On the Merits of Fishing


Andrew Revkin has a couple of posts in his NYTimes blog that resonate strongly with me. Responding to an earlier post on the role of values in environmental debates, Revkin posted a part of a colloquy with Richard Louv, who writes about nature, pointing out the importance of direct experience in what Louv calls the “non-built” world, meaning nature to most of us. Louv highlights the disconnection from nature that children exhibit as a result of the lack of direct contact. As adults, the disconnect is exacerbated by the instrumental context so dominant in our modernist culture. Objects found in the world, non-built and other humans, carry values representing their only usefulness. Even intangible qualities like the importance to us of their just being out there—existence values to an economist—are turned into some monetary equivalent to be ranked alongside of everything offered in the marketplace. Revkin quotes Oran Switzer in the earlier post:

But to win the political debate, we need to spend less time on the details of the scientific debate and much more on the underlying values — the costs to humanity, society, and the economy of extreme weather, local floods, local droughts, freshwater scarcity, infectious disease, food security, coastline loss, biodiversity loss, etc.,

By putting “values in terms of the costs to humanity, Switzer fails to recognize that some values, perhaps the most important, cannot be expressed in monetary terms. Trying to win political arguments using economically based values is a losing strategy. The value of nature and humans is infinite in the sense that putting numbers on it makes a categorical error, placing the world as it exists in the realm of economy, not of love where it belongs (more below).

All this leads to the next post in Revkin’s blog, titled, "On Fishing as a Path to Caring About Fish" Revkin writes of a recent fishing excursion with one of his children and friends where they were lucky enough to catch a few bluefish. I have been out fishing most days this summer looking for striped bass earlier and now bluefish. Just a couple of stripers all summer long and not a single bluefish at times and places where they usually abound. Fishing is a mainstay of my summers in Maine. Revkin includes a paragraph from Carl Safina's blog that echoes my own long-standing sense of the importance of getting out there as essential to understand the world on its own terms. Safina was another member of the fishing expedition.

While the humaneness of fishing can validly be questioned, it’s always been my opinion that getting involved with the natural world, including a bit of poking and prodding, dirty hands, new smells, and a full belly, is for most people a more intimate and more lasting experience than just looking at it and experiencing it as scenery.

I always release the stripers, facetiously hoping to catch them a second time. The purported purpose of my fishing is to catch fish, but that’s not the real story. I fish to find a quietness, to learn ever more about the world as it exists without human intervention, to sharpen my powers of observation, all of which are difficult to work on in the busy, noisy world I spend most of my life occupying. Revkin is obviously enamored of fishing. He says, “I love fishing, which was one of the ways, growing up in Rhode Island, that I developed my broader passion for the wider living world outside of the human-built one.”

I also believe that fishing involves love, but not in the same sense as Revkin writes. Love is more than a special feeling. Humberto Maturana, the Chilean biologist I often cite, claims that love is a basic emotion that determines how humans relate to themselves, others and the world. The primary feature of love is the acceptance the existence of entities in the world on their own terms. Love in this way shows up in the world as care. When we love the world we take care of it, not use it. We must transform it; life requires interacting with it, but we can do that with an appreciation for what we disturb and destroy. Fishing brings me closer to the world so that I may discover its essential values and be more care-ful in all of my actions that involve it. Not just the non-built world, but also other people and even myself. Self love, not the narcissistic kind that is so prevalent today, is an essential foundation for flourishing. It promotes authenticity, and an acute awareness of the interconnection to the web that makes life itself possible.

As a postscript, I disagree with Louv’s comments on the meaning of sustainability, quoted by Revkin. Louv says:

Which brings me to terminology. I’ve argued for a while, along with others, that the word “sustainable” is problematic for several reasons, including the fact that, as a word, it suggests stasis. No self-respecting creative 16 year old is interested in stasis or, for that matter, simply surviving. I’ve been talking with Dan Leftwich about this recently, in the context of “The Nature Principle.” As an anti-trust attorney, Dan was part of a legal team that prevailed against Microsoft, and now has turned his attention to how the law frames nature, or vice versa.

The other day he sent me a note suggesting an alternative to the word sustainability: “‘Thriveability’ is much more powerful, and helps elevate the focus and actions on higher principles….With children, do we just want them to survive or do we want them to thrive — the answer becomes obvious when you focus on the right question.”

My definition, sustainability is the possibility that human and other life will flourish on the planet forever, is the antithesis of stasis. Flourishing is a dynamic quality changing with the context. It is emergent from the ever changing world. Sustainability relates to the persistence of this quality, but in that context. The word, sustainability, is problematic only when it is misunderstood.

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Phil Henshaw said:

It's curious that the metaphor of growth has yet to be connected with nature's general process of making things that reliably work by themselves. Her process invariably involves systems become comfortable with themselves at the end of growth, something like the fisherman's ethic described here.

We see nature doing it all over, starting with highly immature things expanding and changing at dangerously rapid rates, to then stop expanding and become highly competent and secure. It's a rather ironic progression, and the same one every time, starting with a process of explosive expansion, as if to take over their new environment entirely.

Things that end up maturing, to take care of themselves somehow, stop being immature somehow. Instead of being like cancers and crowding everything else out they become highly responsible citizens, their new environment. So... for nature, success comes at the end of growth, and beginning of any living system's rich adult life.

Even the master economic growth theorist, J.M. Keynes, proposed having that switch occur to solve the environmental crisis that would come at the limits of his own growth theory. In Chapter 16 of The General Theory he described how the finances would work, if economies were to mature to begin their adult life at the limits of their immature growth.

The special thing Keynes understood was how matter and money are connected. It's financial investment savings that are the stimulus for the economy's physical demands on the earth. At the physical limits of the earth then, financial investment savings would also need to stop growing.

Keynes said "this more favorable possibility comes to the rescue", essentially, if the rich act something like fisherman and take it easy, rather than keep using the money they catch multiply the bait they put in the river. People with money would need a reason to spend enough for the economy's total savings to stop accumulating. It would reverse the debt spiral, and let the economy heal and mature.


RZ said:

Excellent post: but i don't buy the 'blame modernity'-meme that so often resonates in this debate

Don't you also believe the environmental movement
bears responsibility of children en people becoming estranged from nature, creating this 'tourist'relation with nature, portayed as a terminal sick mother earth that only allows company with hands tied on your back during visiting hours?

Also modern environmentalism suffers this same 'estranged from nature'sentiment, promoting the greening of the land by destroying wildlife habitat through windfarms and solar panels, tending the garden of Eden with a CO2-tax instead of care for the real nature in your backyard now

You don't necessarily 'win the debate' by loosing your integrity, but many 'greens' fail to grasp this point