Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Fish I’s

Posted by metaphorical on 24 January 2008

Two news reports this week call into question the wisdom of eating fish, a small but important part of my diet, leaving me uncertain what to do.

Let me start by acknowledging that most people do not accept a fundamental premise of this post, namely the connection between reason and diet. Such people may pay lip-service to ideas (such as that animals think and feel and are generally sentient in a way fundamentally like ourselves) that should lead them to change their dietary habits. But the principles don’t in fact inspire any change. For most people, dietary change based on respect for animals is not, as William James put it, a genuine option. I’ll discuss that a bit later on.

I’ll start with the simpler of the two stories, reprised in an editiorial in today’s NY Times.

Tuna Troubles

Many New Yorkers have come to love the convenience, taste and aesthetic appeal of sushi. But as The Times reported Wednesday after testing tuna from 20 Manhattan stores and restaurants, sushi made from bluefin tuna may contain unacceptable levels of mercury, which acts as a neurotoxin.


If you regularly eat as few as six pieces of tuna sushi a week, you may be consuming more mercury than the levels considered acceptable by the Environmental Protection Agency.

As it happens, I might be one of those people. (It’s hard to say. I have sushi 2-3 times a week, and usually include one tuna maki in my order. Is a maki 1 or maybe 2 pieces, as the Times is counting them, or all 6? Who knows. This kind of imprecision in a investigative piece is maddening.) I also sometimes have fresh tuna in other forms, such as salads.

Why do I eat fish at all? I was a strict vegan for three years, with some of the usual reasons but not all of them. In addition to concerns about my own health and that of the environment, I objected on grounds of cruelty to how animals were reared, and how they were killed, and how many were reared and killed for food. But I didn’t object, per se, to the general idea of humans killing animals for food.

Fish by and large live in the wild, and the conditions of farmed fish, such as catfish, are not the miserable ones that cattle, hogs, and chickens endure. And while death by driftnet is surely painful, it’s probably not worse than the death a fish would experience naturally. Mercury concentrations raise a big concern, but otherwise, from a health point of view, I’ve found an enormous difference between fish oil and animal fats.

So the same fish that get caught in those driftnets largely escape the net of objections that led to my veganism. Which brings us to the other report, also summarized in a Times editorial, this one from Monday.

Until All the Fish Are Gone

Scientists have been warning for years that overfishing is degrading the health of the oceans and destroying the fish species on which much of humanity depends for jobs and food. Even so, it would be hard to frame the problem more dramatically than two recent articles in The Times detailing the disastrous environmental, economic and human consequences of often illegal industrial fishing.

Sharon LaFraniere showed how mechanized fishing fleets from the European Union and nations like China and Russia — usually with the complicity of local governments — have nearly picked clean the oceans off Senegal and other northwest African countries. This has ruined coastal economies and added to the surge of suddenly unemployed migrants who brave the high seas in wooden boats seeking a new life in Europe, where they are often not welcome.

The second article, by Elisabeth Rosenthal, focused on Europe’s insatiable appetite for fish — it is now the world’s largest consumer. Having overfished its own waters of popular species like tuna, swordfish and cod, Europe now imports 60 percent of what it consumes. Of that, up to half is contraband, fish caught and shipped in violation of government quotas and treaties.

If current fishing practices are unsustainable, they are wrong. Period. And a consumer such as myself ought to consider his or her contribution to that wrong. Ultimately, it is our purchasing dollars that sustain any unsustainable practice, whether it is unsustainable in practical terms, such as mechanized fleet fishing, or in terms of cruelty, as the factory farmed cattle industry is.

The “ought” is a moral one, of course. For anyone to feel its force, however — for it to have any practical consequences on behavior — it has to be what William James called a genuine option. James, arguably the founder of modern psychology, spelled this out in a seminal essay, “The Will To Believe.” (There are copies of the essay here and here.)

Without delving too deeply into James’s theories (which deserve a post of their own, at the least), I’ll note that for him, a genuine option has to, first and foremost, be a live one. He describes live options this way:

Let us give the name of hypothesis to anything that may be proposed to our belief; and just as the electricians speak of live and dead wires, let us speak of any hypothesis as either live or dead A live hypothesis is one which appeals as a real possibility to him to whom it is proposed. If I ask you to believe in the Mahdi, the notion makes no electric connection with your nature,–it refuses to scintillate with any credibility at all. As an hypothesis it is completely dead. To an Arab, however (even if he be not one of the Madhi’s followers), the hypothesis is among the mind’s possibilities: it is alive. This shows that deadness and liveness in an hypothesis are not intrinsic properties, but relations to the individual thinker. They are measured by his willingness to act. The maximum of liveness in hypothesis means willingness to act irrevocably. Practically, that means belief; but there is some believing tendency wherever there is willingness to act at all.

The example an interesting one. My first year as a grad student, I taught discussion sections for the big Intro to Philosophy class. The instructor was the department chair, Laird Addis, a proselytizing atheist. Though an atheist myself, I found his hard-sell offputting and his condemnations of religion alienating. He did, though, offer our clean-scrubbed Iowa farmboys and -girls a useful thought experiment. “Would you be a Christian if you were born in India or Iran or China or Cambodia?” he asked. “Surely the odds would be a lot lower.”

Custom, culture, habit, and peer pressure combine to give us many of the beliefs we have. My own odds of being an atheist would surely be lower were I not a third-generation one.

James himself says,

It is only our already dead hypotheses that our willing nature is unable to bring to life again. But what has made them dead for us is for the most part a previous action of our willing nature of an antagonistic kind. When I say ‘willing nature,’ I do not mean only such deliberate volitions as may have set up habits of belief that we cannot now escape from,–I mean all such factors of belief as fear and hope, prejudice and passion, imitation and partisanship, the circumpressure of our caste and set.

I live eternally in the hope that my fellow humans can cast off our prejudices and passions, imitations and partisanships, and the circumpressures of caste and set, and see cows, hogs, and chickens as we see dolphins and dachshunds. For my part, I’m going to rethink the question of tuna, yellowtail, and the even the shrimp that go into my tempura rolls.

6 Responses to “Fish I’s”

  1. digglahhh said

    It’s a real tough situation. What kinda sucks, is that more vigilant you seem to become the more problems you begin to create for yourself.

    So, first you stop eating meat. You’re a vegetarian. Then you realize dairy is just as bad if not worse (health-wise and environmentally), and that the meat industry is, in some respects, just the byproduct of the huge dairy industry (gotta do something to the males that come out while you’re trying to breed females).

    So, then you denounce dairy.

    You may or may not eat fish, I guess some rationales for the original change would keep fish as a viable option, while others wouldn’t.

    No you’re a vegan.

    But, what about genetically modified foods. Now, you have to eat organic (real organic, not empty advertising rhetoric organic).

    What about leather shoes? Can I wear those?

    You just create more and more issues for yourself.

    I don’t see these “issues” as problems that should be avoided by just eating McDonalds or anything. I just find the whole process difficult to negotiate, when can you say that you aren’t part of the problem?

    Can you ever even say that?

    Are we just focusing on the symptom only to let the disease fester? Is it really high-tech, modern civilization as an entity that is really unsustainable?…

  2. digglahhh said

    Meta, the “you” in the above post is not you – Meta, btw…

    I have a second point, but wanted to keep them separate.

    The above post notwithstanding, I really hate it when people talk about how they can’t revamp their diets. I’ve made pretty substantial changes to my diet (most my encounters with Meta misrepresent my general eating habits because they are “special occasions).

    Most times when discussions with friends turn to these topics, I get the same old bullshit.

    “How can a little salad fill me up?”

    Umm, I’m a bigger fat ass than you, and it does me just fine! Hey, it’s not my fault you’re completely delusional about how much food your body needs. Have you ever seen how people other than Americans eat? (That one is ironic because I never travel anywhere, just a few posts ago it was implied that I don’t even leave New York – if I found a job in Queens I may even be able to go several months without leaving the borough!)

    The idea of “can’t” is infuriating. Let’s be very real, the eating habits of most Americans are of grave threat to their own health, as well that of the environment. That’s a fucking fact!

    It’s no secret to any of my friends that I enjoy drinking. Now, if I were to tell you that I could not stop drinking, you’d say that I should take my ass to rehab (word to Amy Winehouse)… Well, put your money where my Patron bottle is. If you truly CAN’T change your diet, you have a pathological problem that will likely kill you. So you have a few options:

    A) Get some self esteem and give yourself credit because you can do a lot more than you think you can.

    B) Stop throwing around the word “can’t” around, conflating it with don’t want to.

    C) Admit that you have a debilitating addiction and seek help.

  3. ClaireDePlume said

    As a child, it was more often than not that some would tell us little ones, “Treat your body as a temple”.

    I eat sushi (well mostly sashimi, same thing). I used to eat a rather typical North American diet. All that changed when the subtle language of my body turned into a loud roar. No more meat, no more dairy. Not to mention a whole bunch of other foods too many to list, and very difficult to avoid in the world according to the North American diet. We as a culture are eating ourselves to death, literally.
    It’s ironic that we starve or bodies with gluttony, while most of the world simply starves.

    It has not been difficult to remove red meat & chicken from my own diet. The thought of our cruelty to other living beings prohibits me from putting these foods in my mouth. If people tend to sneer at me or avert their glance while suppressing disapproval (and some do), I simply ask how anyone can put food into their bodies which has been genetically altered, pumped full of hormones, and at the last moment of an animal’s miserable life, flooded with an adrenal rush of terror which circulates through every cell and tissue as it braces itself for it’s own savage end. But I am not against eating meat!, and as recently as 6 months ago, ate venison that had been felled by the single bullet from a shot gun.

    I have placated my anxieties over eating fish based on my own perception of the level of consciousness in Fish. As far as I can tell, fish do not come when called and rarely cuddle. And I’ve been eating fish for most of my life but now rely on it as major source of protein and Omega 3 & 6 oils. The word on the street is that fish is toxic, and this has been public for some time. Any alternative health care professional will tell you (us) to limit and preferably avoid eating fish because of mercury toxicity. I’ve placated my own anxieties by reading various websites that list fish by levels of toxicity, and follow the list of the least toxic for my diet. Wild pacific salmon is “okay” as fish go, Atlantic farmed salmon is “bad” as is tuna. This also applies to sea bass, tilapia, trout, and almost any fish we might find in our local market. Shrimp is a “bottom feeder” and is “unclean”.

    So I rely on other protein sources and allow myself to eat fish no more than 2 or 3 times a week. It’s getting to the point that my senses and sensitivities are whispering in my ear as I eat “Live” food – such as vegetables or bean sprouts or anything live & raw from a living thing. It’s reminiscent of a Gary Larson cartoon, “Vegetarians returning from the hunt”.
    And this is before I hesitate over the organic produce section, wondering just how these mass quantities can ever be offered free of chemicals and genetic modifications when there are so many mouths to feed.

    Yet, I’ve never forgotten that my body is a temple and am conflicted to fulfill this mandate in light of the growing list of toxic food we now know as our primary sustenance. Of course, I wish to honour my own life and therefore must feed my body with an oleo of questionable food.

    It is ironic that there are no easy choices in our human lives. Live by the sword, die by it. To eat or not to eat? To be or not to be?

  4. Meta, Digg, and ClaireDePlume — you’ve certainly got me here– and there appears no easy answer– why not go back to being vegan?

    And Meta, if you think that “death by driftnet” is not so bad, how about death by lice? There are increasing reports that lice, and other pathogens and parasites from farm raised fish are preying on wild salmon and other wild fish populations–(see article by CORNELIA DEAN in last month’s NYT (Dec 14) ). As I’m sure you know, for all the benefits of omega 3’s from wild fish, the farmbred varieties– are not at all as beneficial. In fact, farmed salmon:

    1. have seven times the levels of PCB’s as wild salmon
    2. have 30 times the number of sea lice
    3. are fed chemicals to give them color
    4. are fed pellets of chicken feces, corn meal, soy, genetically modified canola oil and other fish containing concentrations of toxins
    5. are administered antibiotics at higher levels than any other livestock
    6. have less omega 3’s due to lack of wild diet
    7. are crowed into small areas inhibiting movement, and causing disease

    After being a long time vegetarian, I joined the ranks of “pesco-vegetarians”– and now I’m rethinking the equation.

    Somewhere in there I found myself at an “anti-biotech” rally co-organized by someone who was a dropout from bioscience. After a morning of talks with just about everyone in the audience in agreement about their vegetarian values– I was stunned by a statement from this person. It followed a number of impassioned discussions, including one stimulated by the question: “If you had the choice to eat a piece of meat that could somehow be raised without a nervous system would you do it?”

    The woman who I came to hear, (the bioscience drop out, now working in a health food store and growing mushrooms, advocating against the establishment “agri-industry”–) spoke up and said: “I’ve come to terms with eating and being eaten” she said. “The other day I ate a hedgehog caught in my own backyard. After all, what difference is there between that and a carrot?”

    I’m not sure I’ve quite captured the shock value at the time, especially given the intensity of everyone’s deeply held values…
    Myself, I’m going to ease off on the sushi. THANKS for the reminder!

  5. Sophia, your comment befits your name, thank you for it. I for one didn’t know the extent of the differences between farmed and wild salmon. Definitely food for thought.

    As to the bioscience dropout and her shocking remarks, about a year ago, a post here asked the question “What if we could create meat without raising and killing animals?”

    The post,
    Separating the animal-rights activists from the spiritualists
    , took as its starting point a report in Popular Mechanics “that scientists are not only chasing that goal, they’re getting much closer to creating “giant sheets of grayish meat grown on factory racks for human consumption.” More food for thought, thanks too for reminding me of that.

  6. Ah Meta:

    you flatter me-but don’t let my name fool you —

    as for those factory grown sheets of grayish meat–sorry I reminded you– they sound almost as appealing as my smoke-flavored soy based cheese!

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