa is now being sent to bluefin-tuna-fattening farms in Australia. Concentrated up the food chain, the protein that should be going to feed the world’s poorest countries is ending up in the sushi bars of Los Angeles and Tokyo, in the form of bluefin tuna sashimi” (141).

In other words: we’re not thinking carefully enough about the inputs it takes for the outputs we desire. In fact, we’re quite deliberately not thinking about it at all: it strikes me as a peculiarly 21st century kind of alchemical fantasy: we can drive our cars on ethanol, we can eat farmed bluefin tuna and corn-fed cow, we make plans to bury our carbon dioxide in the ground (tellingly, we're a lot more concerned with how to burn coal cleanly than how to mine it ethically -- who gives a shit where it comes from or what mountain disappeared today?), we can air-condition Phoenix and water its lawns with the Colorado river. We can have what we want – isn't the refrain that Americans shouldn’t have to sacrifice any of their comforts and conveniences? – and not have to pay for it. Ourselves.


troutsky said...

"We're not thinking carefully enough" suggests some form of social consensus or democratic decision making process of which I am unaware. Those who are creating profit, on the other hand, are thinking quite clearly.They are the same folks that are in the immigrant prison business.

barba de chiva said...


Marc said...

I'm glad you liked my review of Bottomfeeder at the Ethicurean. I hope that the book is widely read and that Grescoe's advice followed.

"what if ethanol demand affects bourbon supply?" I haven't seen anything about bourbon, but biofuel production has started to affect beer supplies and possibly tequila supplies (there are a few items in past Ethicurean digests).

On the subjects of fishing and Africa, the PBS/National Geographic program "Strange Days on Planet Earth" had a disturbing piece about how industrial fishing and other stresses on West African fisheries are causing increased consumption of "bush meat." "Bush meat" is animals hunted from the wild jungles, and is thought to be one of the biggest threats to wild creatures (like chimpanzees and other primates) in Africa. When fish supplies are good, people eat less bush meat. When supplies are bad (because of overfishing, for example), demand for bush meat increases and hunters go into the forests to kill wild animals. Thus, European subsidies for fishing off the African coasts could cause damage to African forest life.