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An Economics Informed by Salmon

Imagine if leading economists spent time in the wilderness. Perhaps the chair of the Federal Reserve could spend an afternoon standing at the mouth of the Tsiu River on central Alaska’s little explored lost coast, as the sleek bodies of silver salmon everywhere swelled upstream pushing against him.

Andrew Kimbrell, driven by his personal experience of the Coho salmon on the Pacific Coast, is on a quest for an economic ecology, a consideration of our economic system as subservient to and informed by nature. As a result of that afternoon in the river, he “began to imagine a world where the economist knows the salmon.” For Kimbrell, the salmon embodies the qualities of nature abandoned and ignored by our competitive free market system, namely redistribution, reciprocation and gift-giving.

In Kimbrell’s “Salmon Economics (and other lessons)” Annual E. F. Schumacher Lecture the section titled “Return to Sanity,” provides an outline of the salmon’s natural economy and its core principles.

He goes on to address the crises the salmon are facing due to environmental degradation, bioengineering, and the forces of the competitive market, and then he shows how these crises are our own. Kimbrell offers persuasive arguments about the deleterious effects of the commodification of land and labor, nature and man. He shows how the salmon offer inspiration for living well:

The salmon teach a different lesson. For them there is no linear progress or search for perfection; instead, they seek and fight doggedly to complete their cycle of life.

Salmon returning from the sea to the precise river inlet in which they were spawned bring with them nutrients from the ocean. This vital gift-giving represents an essential part of the economy of all living systems.

Unlike the self-interest of the market, embodied in legal contracts, gift-giving affirms a sense of community, charity, reverence, and a spontaneous sense of the relationship between humans and the natural world.

The full text of Andrew Kimbrell’s “Salmon Economics (and other lessons)” is available as a pamphlet or can be read in its entirety here.