A Fish-wife's Tale

Stanley Fish, writing his occasional column for the New York Times on August 3, 2008, devoted all ten inches or so of his column space dissing environmentalists in his typical erudite fashion. Kind of surprising as he usually turns his critical eye to modernists, ideologues, and all sorts of rigid thinkers. Headlined, “I Am, Therefore I Pollute,” the article apologizes for his disinterest in doing anything explicitly designed to help out the Planet. I usually applaud his work, but this time he pointed his critical finger at people like me.

His wife gets it, and has been making a valiant try to get him to join her in replacing simple things around the house like toilet paper and light bulbs with less polluting, more efficient things.

Things reached something of a crisis point a few days ago when my wife asked me to read a communique from Greenpeace. (She thought, she told me, that if I read it rather than hearing about it from her, my unhappiness would be directed at the organization.) It said that Kimberly-Clark, the maker of the paper towels, facial tissue and toilet paper we buy, does not use recycled fiber and instead “gets its virgin wood fiber clear-cut from … the North American Boreal … one of the world’s most important forests.” And that meant, she told me, that we would have to give those items up and go in search of green alternatives. But we had already done that once before when it turned out that the manufacturer of the paper products we used to buy — Procter and Gamble — engaged in research on animals. That’s when we found Kimberly-Clark. So it seems that the pure were not so pure after all, and who’s to say that the next corporation won’t have an ecological skeleton in its closet, too?

Reading further, I got the sense that Fish was not attacking the idea of environmental care, nor those that were doing something about it; he was making his frequent argument against rules of all sorts, even those that he might agree with in principle.

Categorization being what it is, there is no end to the subcategories that can be devised, each of them bringing with it a new set of strictures and a new opportunity to be inadequate and delinquent. Michel Foucault made a career of observing that modern techniques of regulation are more far-reaching and consequential than the old way of keeping people in line with guns and clubs, especially when they are imposed for your own good and for the good of society. He would have had a field day with recycling and would no doubt have written a book (maybe he did and I missed it while sorting the garbage), entitled, perhaps, “The Archaeology of Waste.”

He misses the point here. He does, at least, acknowledge his contribution to the burden that waste lays on the Earth. The title, as cute as it is, points to the inevitable tie between life’s processes and pollution and waste. Yes in simply being, we all pollute. But he goes astray when he opts out of any responsibility for doing anything about it. Maybe there is no grand narrative on which to frame ethical rules, as Fish so often claims, but it is undeniable that we all live in a complex, interconnected system where sustainability for any individual depends on the actions of everyone else. If it cannot be argued that taking care of the world is an ethical imperative, it is, at least, a matter of self-interest. C’mon Stanley, pay attention to your wife.