Thursday, August 25, 2011

Sport, or not? Hunting, philosophy, & language

© 2011 Joshua Stark

It's funny, because my title, compared to those at Holly's, Tovar's, and Phillip's, is pretty high-falutin, but I won't go nearly as deep as they.

Currently, these three sites are having a great philosophical conversation over whether or not A:  hunting is a sport; and B:  whether that is good or bad.

Tovar and Holly (and me, to be honest) take the tack that hunting, to us, is not "sport" in the general sense of the word, and that the term dilutes, diminishes, and ultimately harms hunting in the general public's eyes.  Phillip, bless his soul, embraces his hunting as sport, and gently chides us for falling for stereotypes (sport and "trophy" hunters as bad folks), rather than trying to destroy them.  His inference (which he's made more clear at other times) is that the hunting community shouldn't be torn apart by these esoteric distinctions.

Personally, I don't think hunting is a sport, in the general definition of the term.  That is, I believe that the impacts to hunting (physically, emotionally) separate it from the category of sports.  Specifically, I think the fact that you try to kill an animal during hunting (and much fishing) means that it is, inherently, different from other categories of recreation, and "sport" has a dismissive tone to it nowadays that diminishes the gravity of killing.  I, for one, don't use the term for this very reason.

Phillip's argument seems, to me, a bit off-focus.  First, he seems to define "sport" as encompassing all recreational pursuits.  If this is true, then I concede that hunting is a "sport", but I don't buy his definition.  I think there are many pursuits, and that within the realm of recreational pursuits there exists both sports and other things (reading, for example).  There are also some activities that are both recreational and something else, entirely.  For example, many people do not grocery shop as a recreational pursuit, but many people fish for both recreation and food. 

There are characteristics to the common definition of "sport" that do not ethically fit with hunting, especially when considered from the perspective of the non-hunting public.  For example, sport tends to have a competitive element, but when that is applied to hunting, the non-hunting public imagines people who want to kill something in order to beat somebody else, and they tend to be repulsed by this urge.  

It seems as though Phillip is really upset that some hunters condemn certain hunting practices or attitudes, and that this leads to fractures in hunting that may jeopardize it for all of us.  He gives a lecture on the evils of stereotypes, and ends by suggesting that Tovar and Holly are not trying to destroy stereotypes, but are actually bolstering them by taking a side. 

But, this isn't a case of stereotypes, this is a case of identifying unethical actions and condemning those actions.  I (and probably Tovar and Holly) aren't taking a group of people, identifying them by one shared characteristic and then attributing to them additional characteristics that aren't true.  We are saying that a particular action may be, or is, wrong.  In the case of hunting, there are people who hunt for trophies, there are hunters who kill only to kill, and I (and probably Tovar and Holly) do not believe this is ethical behavior.  We have a different standard from Phillip (we don't draw the ethical line at the law, which is a totally different conversation).  But, that's okay.  Hunting, like all good human endeavors, will thrive when people think more deeply about it and talk openly about it. 

Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and if hunting couldn't survive public scrutiny, then it shouldn't survive it.  I, for one, know that much of it is good and important to pass down, including the ethical considerations.  I know hunting can survive this argument.

(Note:  Phillip's link doesn't seem to be working, so go to his main website page for reference.)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Yo-Yo: Grist with a good article on eating fish

© 2011 Joshua Stark

Grist has a good interview with chef/author Barton Seaver about eating seafood.  It's a tad light on actual tactics for improving our ocean conditions by eating seafood, but it is still worth a read.

This is a big step away from the opinion piece it ran a couple of weeks back on an oyster farmer's desire to own more farms at the expense of other fisheries... well, perhaps I'm being a bit harsh, but that is how it read to me.

Mr. Seaver does explain one tactic for improving our impact, and it happens to be one of my favorites:  Eat lower on the seafood food chain.  He doesn't make the claim so directly, but the fish he points out that need to be replacing the giant, slow-growing (and often toxin-laden) predators we currently eat are smaller prey species like sardines and mackerel.  These just so happen to be the tastiest fish one can eat (we had grilled, whole sardines two nights ago!), and they are also cheaper than the big ones.

It was a refreshing change to read at Grist, though it wasn't a complete rebuttal to the earlier piece.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Level-headed and honest discussions about famine, climate change & overpopulation

© 2011 Joshua Stark

Within ten days, two separate radio programs addressed the controversy around overpopulation, and they did it exactly like it should be done:  in passing, dismissing it as a separate threat, and mentioning it only in the context of sociopolitical pressures and poverty.

These two shows?  Forum, with Michael Krasny, and Talk of the Nation Science Friday, with Ira Flatow.

In the Forum episode, an update on Somalia, Semhar Araia, the regional director for OxFam's work on the horn of Africa, addressed an email from a listener who railed about Somalia's inability to feed its too crowded landscape.  In perhaps two sentences, Mr. Araia stated clearly that Somalia has the ability to feed itself even under the current circumstances.  People were starving to death there because militia groups were preventing them from reaching food.

It is as simple and as horrifying as that.  Somalia doesn't suffer from brown and black people having too many babies, it suffers under the hands of vile militias.

And today on Science Friday, in an entire discussion (I think it was a half-hour) on food, its production, and climate change, only a few scant seconds were given to overpopulation as a problem in and of itself.  Ira Flatow started off with the fear-mongering threat we often hear - by 2050 there will be 9 billion people - and the respondent replied, to agreement with the other speakers, that:  first, we may not even reach 9 billion by 2050; second, we grow enough under current situations to feed all of us; third, the problems are an overpopulation of poverty and distribution - and more specifically, that when people get out of abject poverty, they will want to eat more and different foods; fourth, climate change is going to impact our yield, and so we need to study those impacts and do what we can to mitigate them. 

Again, that was it.  Overpopulation was not the problem.  (For the record, I think Mr. Flatow was lobbing a softball in his question on overpopulation.)

I hope to post a bit more on the Science Friday show, because there is so much in there to take apart related to ethics and the environment, but I wanted to make the overpopulation issue clear:  For most folks seriously working to improve food security, overpopulation isn't the problem. 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Opinion piece in Grist gets it wrong about fishing

© 2011 Joshua Stark

There are few controversies in the environmentalist world quite like fishing.  Most folks agree that most recreational (though I hate that term) fishing is a great way for children to connect directly to the wild in a special way, a way that often begins a lifetime of love and appreciation for the outdoors; fishing is often our gateway.  Really, only the animal rights groups have a problem with recreational and subsistence fishing, and as I've pointed out before, "animal rights" is not environmentalism.

But, then there is "commercial fishing", that ugly moniker attached to images of mutilated sharks, denuded seascapes, and "Whale Wars".

Yet, there is more to commercial fishing than many give credit.  Commercial fishing, when done right, is a powerful way for many people to connect to the wild, through their food.  In fact, commercial fishing is the only major food market left with a direct connection to and need for healthy wild places.  And many organizations and fishing groups have tried to make commercial fishing an ecologically viable enterprise, especially in the past couple of decades, and especially in California. 

Also, consider commercial fishing's impact to wildness vs. farming's impact.  As one fisheries biologist points out, commercial fishing, at its worst, impacts about 30% of habitat, while agriculture, at its best, still impacts very nearly 100%, by completely altering landscapes. 

And the importance of having a group of people whose very livelihoods are affected by the health of ecosystems is vital to ensuring that those same ecosystems have a voice in our democratic systems.

I'm not defending all commercial fishing, but I am arguing that it is a powerful connection to a wild place that would suffer worse without that connection.

This is why I'm disappointed in a recent opinion piece in Grist Magazine titled the, "Sustainable Seafood Myth".  I can expect Grist to go over the top on a typical day, though I am a fan of their reporting and suffer the flash to get to the meat of their stories, but this one didn't have much meat.

Grist uses the very real dangers associated with global warming to pooh-pooh Whole Foods' (and others') attempts to provide real information to consumers about the sustainability of various fish.  Instead of asking Whole Foods why they might still sell fish with a low sustainability rating (I don't know if they do), or simply pointing out that the sustainability rating should include carbon emissions, the piece makes wild claims like, "Sadly, in the era of climate crisis, overfishing and other forms of unsustainable harvest are the least of our problems."

First of all, the least of our problems are still problems.  Second, if it's in the "problems" category, there is no reason to attack a solution.  Third, it may be the least of our problems, but it ain't the least of fish's problems.

The author of the piece does recommend that sustainability rating systems include carbon footprints, but he then wades into deeper waters with an over-simplified and risky solution:

"...dedicating portions of the ocean to farming -- while reserving large swaths for marine conservation parks. These farms need to be small and decentralized. Industrial aquaculture farms have rightly been branded as large-scale polluters producing low-quality food. Simply replacing destructive fishing fleets with destructive global fish farms will only hasten the demise of our oceans. Guided by principles of sustainability, our shorelines of the future can be dotted with organic fish farms servicing local communities."

Ah.  So, the author (an oyster farmer) sees a solution in ending our connection to the wild and replacing it with seafood only for those wealthy enough to live right next to the sea... got it.

This excerpt is so damaging on so many levels, and so completely dumbs-down so many ideas, that it becomes destructive to the greater good.  First, "marine conservation parks" can be problematic, as they often only disallow fishing, but allow for water pollution and resource extraction, both of which come with far larger carbon footprints and other ecological impacts than well-regulated fishing.

Second, dedicating portions of the ocean to farming is the same thing as saying "completely denuding wild landscapes from portions of the ocean and replacing them completely with man-made operations".  Third, not all large-scale aquaculture is bad - in fact, fully enclosed, freshwater systems are very important alternatives that remove impacts on the oceans and can provide local fish to inland consumers who aren't blessed with trust funds. 

Shorelines and oceans aren't homogenous, but pretending that one stretch of beach is the same as another is detrimental to an understanding of fish, habitats, and fishing.  The same spot that will make a great oyster farm (for example) is very often the very same spot that makes great wild habitat for varieties of species.

Last, fish farming in ocean waters is problematic, not only because of the damage it has on wild systems, but because of the political economy.  Fish farms can scale up and pressure markets and governments quickly, and without commercial fishing operations who need healthy ecosystems, there will be little pressure to keep farms' impacts in check through regulation.  (This is true for any industry:  hence, the "well-regulated" label.)

Commercial fishing has a horrible history, but there are proven ways to operate a well-regulated system that helps the environment - just think of the salmon folks fighting today to recover salmon habitat inland throughout the Pacific Northwest and California.  And the commercial folks' check on  aquaculture is vital to a well-regulated market.  We would be far worse off if we lost yet another connection to our wild oceans.

At the end of the piece, we are tasked to, "reimagine our waters as agrarian eco-spaces designed to curb seafood's carbon footprint..."  To which I say no, thank you.  I prefer not to "imagine" my waters as anything. I prefer to understand my waters as they are, and to understand and improve my relationship with them.  I do not wish to pretend that just by ending commercial fishing they will no longer suffer from global warming.

(In the interests of full disclosure, I am a board member of SalmonAid.)

Monday, August 1, 2011

A short, non-environmental post on the debt "deal"

© 2011 Joshua Stark

The title of this AP piece, and EVERY article about this horrific deal should be:


Here's the most important quotation from the above-linked article:

"Yet it appeared Obama's proposal to extend the current payroll tax holiday beyond the end of 2011 would not be included. Nor would his call for extended unemployment benefits for victims of the recession."

Republicans are now running around saying they kept taxes from going up, but what happened is that they wouldn't vote for an extension of a tax cut to working folks, nor would they vote to back-fill these tax losses through taxing corporate jets.

Democrats are running around saying that they get the debt ceiling raised, thus averting catastrophe, but happened is that they were willing to let their major donors in the financial sector get away with not having to deal with the catastrophe they've created, this limping-along recoveryless recovery.  They also voted to cut unemployment extensions and to raise taxes on working people at the same time.

Here's a quick reminder of the definition of "unemployment":  Those who do not have a job, but who are able to work and are actively seeking work.  It's these people that keep inflation in check - and if there are too many of them, they drive down wages and keep recoveries from happening (sound familiar?).

This is a sham, another slap in the face to working people and people who want to work, and another meaty steak for the rich.  What a sorry, sorry state we are in.