“The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything (Genesis 9: 2).”
Imagine you live in a perpetual war zone. All around, houses are being destroyed, landscapes flattened and people, trees, plants and animals are raked up and ruined. As soon as the neighborhood recovers, maybe over a period of years or decades, another onslaught ensues. The few who manage to endure and flee find adjacent locations under similar assault. Survival under such conditions is impossible. This is the scourge Western, Christian, capitalist culture inflicts upon the natural world.
Fishing has been closed in several key areas across the Southeastern United States Atlantic coastal waters recently as a response to the near collapse of several key fish populations. Last week, as I visited Ocracoke and Cape Hatteras on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, many of the local fishermen were complaining about this recent development. While none were forecasting economic ruin for their small businesses (plenty of fisheries are still open), they did note that the closing of the fishing grounds would inhibit their ability to reliably fish for grouper and other bottom dwelling fish. Most blamed the Obama Administration for their “concern for fish over people.”
Similar sagas play out across the continent on a regular basis. The infamous spotted owl controversy pitted the timber industry and all of the workers who depended upon deforestation for their livelihoods against conservationists who sought to prevent the extinction of an endangered species (Strix occidentalis caurina).
Unfortunately, passions within the public are easy to inflame by those with an agenda. The fisheries problems along the eastern seaboard were not caused by fish or the Obama Administration, and the issue is not about fish over people. For decades, catastrophic bottom trawling fishing techniques, largely employed by large corporate enterprises rather than small commercial fishermen, have literally scraped the living sea floor clean of life and habitat. Sadly, most of what is destroyed or captured in the process is tossed away as unintended bycatch. The process is like dropping a bomb on a forest to harvest a few deer. Bottom trawling has left the ocean floor devastated, and consequently, fish populations cannot rebound unless the ocean is given time to heal. Continued assault must be halted to prevent permanent ruin of the ocean floor.
The clear cutting of old growth forests by corporate timber interests has had a similar effect on habitats in the Pacific Northwest. Not surprisingly, spotted owls and all other forest-dwelling species cannot survive without forest. Once again, corporate giants annihilate complete ecosystems, condemning thousands of innocent bystander species to death for the sake of the harvest of a few trees. The systematic deforestation of old growth forests by massive corporations has created an environmental quagmire.
Fishermen are enraged by “liberal” laws that now prevent them from sustainably earning their livelihoods as they have done for generations. Workers in the Pacific Northwest blame the same “liberal” laws for costing them much needed jobs, and the corporate profiteers who inflame these passions have successfully guided public anger away from the real culprits, themselves.
We live in a culture that allows for a few to steal from the many. The profits in Kimberly Clark’s coffers represent old growth forests rendered into toilet paper: forests that belonged to all of the living creatures and humans that inhabited them. As the bottom line in Kimberly Clark’s bank balance grows, the rest of living creation finds itself jobless and homeless. The complete annihilation of old growth forests has ruined an ecosystem that if left intact, would have provided myriad sustainable business opportunities without killing all the non-human inhabitants.
Similarly, fished according to traditional custom, the fisheries off the Outer Banks could have supported generations of residents into the foreseeable future, but the commercial scraping of the ocean bottom has rendered it sterile of life, so nobody is able to earn a living from it anymore.
But instead of being outraged by the corporate greed that not only steals our resources but destroys ecosystems beyond recovery, people turn against legislators as they make a last ditch effort to save the few living fragments of nature that remain. The legislation they rail against is ultimately the only hope to save the natural heritage ruined by corporate greed, but people see it instead as a battle between individuals and owls.
“Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed” – Republican President Richard Nixon at the signing of the Endangered Species Act, 1973.
The corporations would not have such an easy time of making us hate owls and fish if our endemic culture didn’t already set up the conflict. We live in a culture that fundamentally does not believe that other living things are as deserving of life as humans are. Nixon was wrong. We don’t believe that nothing is more priceless than the rich array of animal life. We think profits are more priceless. But when the last tree is converted to toilet paper and the last fish has been swept from the ocean bottom, all those dollars in the bank will be worthless because there will be nothing left to buy.