Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Taras Grescoe's Bottomfeeder and the cult of no

Taras Grescoe is my hero…almost. In Bottomfeeder he brings a food and travel writer’s deft touch to my favorite subject, oceans. He explores the perplexing world of seafood, and arrives at a unique and compact conclusion about how to eat ethically in a complex world of options.

I have few quibbles with his seafood choices, but his ethical eating won’t do what he hopes. And here’s where I have to add the “almost” to his hero status. He has a clear view of what’s wrong today and an inspiring vision for a better tomorrow, but no good steps forward. Refusing to eat bad seafood is about as powerful as holding your breath until you turn blue.

I don’t blame Grescoe for not knowing the way forward. It’s my fault. We ocean people have failed to give him an appealing menu of options for changing the way we get seafood to our tables. As a result, he’s left with his ethical eating, avoiding seafood when it comes from bad fishing or bad farms, and hoping to change the world by saying “no.”

What is ethical eating supposed to accomplish? It’s supposed to fix big problems, the kind that can only be solved by government action. By avoiding red snapper, tuna, and farmed salmon (among other rejected seafoods), he hopes to:

Ban bottom-trawling on seamounts
Require cargo ships to exchange ballast water at sea
Limit overfishing caused by throwing away some fish (bycatch)
Stop developed countries from plundering Africa’s fish
Protect big fish with international agreements
(from p. 274 of Bottomfeeder)

That’s one helluva to-do list, and I hate to burst Grescoe’s bubble but ethical eating will do nothing to achieve this fish conservation agenda. He’s right in saying “Policy makers could enact most of these changes overnight; all that is standing in the way is a lack of political will.” But how exactly is ethical eating supposed to create this political will? Grescoe supposes that if a billion people become ethical eaters, changes in demand for particular seafoods will bring political change.

“Can changing the kind of seafood we eat really help the oceans? The answer is, emphatically, yes.…what you choose to have for dinner matters…when you multiply that decision by a couple of billion mouths, then it really, really matters.”

That’s true, but it’s so far from realistic politics that it comes across as empty hope.

There is another way, and it’s a simple recipe. It’s plain vanilla politics, and it’s where seafood eaters need to go if they truly want to achieve Grescoe’s admirable political agenda. I have ideas on how to get us organized and onto this political wagon, does anyone want to join? Calling Taras Grescoe, wherever you are, do you want to lend a hand to forging a new political movement of seafood eaters for ocean conservation? I tried to find you, Mr. Grescoe, but I couldn’t get any contact info even by the magic of Google. I suppose that’s by design.

So Taras Grescoe is my hero…almost. He has one more step to make hero—finding a way to make progress on his political agenda.

Lacking a real way forward, he has succumbed to the feeling of power that comes from self-denial—the “cult of no.” It feels powerful because it’s hard to force oneself to give up desire, and it does say refuse to participate in a wrong. But it doesn’t do anything else. If real progress on his political agenda is the goal, then saying “no” to unsustainable seafood is not even a small step forward.

How did Grescoe get to this place of ethical seafood eating? He found a scene of devastation when he followed the line connecting the fish on his plate to the hook or net that caught it—or the aquaculture pond where it was grown. He wants to do something. And, surprisingly for the author of “Devil’s Picnic,” he succumbs to the cult of no.

In Devil’s Picnic, Grescoe travels the world sampling forbidden fruit. It’s a tour de force of sampling food and drink that someone doesn’t want you to eat, for one reason or another. For most of them, he finds the reasons wanting. So Grescoe is an unlikely candidate for “just say no” to unsustainable seafood. Is it something about seafood that has him and almost everyone else succumbing to the cult of no? Or, perhaps, is it perhaps just expiation for accumulated guilt?


Anonymous said...

While I agree that ethical eating on its own isn't going to change the world, I think it is important for two reasons. One: because it is "doing the right thing" and it makes me feel good about myself, and I like to feel good about myself. Two (and far more importantly in the grand scheme of things) ethical eating must go hand in hand with political lobbying. After all, why should politicians listen to us if we aren't supporting our demands through our actions? - Megan

Mark Powell said...

Good point about supporting demands with actions. I think that's the strongest argument for ethical eating. And, as you say, it needs to go hand in hand with political action to be meaningful. Thanks, Megan, I agree.

And, it's important to build personal momentum whatever that takes. For me and salmon, it's eating salmon--my communion. For others it may be abstension from eating salmon.

Fromartz said...

Mark, though I agree with you on the shortfalls of ethical eating, what consumers often do is say, "I'm powerless and don't really understand this so I'll just buy anything and leave those big decisions to smarter people." This, I'm afraid, is a cop out.

People who get passionate about these issues tend to want to engage with their forks. What you're proposing is to eat the fish but to become engaged. But I'm not actually sure that's how political action works. Think of the give swordfish a break campaign. Would you have had everyone eat swordfish but then lobby like hell to stop the overfishing? Would that have been as successful as getting chefs then consumers aboard the train?

LG said...

There is much more to do than not eat unethically farmed or caught fish, but eating more ethically is a start, and writing a book about it as well done as Taras Grescoe's was a great step towards much greater awareness. What we do as individuals matters a great deal. If everyone in New York stopped eating bluefin tuna, think the sushi restaurants would continue to plop down thousands of dollars for the stuff. It's happening, and will be a ripple effect all the way to Japan.

northatlantic said...

As a commercial and recreational fisherman, and a lover of all things ocean, I have a real problem with Bottomfeeder. Monkfish is a clean, zero bycatch, 100% retention fishery, with a healthy biomass and a fully recovered status. American fisherman are working harder to fish cleaner and sustainably more than ever. There's a number of falsehoods, omissions, and a few outright lies in Bottomfeeder. I think Grescoe himself is a bottomfeeder, cashing in on the alarmist themes of a few ill-informed eco-corporations. I have the facts to back it up.