Eat Fish or Cut Bait?

Is eating sustainable, non-farmed seafood enough? A philosophical foodie dilemma

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Eric Fougere / Corbis

Philosopher Slavoj Zizek, photographed in Paris, March 4, 2011

The first thing you need to know about Slavoj Zizek, the world’s most influential philosopher who is still alive, is that he is crazy. You can’t understand half of what he’s saying. His ideas are drawn from the most arcane, abstruse fields of thought ever invented by man: Lacanian psychoanalysis, post-structuralism, Hegelian metaphysics and post-Marxist cultural studies. Why I would let such a man dictate my seafood choices isn’t immediately obvious, even to myself. But I will try to explain.

Unlike most philosophers, Zizek exists in the public sphere. He’s a kind of Slovenian Socrates, who goes around everywhere, talking about everything, challenging commonly held opinions and generally causing trouble. A senior researcher at the University of Ljubljana, he is said to have briefly dated Lady Gaga, although both parties insist they are just friends. He speaks to many subjects with great passion and conviction, and while no one in his right mind would agree with everything Zizek says, one cannot ignore his points without peril. So when Zizek expressed his skepticism about our attitudes toward ecology, I took it seriously. And that meant rethinking the way I address ecological crisis in my tiny corner of the world: by making an effort to eat only sustainable seafood.

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In my opinion, the depopulation of the world’s oceans is a crisis every bit as nightmarish as global warming — and in fact, the two are closely related. The option that is in front of me is to eat only fish that are small, which can repopulate quickly, and which are caught via methods that aren’t catastrophically destructive (i.e., like dredging up the whole bottom of the ocean, a common practice used in harvesting scallops, crabs and other benthic life). This effort dovetails nicely with my lifelong love of small, oily fish and also with the fact that I shop at high-end grocers that have adopted elaborate, clearly marked sustainability rankings.

I congratulated myself on having done my part, but Zizek will have none of it. From his op-ed piece in the New York Times last winter on “The End of Nature”: “It’s deceptively reassuring to be ready to assume guilt for the threats to our environment. If we are guilty, then it all depends on us; we can save ourselves simply by changing our lives. We frantically and obsessively recycle old paper, buy organic food — whatever, just so we can be sure we are doing something, making our contribution.” But aren’t we making our contribution?

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In fact, choosing sustainable seafood does relatively little to stop the depopulation of the oceans that we have achieved, through climate change and overfishing and that we have done so irrationally that it sometimes makes me speechless. A representative moment of awe: a Chilean fisherman told the New York Times recently that there were barely any mackerel left, “so we have to fish harder before they’re all gone.”

You can’t make something like that up. Nor can it be said to be rational in any uniquely human way. It’s the way a mackerel thinks and the way we, as a species, think. We let governments and scientists decide these matters, and hope we can do our part via Catalan recipes and pointed tweets. But Zizek isn’t buying it. “Nature is crazy,” he wrote. And he sees human irrationality as part of the same monstrous, destructive force that is now threatening us as much as it is the mackerel.

But what of sustainable seafood? It doesn’t hurt, although I have to admit it feels like a game of whack-a-mole; if we try to feed a billion people on the sustainable fishes, they will get overfished, too. Not to mention the fact that the larger fishes eat the smaller ones, another unmistakable pattern in nature. And much of the ocean depopulation has to do with factors, like global warming, which I am equally impotent to stop. So it’s not enough, in other words, that avoiding bluefin tuna makes me feel good.

Zizek, unlike most philosophers, actually has some positive solutions — they’re just the kind that no one wants to hear, or follow. He thinks humans should be nomadic, ready to respond to changing terrain and food sources. He sees a clear need for a Stalinist regime of international technocrats, ready to use legalized terror against all fisherman, poachers and industries alike. And of course, he wants me to dispense with all the familiar moral nostrums that make it possible for me to live in a technological society drawing on finite resources. So, while I am not opposed to the idea of living a post-apocalyptic, Road Warrior-style existence, huddling in a yurt each night for fear of the secret police, it’s not something I really can see for myself. It’s far easier to ignore Zizek and eat marinated anchovies.

So, I have to choose between the fish and the philosopher. My heart and my stomach are drawn to saving the fish, but my mind is totally convinced otherwise. And it is my mind that has to wake up and take charge. You don’t need to be a Zizek to figure that out.