I had a weird day in December. A mundane shopping experience, combined with some great storytelling, reinforced a sad reality of our consumer culture: the miserably broken relationships we maintain with other species. Let’s start with the mundane: a trip to Whole Foods. My wife was with me and wanted to eat fish and I ordered a filet (reflecting the decadent consumer privilege we hold). But the filet was big and I asked the fish seller if he could cut a piece off. He did—the tail end—and then flung the tail into the garbage can. For a moment I was speechless and then started mumbling words of shock and apology—not to the guy but to the fish, and to the Earth. If I had known I would have taken the whole thing (or none at all). “I’m sorry,” I cried, “I’m sorry.”
I felt so ashamed. Not only was I ingesting other beings, which I do (usually) think can be justified, but suddenly a big chunk of life was thrown away for no reason. It also, unconsciously perhaps, revealed that this must be happening all the time—either driven by a ‘customer is always right’ motto or indifference on the part of the employees (either of which is sad for different reasons).
Ultimately, I walked away blaming myself, though wishing the employee had simply said, if I cut a piece off I’ll have to throw the smaller piece away. I would have absolutely taken the whole thing or simply picked a different portion of fish.
Throwing Away Living Beings
Now that’s not a story I probably would have shared except that a few hours after that I went and saw Avatar: The Way of the Water. I was still reeling with guilt for my fish-purchasing experience and now I watched the same story unfold in front of me (warning: some spoilers below).
In this continuation of Avatar, Jake Sully retreats to the land of coastal Na’vi to avoid being killed by the humans. In this new realm of Pandora, we find the humans hunting tulkuns, whale-like creatures (who in this case can telepathically talk with the Water Na’vi1), for their amrita, a yellowish-liquid2 that stops aging in humans (and is worth a lot of money). All that is over-the-top allegory (like unobtainium) reflecting our obsession with converting natural capital to economic capital of one sort or another. And yes, people did something even worse, hunting whales en masse for oil (including the 2,000 liters of sperm oil in the heads of sperm whales), and then, even when kerosene became a cheaper substitute, people continued to hunt them for oil, to make pet food, and even for their baleen—to put in umbrellas, whips, hoop skirts, and corsets.3
But the relevant part: all this slaughter of the tulkuns was happening far away from the Water Na’vi so they didn’t know and could continue to ignore the humans. Only when the humans left the body of a murdered tulkun purposefully did the Water Na’vi get mad and fight back. Before that, even as the tulkuns were disappearing, they went about their lives.
On a much smaller scale—heightened by the beautiful Na’vi story-world—did I feel the same way? Sure, I can (and do) imagine the giant fishing trawlers harvesting billions of (or perhaps even a trillion) fish each year. Emptying the waters, throwing away bycatch that isn’t valuable enough to bother with, raking up the ocean floors, displacing local fisherfolk, kidnapping and enslaving vulnerable peoples to fish—all of that is happening and should be enough to trigger the people to fight (or at least not eat fish).4 But then again, fish is good for you (they say) and it’s tasty, so maybe a piece of fish once a month or so isn’t bad? After all, people have been eating fish since before we were human and as long as you buy wild, sustainable fish, maybe it’s ok?5 Then, suddenly, you see the waste directly—the perfectly good meat being tossed disdainfully into the trashcan—and you question the assumptions and rationalizations that protect your consumer habits.
I’m not saying everyone should devote themselves to fighting to save the fish, to reform the fishing industry, to protect the oceans, or to promote a more sustainable diet. Yes, committing oneself to any of these battles is a worthy and just life path—but these are just a few of the battlefronts in the full assault humans are waging on Gaia. (Similar to The Way of Water—while humans are destroying the land, others are attacking the sea, and who knows what other abuses they’re waging that James Cameron has yet to introduce.) There are countless frays to join—it’s more about picking which one you’re willing to devote yourself too, though at moments like this, it’s hard not to want to join them all.
Living Right with Animals
Beyond the fight, we must also work toward reestablishing a right relationship with non-human beings. I remember visiting a colonial village outside of DC many years back for a special event called “Everything but the Squeal.” That was the expression colonists used back then to convey what parts of the pig they used. It’s cruel if you dissect it (the saying not the pig), but it reflects the respectful use of the entire animal. As with Indigenous whale hunters, they wouldn’t just harvest the oil, but every part of the animal would be used: the meat, the skin, the blubber, the organs, the bones, the baleen. And of course, they’d also give thanks and remember their interdependence, which we rarely (if ever) do when collecting a package of shrink-wrapped meat from the store or when jamming burgers in our faces.
Ultimately, our conscious destruction of Gaia to sustain our consumer way of life has to stop, as does our excellent ability of pretending this isn’t happening. I admit that the latter is a good defense against the powerlessness one can feel when visualizing that destruction, but an even better defense is actively opposing it—on whichever battlefield you choose to engage.
1) The water Na’vi are mostly like the land going Na’vi, but they evolved in slightly different ways. Physically, they have stronger tails, different shaped arms and legs, and third eyelids. Culturally, they hold deeper knowledge of breath holding techniques and bond with sea animals rather than land animals). They also seem to have remained completely unconnected with land going Na’vi—no trade, no cultural exchanges—but let’s ignore that, as it made for a more intense story.
2) Looks an awful lot like sperm oil.
4) I’ve shared this essay with Whole Foods, prompted by this experience, and have asked for a clearer policy on fish selection. Not throwing expensive fish away is clearly in their fiscal and reputational interest, and suspect this is not official policy.
5) Note the doubt and rationalization in my questions.