Sunday, February 17, 2008

Saving the ocean with guilt or desire?

Is there a place for desire in conservation? Can a burning, insatiable longing motivate people to do right by nature? Or is desire a problem for conservation? Are people’s longings and wants the enemy--that which must be defeated in order to conserve?

I hope I’m wrong, but I think most environmentalists would identify human desires as a problem. In this view, people want more…more money, more toys, more fun activities. And almost all of it means more conservation problems as we use more resources to satisfy the wants.

Do we really focus on trying to defeat human desires to achieve conservation? Yes, we do. We try, usually with minimal success, to scare or limit people to stop them from fulfilling their wants. We tell stories of impending crisis so they’ll stop out of fear, or we try to make rules that stop the damage by denying people their desires. Conserve water or we’ll run out and you won’t be able to flush your toilet! Stop driving your SUV or we’ll all cook together on a warming earth! Etc., you’ve heard it before.

It’s a reasonable way to go, but it isn’t working. And perhaps even worse, it creates problems for the environmental movement. It casts us as the enemies of human desire, not a good role to be in. In fighting desire, we cast ourselves as grouchy preachers promising fire-and-brimstone for those who stray from the straight and narrow. That might be ok if it worked, but with this approach, our successes are often partial and short-lived. And it takes a toll on us; when we KNOW we’re right but we still lose, our attitudes turn pessimistic, cynical or even bitter.

Yuck. Not a whole lot of fun unless you like to wear a hair shirt.

OK, so we do try to conserve by defeating human desires. But are there some examples of working with desire to conserve? How about ecotourism or festivals that celebrate rivers or slow food? Some parts of conservation focus on fun, but many conservation purists attack ecotourism as harmful exploitation and say festivals just allow people to feel good without doing anything significant.

Can we find a way to elevate the role of desire in conservation? Yes, we can work with human desires instead of fighting against them.

Conservation efforts that work with human desires may not be all that different than relying on guilt. Sometimes the work is very similar and the difference is just a shift in attitude.

For an example, I’ll go back to Barton Seaver and the Seafood Summit in Barcelona in January 2008. His message there included an important point: as a chef, he can bring desire in line with conservation. He can serve sustainably caught seafood that satisfies your cravings, and fulfills your desire. He can be a conservationist without fighting against human desires.

Is this different? The sustainable seafood movement has been around for a decade now, and quite a bit of effort has gone into promoting sustainable seafood. So maybe seafood is already an example of a conservation movement that works with human desires.

But, if you think about sustainable seafood at all, what comes to mind? Pleasure and satisfaction, or desires denied? Do you think of a fantastic dinner, or do you remember someone unpleasant telling you “don’t eat your favorite fish.” Do you think a marine biologist would make a great companion for a seafood dinner because they know about fish? Or are you likely to shrink in fear and order chicken if a marine biologist is at the table in order to avoid an unpleasant lecture about problems caused by fishing?

Note: Please answer the poll question above right in the sidebar--Does the sustainable seafood movement rely on guilt?

The sad truth is that ocean lovers can be your worst nightmare in a restaurant. Most ocean-aware people are prepared to give you a hard time if you eat a politically incorrect fish. Even the nicest versions of “don’t eat that fish” aren’t exactly fun, here are some examples from The Oyster's Garter, Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, Shifting Baselines, and blogfish.

The sustainable seafood movement seems to be more about guilt and criticism than anything else. Look what happened to poor Al Gore when he attended a dinner where the wrong fish was supposedly served:

So for every pleasant bit of encouragement about eating sustainable seafood, there is somebody ready to heap guilt on your plate for eating the “wrong” fish. The whole thing is made impossible by confusing and even conflicting advice, and lack of labels so it’s hard to know what you’re eating even when you WANT to do the right thing.

What’s different about Barton Seaver’s message? How does he diverge from the guilt-heavy sustainable seafood message? How can he promise to bring desire in line with conservation? It can be as simple as a difference in attitude. And this is a place where environmentalists can learn from chefs. As Barton reminds us, he’s in the hospitality industry, and he doesn’t make a living by hectoring his customers.

If someone comes into Hook and asks for Chilean sea bass, he doesn’t berate them for their bad choice, he tries to light a fire of desire for sustainable sablefish. Then he tries to fulfill that desire, and show customers that there’s gain—not sacrifice—in going with the sustainable option.

What Barton shows us is the magic of fulfilling desire. When he makes a sustainable fish an object of desire, then he escapes from the false choice of delicious fish vs. sustainable fish. When a sustainable fish is also a delicious fish, then our desires align with our ethics, and the dual motivations are working together rather than fighting each other.

Sustainable seafood that focuses on desires denied is all about rules and commandments, what fish you can’t eat if you want to prove up as being green. There are lots of hair-splitting debates within the sustainable seafood community over which fish is ok and which isn’t ok, and some holier-than-thou criticism for anyone who dares to set the bar too low and actually say “yes” to some fish.

Sustainable seafood that focuses on desires fulfilled is different, it’s a celebration rather than a dose of guilt. Sustainable seafood that focuses on desires fulfilled is all about finding the best tasting and most sustainable fish, preparing and presenting it well, and making people lust for more. It’s marrying desire and conservation in a way that attracts people to a cause. It’s getting people on board with a good first step, and relying on their own desire to maintain and strengthen their commitment to the cause.

Avoiding the use of guilt as the prime motivator is important, because the seafood eater isn’t the enemy and there’s no reason to punish them and ladle out guilt. The difference between using guilt and desire is more in the attitude than anything else. Both approaches try to direct customers to sustainable fish, but one focuses on a negative message and the other focuses on a more positive message.

Barton’s approach of trying to capture people’s desires is sooooooo much better than the guilt-based order delivered in the clumsy Stinky Fish campaign: “It's time to slap your appetites into line with your ethics.” Is this any way to get people to change their behavior? Who wants to get slapped around? In more general terms, is guilt the best way to get people to do anything?

I’m no expert on religion, but it seems like many environmentalists, and quite a few sustainable seafood advocates, make a big mistake in using guilt and expecting it to be strong enough to get people to fight their desires. When we use this approach, I think we risk marginalizing ourselves and we might even start to resemble a sad caricature of a preacher seeking religious converts by threatening fire-and-brimstone.

Threatening problems for people who fall off the straight-and-narrow path of sustainable seafood might work if the prize we have to offer is something really big like everlasting life, but it seems futile when the only thing we can promise is the reward of a bland but sustainable dinner.

Uniting human desires and conservation can and should have a bigger role in the conservation movement, especially when it comes to sustainable seafood. It’s fun and easy to get away from focusing on guilt, but it does take a change in attitude.

This reminds me of the story of a scientist and a chef eating a seafood dinner together and talking sustainability. When the chef mentions getting desire linked up with conservation, the scientist says: “wait, conservation and desire don’t go together, to conserve we have to defeat people’s desires. Trying to put them together is like trying to mix oil and water.” The chef responds: “who says oil and water don’t mix? Add a few spices and a little acetic acid and oil and water are great together…you sure seemed to like that vinaigrette.”

4 comments:

Megan Westmeyer said...

Welcome to the next generation of sustainable seafood Mark! I was very glad to read this post. This positive attitude towards sustainable seafood is the approach we (The Sustainable Seafood Initiative at the South Carolina Aquarium) have been using for the past five years and it has worked wonders for us. Early on we discovered that the negative, disciplinarian approach was not going to work in Charleston, SC - a place where people come for fun and great food. So instead, we gave our chef partners a very short list of fish they shouldn't serve (only three) then proceeded to teach them what were their best choices and how to figure out what is sustainable. We've also put a strong emphasis on local seafood. We now have around 60 partner chefs in coastal South Carolina alone. We also have a very successful sustainable seafood dinner series where we co-host monthly sustainable seafood and wine dinners with our partners. The chefs and I design a menu with a variety of sustainable seafood, bring in a wine purveyor, recruit 30-40 hungry guests and have a great evening. The "marine biologist at the table" is me. Between each course I speak for a few minutes about the seafood that is coming up next and why it is sustainable. As our public relations coordinator put it: a sumptuous meal with a side of education.

Mark Powell said...

Thanks for the positive example, Megan, I'm glad to hear about it. We should talk about this sometime, please email me if you'd like to discuss your experience.

MamaBird said...

Don't forget the role of fear aka mercury and POPs contamination in this whole mess. I love when people address the dual prongs of sustainable seafood and *healthy* seafood (Monterey Bay Aquarium among others). I think that addressing the health issue long-term is critical and intertwined with the sustainability issue (you want to eat fish? love it? want it not to poison you? let's not overfish, pollute, and poison marine life).

I was lucky enough to get to go to Hook for my birthday this year (aside from serving delightful fish, Barton recreated little handmade whoopie pies for dessert, talk about *desire*).

MamaBird said...

Don't forget the role of fear aka mercury and POPs contamination in this whole mess. I love when people address the dual prongs of sustainable seafood and *healthy* seafood (Monterey Bay Aquarium among others). I think that addressing the health issue long-term is critical and intertwined with the sustainability issue (you want to eat fish? love it? want it not to poison you? let's not overfish, pollute, and poison marine life).

I was lucky enough to get to go to Hook for my birthday this year (aside from serving delightful fish, Barton recreated little handmade whoopie pies for dessert, talk about *desire*).