Publications / Annual E. F. Schumacher Lecture

Salmon Economics (and other lessons)

Introduction by Nancy Jack Todd

Andrew Kimbrell gave his first Schumacher lecture in 2000. It was entitled “Cold Evil: Technology and Modern Ethics.” His phrase “cold evil,” chilling at the time, is if anything all the more appropriate now. Perhaps even prophetic, except in an odd way the evil is warming up as well.

Andrew is a writer, an activist, and a lawyer. Introducing him in 2000, Kirkpatrick Sale described him as a lawyer in the service of the Earth. While a policy director at The Foundation on Economic Trends, he led the first legal attack against the biotechnology corporations. More recently, he founded the International Center for Technology Assessment and its sister organization the Center for Food Safety, where he works through the legal system to confront some of the worst abuses of the corporate giants. He regularly challenges government agencies to protect consumers by testing and labeling genetically modified foods, regulating greenhouse-gas emissions, preserving strict organic food standards, and implementing other food and environmental safety standards. Andrew is presently working with his friend and mentor Father Thomas Berry to explore legal solutions to protect the rights of nonhuman species.

Some years ago he coached his son’s Little League team to its first and so far only championship in Arlington, Virginia. Please welcome this rare combination of a lawyer and a man for all seasons.


The essay that follows is based on the Annual E. F. Schumacher Lecture delivered in October 2003. I dedicate it to Father Thomas Berry—cultural historian, ecologist, Passionist priest, and author—whose seminal book The Dream of the Earth shows the human community the way to living in a mutually enhancing way with planet Earth. Father Thomas has had an enormous influence on my life to this day, to this very hour. His patient mentoring transformed me not only spiritually but also practically. The work I am doing as an environmental attorney and writer I owe in great part to his guidance and inspiration. I want to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to him.

Introduction: The Point of Return

I see wilderness as our primary teacher.

-Steven Harper


It was early September, and I was standing at the mouth of the Tsiu River on central Alaska’s little explored Lost Coast. It was about an hour into the incoming tide, and the water was just above my waist. I was midway in the fifty-foot-wide entrance to the river and could see the waves breaking in front of me with their rhythmic wakes swelling against and around me. The sleek bodies of the silver salmon were everywhere, filling the incoming waves. These beautiful and powerful spawning cohos were rushing en masse into the Tsiu, riding the tide on their last, determined journey.

I stood with legs wide, arms outstretched in the waves, watching and feeling the urgent swell of life coming from the sea to spawn in these chilled waters, which were rushing and tumbling from the melting Bering Glacier eight miles upstream. As the cohos pushed upstream through the narrow inlet, they brushed my thighs and torso, touched my arms and hands. I found myself laughing in surprise and awe.

Silver or coho salmon are one of five Pacific species that have for eons traversed the coast from California north to the Kuskokwim Basin and Point Hope in Alaska. They are anadromous, averaging 8 to 18 pounds, and are an unforgettable burnished silver and crimson when flashing in from the sea. They prefer short coastal streams and therefore thrive in the basins and rivers of central Alaska. After emerging from eggs fertilized in fresh water during the spawn, the young salmon live in the stream for a year and then migrate to the open ocean, where they roam widely for two years in their search for food. There they grow large and then return to the place of their birth—the same river, tributary, pool, or riffle—to spawn and die.

That day began my multi-year tutelage under the cohos. Over time I have learned many lessons from these beloved wilderness teachers, and just as their return each year keeps a promise, so the promise of ever new lessons is also kept.

The Salmon and Midlife

In contemplating the exceeding beauty of the earth . . . [we] have found calmness and courage. For there is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds; in the ebb and flow of the tides; in the folded buds ready for spring. There is something infinitely healing in these repeated refrains of nature . . .

-Rachel Carson


When the force of the tide became too great, I regretfully waded out of the river and then walked down the beach from the river mouth. Behind me the massive snow capped Chugach-St. Elias mountain range gleamed in the morning sun. Out at sea the seals sported and ate; in front of me on the sand I could see impressive foot-wide paw tracks running from the dunes to the surf line, telltale signs of night-fishing brown bears. But it was the surf that held my attention. As I continued my journey down the beach, each wave carried dozens of silvers up to the beach. Only at the last split second did they realize that this was not yet the river mouth. Then, as the ebbing wave left them nearly stranded, with only inches of water remaining, they suddenly reversed direction, charging back into the surf. Looking down a half mile of beach and surf line, I saw hundreds of spraying wakes as cohos again and again charged the beach, hoping for the Tsiu, and suddenly turned back when they realized they had not yet reached it.

This I had not foreseen. I assumed that the salmon knew precisely where their river home was and headed for it with unfailing instinct. Their tremendous, repeated, and frustrated efforts in seeking the true entrance to their final journey were for me completely unexpected—and unexpectedly moving. As this scene of search unfolded before me, I stopped in my tracks. Tears welled up in my eyes, and I suddenly felt an overwhelming identification with and unbounded admiration for these tireless seekers.

It took only a short time of reflection for me to begin to understand at least one source for my reaction. For a few years I had been struggling in somewhat lonely fashion through what is often termed a midlife crisis. (Actuary charts demonstrate that at least for Type A males of my age the term midlife may be overly optimistic.) I was definitely in the Odyssey, not the Iliad, stage of my life, and the journey “home” was proving both difficult and uncertain.

Perhaps worst of all, I was increasingly aware not only of my mortality but of my relative failure over many years of work to make significant improvements in the environmental and social ills I had tried so hard to heal. My personal search for spiritual meaning, relationship, and healing was not progressing much better. But here was the lesson of these fearless fish on their difficult homeward passage. Their own repeated attempts at finding the right way somehow gave me permission to fail again and again. Their upstream struggle to reach their site of birth and death gave me hope. Their difficulties amplified my narrow personal travail, showing me the beauty and dignity of the uncertain homeward journey and giving assurance that the final trek to death can be one that is profoundly life-giving. It was no longer a lonely issue about my return, for I could now see my struggles as participating, however minutely, in The Return, a numinous creative energy embodied in the mystery of the spawning silvers.

Salmon Economics

Industrialization is . . . the hammer with which nature is smashed for the sake of capital.

-Joel Kovel

We are largely unaware in our “autistic” technological culture of the archetypal patterns of the natural world. Most immediately, our lack of awareness means that we are in peril of losing the vast potential for personal healing that these patterns provide, as in the healing I experienced on the Tsiu. Tragically, this unawareness also renders us unable to understand how these patterns could provide sustainable paradigms for transforming our fundamental social systems and interactions. As clinical psychologist Stephen Aizenstat writes: “Imagine a world in which carpenter knows beaver, lawyer knows eagle, philosopher knows the silence of the deep night. With this connection between human consciousness and the natural world reestablished, people will . . . make the journey back to the source in nature that inspires their work . . . . ” As I continued to meditate on the life cycle of the cohos, I began to imagine a world where the economist knows the salmon.

The Gospel of Greed

Our current economic system, the competitive “free” market system, is founded on the concept of human “self- interest” and is, of course, not based on the economy of the salmon or any other natural system or law. This economic system, with its ersatz “laws” of supply and demand, has now achieved global hegemony. Its purpose has been to energize and amplify the massive power of industrialized machinery and other technology to ever more quickly convert nature into various products. The free-market theory was devised two and a quarter centuries ago by Adam Smith and others in order to alter human work, and society itself, to better fit the needs of the then budding industrial revolution. Since that time our market economists have learned about the patterns of supply and demand, they know about the uses of technology and capital and the creation of commodities, but they do not know the ways of nature or the salmon.

So at the outset it is essential to understand that the market system is not based on natural laws but in fact is profoundly unnatural, even for humans. It is new in the history of humankind and the earth. Most of us assume that humans have always been competitive creatures involved in market economics. We even envision cave men clubbing one another in the competition for food or for the right to drag a particular unfortunate female around by the hair. These stereotypes of early “market” and competitive humans are fallacies. Historian Marshall Sahlins reminds us that cooperation, not competition, was the credo that bound early men and women to one another: “The emerging human primate, in a life and death struggle with nature, could not afford the luxury of a social struggle. Cooperation not competition was essential. . . . Hobbes’s famous fantasy of a war of ‘all against all’ in the natural state could not be farther from the truth.”

The same can be said for the market itself. Though trading was an important adjunct to early societies, the competitive market was never the means by which these societies solved their basic economic problems. The use of nature, the allocation of a community’s resources, including human work and the distribution of goods within a community, always occurred outside of the marketing process. The societies of antiquity never saw the market as an autonomous entity that could or should exist apart from laws of nature or the socio-religious strictures and interrelated limits of any given culture. As noted by economic historian Karl Polanyi, “Never before our own time were markets more than accessories to economic life.”

Even in Western society, market forces played only a limited role compared to the cultural and religious beliefs, the traditions, and social patterns that governed the lives of our ancestors. All this changed in the mid-eighteenth century. Within one generation the concept of the market was transformed from a literal place of trade and barter to an ideology upon which an entire social system was created and upon which major assumptions about nature and human nature were based.

The intellectual history of the market began with those Enlightenment thinkers who committed themselves to discovering rules of human behavior that were as efficient and predictable as the mathematical laws Newton and others had recently discovered for the physical universe. Eighteenth century philosopher Francis Hutcheson rejected benevolence as the basis for human interaction and discounted any other ethical norm. Instead of turning to nature for his answer, he looked to the growing industrial sector and came up with what he thought was the answer: self-interest. Self-interest according to Hutcheson was to social life what gravity was to the physical universe: “Self love . . . is as necessary to the regular State of the Whole as gravitation.”

It was left to Hutcheson’s famous student, Adam Smith, to transform self-interest into a revolutionary new social doctrine. For Smith self-interest was a principle of human behavior broad enough to provide the basis for a new economic order. In his seminal book The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, Smith preached that self-interest and the resulting free-market principles produced an “invisible hand” that, if left to its own devices, would lead to the general good:

Every individual is continuously exerting himself to find out the most advantageous methods of employing his capital and labour. It is true that it is his own advantage and not that of the society which he has in view, but . . . it is plain that each, in steadily pursuing his own aggrandizement, is following the precise line of conduct which is most for the public advantage.

Smith and his followers also proposed a laissez-faire approach to the market on the part of government: If the government kept its hands out of economic affairs, the natural selfish order of each person would speedily flower into economic well-being for all. If government tried to apply restraints to the free-market based on social or ethical concerns or fear that nature’s limits would be usurped, the invisible hand’s work would be undone and the system would no longer work to society’s benefit. Smith’s free-market doctrine also gave rise to one of the most important tenets of the market faith: humans have a “right” that potentially allows each individual unrestricted access to markets and nature’s resources. No government should interfere with this right by restricting unfettered competition, movement of workers, shifts of capital, or use of nature.

Smith’s theory was promulgated at the time when myriad new machines, products, and forms of labor were being developed by the industrial system. No longer was the craftsman or craft itself valued; it was all about mass production and mass consumption. As Smith wrote, “Consumption is the sole end of all production.” The new divinely ordained purpose of industrial society was to consume and to produce ever more goods for consumption. Smith’s teachings on self-interest and the invisible hand were to sustain the growth of the industrial revolution and provide the moral basis for the development of the factory system and the increasing role of technology and consumption in modern life. Historian Robert Nelson notes that eventually Smith’s market theories “evolved into a veritable faith in man’s secular salvation through a self-regulating market.”

Few today have read Adam Smith or subsequent adherents of his economic theory, yet the gospel of self-interest has become second nature to most. Greater productivity, individual self-interest and upward mobility, the glorification of competition, greater consumption of goods and services, and suspicion of government interference with business affairs remain virtually unquestioned dogma in our society.

Smith’s gospel also transformed society’s view of nature. John Locke, the most influential English thinker of the seventeenth century, who died nineteen years before Smith was born, had a profound impact on the Scottish philosopher. Locke’s idea of secular progress through economics was a precursor to Smith’s thought. Locke, and Smith after him, viewed nature as a vast unproductive wasteland. Their concept of value resulted in the view that nature had worth only when human labor and technology transformed it into useful commodities. The more quickly land or other resources of nature could be turned into material goods, the more wealthy and secure a society would become and the more progress a civilization could achieve. As stated by Locke, “[L]and that is left wholly to nature . . . is called, as indeed it is, waste . . . on the other hand he who appropriates land to himself by his labor, does not lessen but increase the common stock of mankind.”

This view of nature was revolutionary. For centuries English land had not been marketed, and alienation (sale) of land was strictly forbidden; nor were the fruits of that land sold in a market system. The market doctrine, however, provided the rationale for the unchecked exploitation of nature and the view of land as a commodity like any other. It denied land, and nature itself, any inherent noncommercial value. This transformation of nature from “good” to “goods” radically reoriented our relationship to the environment. As noted by Thomas Berry, suddenly the natural world—including humans—was no longer a community of subjects but rather a collection of exploitable and saleable objects.

This new concept of nature and the other tenets of Smith’s gospel are as firmly entrenched in our society as any church dogma was in the Middle Ages. The profound long-term impact of Smith’s free-market vision on society and the natural world justifies Edmund Burke’s prescient comment made shortly after The Wealth of Nations was published: “In ultimate result this was probably the most important book that had ever been written.”

Fictitious Commodities

Most economists and probably most people, if asked, would declare the free-market faith to have been a success. More than any prior ideology, or theology for that matter, it seems to have brought an earthly heaven within reach. Much of our current economic wealth and technological achievement is correctly credited to the profit incentives provided by the market system. But market advocates show a selective amnesia regarding the impact of the invisible hand. They do not recognize that the birth of the laissez-faire market system initiated an exploitative regime over nature and ourselves from which we may never recover. Nor do they appear to understand that there was a central and insoluble problem with the market system from the start.

The vision of Smith and his followers of a society of freely contracting individuals, autonomous and self- seeking, was fatally flawed. A contradiction exists at the very heart of the concept of the universality of market laws and the establishment of a society based on the “physics” of self-interest. If the market system is to be all-controlling, if supply and demand are to be quasi-religious laws, free even of government intrusion, then everything has to be for sale. Everything has to be a commodity in the market place. Each element of industry, each aspect of production— machines, labor, land, other so-called natural resources, money, goods, services—all are regarded in a monolithic way as commodities having been produced for sale in the market and are thereby subject to the supply-demand price mechanism. These countless markets are then, according to the theory, interconnected and form one overarching market system.

The insurmountable problem with this theory is that not everything is a commodity. In the economic context the word “commodity” has a limited and precise meaning. Commodities are defined as manufactured goods produced for sale. Whether clothes, cars, or computers, they are produced by people, sold, and eventually consumed. That is their origin and purpose.

Clearly, central aspects of any society do not fit the definition and purpose of commodities. Human labor, for example, which is not manufactured for sale and consumption, is not a commodity. It is both artificial and misleading to attempt to neatly package and commodify labor, thereby separating wage work from the rest of the life of each of us. Labor is not a product—a watch or motor. It is a personal, intimate, and intrinsic part of ourselves. Human work cannot be separated from the whole person. Whoever has purchased labor has purchased not just the work of an individual but also a significant and indivisible portion of the life, thoughts, and creativity of the worker—his or her full presence. For the hours of the work day or work night, the employer controls the environment and well-being of a person, not a working “machine.” Moreover, the buying and selling of labor determines far more than just how and by whom it will be done. Labor affects major aspects of a worker’s life, including where the worker and the worker’s family will live and how they will live. When searching for buyers of their labor, workers know that not just their work but their societal worth, their future, and the well-being of their families are on the line. In sum, it is a market fiction that there is a separation between the human being and human work. We should no more be able to sell our daily labor than sell our very being.

Land is not a commodity either. Land and the productivity of land are just other names for a part of nature. Nature with its creative capacities is, of course, not produced by people for the purpose of sale and consumption. It is a given, a gift. It has intrinsic worth and meaning that can never be measured by the reductionist concept of marketplace value, which is determined by supply and demand. E. F. Schumacher among others has argued that nothing created from non-renewable resources can appropriately be treated as a true commodity. This is because little or nothing in nature, if left to itself, reproduces in response to human supply-and-demand needs. For example, we know there is an increasing global demand for tuna, but sadly for the marketeers tuna is not a commodity that can be produced at will to fill that demand. (Tuna cannot even be “farmed,” for they do not survive in captivity or in close confinement.) No rational person would suggest that somehow tuna around the world have become aware of this supply problem and are therefore desperately trying to conform to market laws and increase their reproduction rate to meet the new demand. The same is true for innumerable elements of nature such as topsoil, another fictitious commodity, which urgently needs to be replenished. Yet we cannot make it, and it does not magically increase itself to meet our demand, for it can be created only in its own time and circumstances. As a substitute we now grow our plants in fertilizers—that is, we grow our crops in oil not soil—again not fully realizing that oil too is not a commodity that will recreate itself as the market demands.

Nature, when acting without human interference, creates and reproduces according to its own laws and needs. The theories of Smith and most economists are completely alienated from this obvious reality. It was this alienation of the market theory from the realities of nature and human nature that led Schumacher to write in Small Is Beautiful, “[T]he logic of capital is neither that of society nor nature.”

The noncommodity status of key aspects of any society or industry, including labor and land, presented a crucial challenge to the advocates of the market system. If mar- ket ideology was to be the central law of a society, higher than religious or cultural traditions, it had to extend to all important aspects of social life. Work and nature could not be left out of the market equation, for they were the very bases of the system. They could not be left under the control of tradition, cultural values, or other means of social organization because then the whole system would become nonviable. Vital noncommodities had to be subsumed under the definition of commodity, treated like any other commodity, and subjected to the supply-and-demand laws of commodities, no matter how irrational this appeared.

By a breathtaking philosophical maneuver, market proponents have for well over two centuries simply ignored the distinction between commodities and noncommodities. They have created the fiction that elements of human society and nature such as labor and land are commodities to be sold and consumed. This bold sleight of hand by which key “fictitious commodities” were created gave the market system control of virtually all aspects of social behavior and nature, allowing the market doctrine to obtain political and philosophical hegemony over Western society and increasingly over the entire globe. As summarized by Karl Polanyi in his seminal work The Great Transformation:

Liberal economy, this primary reaction of man to the machine, was a violent break with the conditions that preceded it. A chain reaction was started—what before was merely isolated markets was transmuted into a self-regulating system of markets. . . . The crucial step was this: labor and land were made into commodities, that is, they were treated as if produced for sale. Of course, they were not actually commodities, since they were either not produced at all (as land) or, if so, not for sale (as labor). Yet no more effective fiction was ever devised. . . . Accordingly, there was a market price for labor, called wages, and a market price for use of land, called rent. . . . The true scope of such a step can be gauged if we remember that labor is only another name for man, and land for nature. The commodity fiction handed over the fate of man and nature to the play of an automaton [the free market] running in its own grooves and governed by its own laws.

Polanyi further points out, as did Schumacher, that the market system and its commodity fictions are “disembedded” from all social and ecological relationships. The market system with its supply-and-demand dogma is an abstraction that for more than two centuries has been imposed in procrustean manner on all people, on all the animate and inanimate elements of the earth, a market system that is completely oblivious to their needs, to their laws, to their logic.

The social history of the past two centuries has in many respects been the result of the contradictions and tensions inherent in the market system’s creation of fictitious commodities. Over time, treating certain noncommodities as commodities became a double-edged sword. On one hand, as modern market economies spread over the face of the globe, it led directly to massive increases in wealth, technological development, and consumption, but it also led to the downfall of the pure laissez-faire market system as the “invisible hand” showed itself capable of causing very visible havoc.

The earliest evidence of the fatal contradictions in the market system accompanied the treatment of human work as a commodity, which began with the industrial revolution. During the late eighteenth century the word “labor,” which had referred primarily to childbirth, became the term used to describe both human work sold as a commodity and the pool of human commodities to be hired by the burgeoning factory system. Before mechanization, workers sold many of their products but not their work as separate from those products. The mechanized division of labor first accomplished in the textile industry provided Adam Smith with the concept that human work could be commodified on a supply-and-demand basis like any other product. The commodification of work as mechanized labor became the linchpin of his market theory.

The commodification of human work and land were, and remain, closely tied together. In England the industrial revolution became possible only because peasants were forced en masse off the land they had tilled for centuries by landowners who wanted to convert that land from subsistence farming to the more profitable growing of sheep. This process, which continued for over two centuries, was called Enclosure. Thanks to a series of Enclosure Acts the ruling elite were able to amass huge profits from the export of wool through this enclosing of the land, which prevented its use by the people. Witnessing the huge flood of peasant refugees into the cities as a result of the enclosures, Sir Thomas More was led to quip that “sheep devour people.” As the profits from wool and other exports amassed, they became the original capital used to build the machines and factories of the early industrial age.

Conveniently, the hundreds of thousands of dispossessed peasants whose land had been enclosed now crowded together in the new factory towns and competed for the low-paying jobs in the early “satanic mills” of the industrial age. This reality inspired Smith with the idea of human labor as a commodity whose price would be determined by supply and demand regardless of the impact on the human beings involved. It is important to note that this enclosure movement continues today throughout the world as entities such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund encourage many so-called developing countries to enclose their lands for the production of valuable export crops such as coffee or sugar in order to stabilize their economies and pay back their debt to these institutions. Subsistence farmers by the millions are thereby expelled from the land. The dispossessed farmers and peasants now crowd the slums of Bhopal, Mexico City, and countless other blighted urban areas just as they did the cities of England centuries ago. Deprived of their food independence, they have to take any available job in the urban environment to avoid starvation. They are simply the most recent victims of the current round of capitalization of land and labor required for the market/industrial system to expand.

As with today’s poverty-stricken bloated urban areas in the developing world, the conditions for workers in the early industrial era in England were grim. Often hazardous work, up to 80 hours a week, the mass employment of children, unbreathable air, and undrinkable polluted water were the norms in the factories. Worse yet were the slums that the majority of workers returned to after their exhausting daily travail. Given the high rate of infant mortality, life expectancy for English workers in the first decades after Smith had articulated the market theory of labor was 17 years—a figure that reflected a child mortality rate of 50 percent.

The extraordinary extent of exploitation involved in the free-market commodification and consumption of human “labor” soon led to open revolt. Workers rebelled, and their strikes and disruptions threatened the stability of society itself. Thinkers throughout the nineteenth century, most notably Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, began to imagine the complete overthrow of the then current market-based labor regime. In response to the threat posed by workers and their newly formed unions the industrialized countries began to buffer and alter the free-market commodification of labor by passing numerous laws to restrict child labor, reduce the work hours, and mandate worker safety. By the early twentieth century government agencies were being set up to protect labor, and over the next decades further anti-free-market legislation became commonplace, initiating unemployment insurance, a minimum wage, and social security for workers after retirement or because of disability.

As with labor, government has tried to restrict the free-market commodification of the Earth in order to avoid the collapse of the capitalist system, in this instance from ecological catastrophe. It became evident by the dawn of the twentieth century that the rapacious destruction of land and resources by the unrestricted free market was not sustainable. The Reform Movement, headed by such leaders as Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, began to foster laws and policies designed to protect nature from the market. Over the next decades zoning laws, creation of protected parks and wilderness areas, and numerous other legislative controls were implemented in an attempt to put some U.S. land off-limits to the market. Additionally, in the early 1970s a series of statutes was enacted in the United States that sought to protect our water, air, and land from industrial pollution. Most European countries and now the European Union have passed similar and at times more comprehensive laws.

As we consider the all too familiar list of global environmental problems—global warming, ozone depletion, water scarcity, topsoil loss, oil depletion, species extinction, deforestation—we are beginning to see the inadequacy of those protections and are being forced to assess the full legacy of treating nature as a commodity, a legacy that is threatening the very survival of a viable planet. As a result, international protocols and treaties are urgently being sought to once again attempt to protect the market system from the consequences of its contradictions.

Given the continuing history of government “bailing out” the market system, it is ironic how vehemently advocates of laissez-faire continue to argue for less government regulation, especially when they see it as limiting the economy or the use of natural resources. They often criticize, correctly, the mammoth government bureaucracies set up for such regulation. Yet at the same time they refuse to recognize that it was the very contradictions in the free market—its treatment of noncommodities such as humans and nature as commodities—that forced government to regulate, lest the entire market society collapse in chaos over its mistreatment of people and its complete disregard for nature. Government regulation is not a threat to the market system but rather its savior, for without its buffering impact the market would long ago have ceased to be the basis for human economic activity.

Looking back over the two-hundred-year history of the attempts to buffer the market system, it is now clear, based on the dire environmental crises we face, that these attempts have failed. We cannot continue to prop up an economic system that is profoundly disconnected from fundamental natural and social relationships. As Schumacher taught, we need a new economic paradigm that fits the logic of both nature and human nature.

The Return to Sanity

To live on the land we must learn from the sea.

-George Sumner

What can the salmon offer that will move us toward a new paradigm in economics? Can their homeward journey help us rid ourselves of the obsolete, dangerous, and somewhat pathological market mentality? To answer these questions we will need to look more closely at the “economy” of the salmon’s life cycle.

When the Pacific salmon return to the rivers of their birth, they carry in their bodies a number of nutrients, including nitrogen and phosphorous garnered from their ocean sojourn. In fact, isotopic analyses indicate that riverside vegetation near spawning streams receives 22 to 24 percent of its nitrogen—the nutrient that most commonly encourages plant growth—from salmon. As a result, trees on the banks of salmon-stocked rivers grow more than three times faster than their counterparts along a salmon- free river. Alongside spawning streams Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) have been found to take eighty-six years instead of the usual three hundred to reach 50 cm. in thickness. Research also shows that at least one-fifth of the nitrogen in the needles of Sitka spruce trees and other plants near spawning sites comes from the ocean via Pacific salmon carcasses. These same trees that have been fertilized by the carcasses enhance the quality of breeding and rearing habitats for the fish by providing shade, sediment and nutrient filtration, and large woody debris.

It is not just the vegetation that profits from these nutrients. Muscle samples taken at these riversides from vertebrate herbivores (deer mice, voles, shrews, and squirrels) show increased levels of nitrogen compared with samples taken from animals farther away. The animals eating the salmon also help with the spread of these nutrients. It has been estimated that 70 percent of a black bear’s annual protein comes from salmon. During a 45-day spawn each black bear catches about seven hundred fish and leaves half of each carcass in the forest. At 2.2 kg. per fish, this amounts to 120 kg. of nitrogen fertilizer per hectare of land. British Columbia’s 80,000 to 120,000 bears could be transferring, through salmon carcasses and the bears’ dung, as much as 60 million kg. of salmon tissue into the rainforest, accounting for half of the nitrogen fixed by old-growth trees.

Salmon are also the principle source of food for the brown bear. And analysis of hair from grizzly bears, who became extinct in Oregon’s Columbia River Valley in 1931, has shown that 90 percent of their diet came from salmon. Additionally, the salmon’s eggs and carcasses are the major source of food for sea otters and several trout species. The carcasses also provide critical nutrient resources for aquatic invertebrate scavengers, detritivores, and aquatic microbes—organisms that in turn help enrich the nutrient capital of the wetland itself. Perhaps most crucial of all, 50 percent of the nutrients that young salmon receive comes from their dead parents.

In contemplating this “salmon economics” we find no trace of the self-interest and laws of supply and demand endemic to the human market mentality. What alternative economic values are taught by the cohos’ life cycle and final journey? One value is redistribution. The riches of the ocean are redistributed to the wetlands and the rivers. It is an intricate, diverse, and egalitarian redistributive system, extending to the needles of the Sitka spruce, the muscles of the vole, the intertidal microbes, the bodies of the fry, and then even to the bear dung that becomes fertilizer for the trees farther inland.

We do, of course, have redistribution in our current economy. Through taxation, for example, we redistribute wealth to aid those in need, whether the unemployed, elderly, disabled, or poverty stricken. But these programs are constantly under attack by free-market advocates and are often eliminated under the rubric of tax relief. Unfortunately, those defending these programs never amplify and undergird their argument by pointing to the natural and ecological archetype of redistribution as found in the salmon cycle and throughout nature. Redistribution is not only altruistic or an expression of largesse, it is the fundamental element in successful and sustainable natural economies. In sum, redistribution is the way nature survives and Then too, the salmon teach us about the value of reciprocity. There is a complex reciprocal relationship between the salmon and future animal and plant generations. As noted, the salmon’s nutrients help the growth of riverside vegetation, which in turn provides shade, protection, and nutrients for the growing parr and smolts, preparing them for their ocean journey and the repeating of the cycle. Moreover, the nutrients given to the animals help fertilize the trees, whose roots in turn protect the rivers and streams from erosion. Overall, it would be virtually impossible to comprehensively describe the entire reciprocal interaction between the salmon and the life around them, from microbes through mammals.

As with redistribution, our current economy also contains many reciprocal elements. We pay our taxes so that we can have roads, schools, and other basics that will be there for us. We participate in civic associations, on zoning boards, or in local governments, with the assumption that our time spent will benefit us, our families, and future generations. But perhaps more importantly, the vast majority of Americans’ work is based on reciprocity. My research indicates that more than 70 percent of us get up every morning to take care of something or someone, not to make a profit by selling something for more than we paid to produce or buy it.

This is what I term “the care economy,” which I contrast with “the profit economy.” Teachers, doctors, nurses, firemen, policemen, social workers, and all those working in government and the public-interest community, including those protecting our fellow creatures and the natural world, will not make more or less profit depending on how much they produce. They are the care economy and are paid a flat- rate salary for their service. Firemen will not pick one house to save and turn down another based on making a profit for saving the more expensive house. Teachers will not pick one child to teach over another because they will be paid more for teaching the richer child. After a natural disaster, animal rescuers save mutts and purebreds with equal energy without wondering whose owner will pay more.

The tragedy of September 11, 2001, provided a graphic contrast between the profit and care economies. During and after the terrorist attacks Wall Street closed down, and there was a virtual halt in trading for days as brokers looked to foreign investment until they could assess whether it was safe and profitable to invest once again in America. Meanwhile, from the very first the care economy was fully invested. Emergency workers, police, and fire personnel worked tirelessly and under great personal risk for days and weeks as did health professional, government, and nonprofit organizations. Everyone seemed to grasp intuitively the reciprocal nature of this sacrifice, to understand that the greater community can function only when each of its members gives in this way, knowing that it will be reciprocated should tragedy strike elsewhere. The fate of each is wedded to the care and skills provided by the other.

The care economy, though it represents a solid majority of us and we all depend on it, is not privileged in our society. Even progressives often call it the “service” economy, which is more suggestive of entry-level restaurant workers than of the vast majority of Americans who are part of this care economy. Instead, America is often portrayed as the land of “entrepreneurs,” where “the business of America is business.” Never do we hear in defense of reciprocation that it is a fundamental principle of natural economic life and has the imprimatur of eons of successful natural economies behind it, whereas the market system with its profit mandate is a little over 225 years old and is already unsustainable.

Along with redistribution and reciprocation, the salmon teach yet a third economic value—gift-giving. 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. In a way it is the antidote to the market system. As ethicist Thomas Murray explains:

Gifts create moral relationships that are more open-ended, less specifiable, and less contained than contracts. Contracts are well suited to the marketplace, where a strictly limited relationship for a narrow purpose—trading goods or services—is desired. Gifts are better for initiating and sustaining more rounded human relationships, where future expectations are unknown, and where the exchange of goods is secondary in importance to the relationship itself.

Salmon provide the ultimate relational gift—a gift for the otters, the bears, the rainbow trout, their own offspring, and a gift for all of us who witness and learn from them. This gift is an eternal promise, always kept if not sabotaged by the intrusion of humans and their technology. It is an intrinsic aspect of the very being of the salmon, not given in calculation of receiving something in return. There are so many in our society who give without looking for a return: the teacher staying late to help a student, the neighbor helping the elderly couple next door, those millions giving their time, work, and money to help in a cause they believe in or to help others more needy than themselves. This generosity represents a major sector of our economy but is usually marginalized as exceptional altruism instead of being understood for what it is—an essential part of the economy of all living systems.

One additional and critical economic lesson of the salmon I will mention is the profound importance of the local. Salmon provide remarkable instruction about the fundamental value of place. Father Thomas Berry has spoken about the importance of the “smell of home,” the odor of place. No creature better embodies this teaching than the salmon. An Alaskan Fish and Wildlife study found that just one drop of water from the home stream of salmon added to 250 gallons of water will take these salmon in the direction of that water. It is impossible not to be astonished by the great odyssey of the salmon and their uncanny ability to ultimately find the exact stream or even rivulet of origin and to mate there, with all the redistribution, reciprocation, and gift-giving going to that local place and its environs.

Every Thanksgiving, when tens of millions crowd the airplanes and jam the roads, we catch a glimpse of the homing instinct, however alienated, that survives in each of us. Mobility is prized and privileged in our society (just think of the automobile, which embodies the glorified values of autonomy and mobility—ergo “auto-mobile”). And this is a necessary attribute of the supply-and-demand market economy, which may cause extreme dislocation many times in our lives as we—purported human commodities—move about, often involuntarily, to find work, economic survival, or increased opportunity. Although this dislocation corresponds to the logic of capital, it is not what most of us seek. Reminiscent of the salmon’s journey is the yearning we still carry for home, place, and community.

Moreover, in economic terms the idea of the local is becoming ever more important. For millennia human economics was local, but over recent decades we have seen a massive expansion in the global economy. Now transnational corporations—obeying the call of the market—whose only motive is profit and their own self-interest, roam the world in search of resources and markets for their products. They forcibly bring down trade barriers and any protections that localities might have against this economic onslaught. Corporate-led globalization brings a corresponding contraction, and destruction, of the local economies it replaces. The corporate enclosure of these local communities and ecosystems devastates the natural world, homogenizes cultures, disrupts communities, and deprives their members of any meaningful control over their lives.

How is this process to be halted and reversed? The salmon give us the answer: local production for local consumption. Note that the salmon travel freely as they grow and become mature but always ultimately return to provide their local community with what it needs. I like to think of this as a kind of internationalism based in the local as opposed to the homogenizing juggernaut of market-based globalization. Internationalism allows each of us to travel and learn from all peoples and cultures and geographies, but unlike globalization it understands that the purpose of this travel is to return and nourish the local with a diversity of knowledge and experience.

Fortunately, we are beginning to see a rebirth of the local around the world in food and energy production, local currencies, and emphasis on local governance. To those who inevitably will state that this localization is contrary to the ersatz laws of free trade and the market we need only point to the salmon and note that localism corresponds with the laws of nature.

Over recent decades there has been a growing interest in the field of ecological economics, a field that infuses certain ecological realities into current economic thinking. Much good work has been done in this area, but perhaps it is time to reverse the adjective and noun in ecological economics and call it economic ecology, not privileging thereby human economy but recognizing that our economic needs fit into the larger ”economy” of our ecosystems. The tendency in ecological economics can be to “greenwash” capitalism or socialism. By contrast, an Earth economics would base the allocation of resources primarily on ecological principles, including those so beautifully embodied in the salmon life cycle and other of the Earth’s living systems. It is a call for the economist to truly meet and learn from the salmon, a call for an economics of Earth that is based not on the abstractions of thinkers but on the study of, and wonder at, its creatures.

This new and important discipline is not without its precedents. Indigenous societies were never based on market economies but on a mix of reciprocal service and exchange, redistribution of resources, and gift-giving in local situations. These societies based their economic behavior—redistribution, reciprocation, gift-giving, and localization—on the archetypal patterns of the natural systems around them. To survive we must follow their lead, and without delay. We must learn and integrate the great economic lessons of the salmon.

The Point of No Return

Our cultures now have become pathological in so far as they are responding to industrial advance at the expense of the life systems of the planet.

-Thomas Berry

Up to this point we have not learned the transformative economic lessons of the salmon. We have followed instead the call of the market system, which has transformed the salmon from a subject with whom we can have communion to just another commodity for sale. The reduction of this great creature and symbol to a commodity, its subjection to the tyranny of the laws of supply and demand, and the corresponding destruction of its habitats have been catastrophic. In California the naturally spawned adult coho salmon population has declined to approximately 1 percent of its historic size, which was somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000 in the 1940s, with Northern California/Southern Oregon coho salmon listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. Similarly, the California and Oregon Chinook salmon population has declined so precipitously that all commercial and sport fishing for them has recently been suspended. All told, more than 106 native Pacific salmon stocks are now extinct, with 214 more at risk of extinction. The immediate causes for the reduction in coastal salmon populations include overfishing, degradation of habitat due to loss of streamside vegetation, filling of wetlands, decline in water quality of small streams, the early impacts of global warming, and grossly inadequate regulations.

Salmon are of course a “fictitious commodity” because they are not made by us for sale, nor do their reproduction and life journey respond to the needs of human supply and demand. As with all fictitious commodities, this is extremely inconvenient for the market economy, which needs to commodify salmon. As a solution, there has been an exponential increase in the “factory farming” of salmon and other aquatic species over the past three decades. Today’s millions of farm-raised salmon are packed into overcrowded net pens, which breed parasites, fungi, and other pathogens that promote the rapid spread of disease. To prevent infestation and disease in this unnaturally close confinement, salmon fish farms use large doses of pesticides, antibiotics, and other chemicals, which producers often dump directly into the water. This stew of contaminants not only causes significant water pollution but also contaminates the fish themselves, posing numerous health hazards for the ultimate human consumers. In addition, salmon producers regularly use artificial dyes to make the pale grey flesh of farm-raised salmon appear rich in color like healthy wild salmon. The dyes hide the unnatural life of these salmon and pose threats to consumers, including hyperactivity in children and retinal damage.

The salmon produced by modern aquaculture, these fully commodified salmon, also pose a major threat to wild salmon as tens of thousands each year escape confinement and enter the open seas and estuaries. This results in farmed fish spreading to wild fish numerous potentially fatal viral and bacterial diseases and sea lice endemic to net pens. Many wild populations have already been decimated by this spread of infections. Additionally, escaped farmed Atlantic salmon raised in Canada overrun spawning beds for wild Pacific salmon, including the coho, which has led to a significant decrease in the reproduction rate for the native fish.

The water pollution from aquaculture and the decades of industrial chemical runoff into oceans have had another tragic and especially poignant impact on wild salmon. A decade ago researchers found that salmon migrating up the Copper River in Alaska (just a few miles north of the Tsiu) were bringing with them not just nitrogen and other important nutrients but also deadly chemicals such as PCBs and DDT. The salmon ingest these hazardous toxins from eating fish contaminated during their ocean sojourn. As salmon’s bodies decompose many miles upstream, they spread these pollutants into the streams and lakes where their spawn ended. This industrial poisoning of the salmon’s immensely productive life cycle is a potent symbolic and real reminder of the profoundly destructive and disturbing legacy of an economics completely disconnected from the reality of our ecological relationships.

Engineered Extinction

Through genetic engineering we have made a better, more efficient salmon. That means more food grown in less space, and less cost to the consumer.

-Elliot Entis, President of Aqua Bounty

It has been obvious for some time that our technological and related economic systems are not only autistic vis-à-vis the natural world but are actively destroying it. By treating nature as a commodity we are undermining our mutual survival. This has brought about a kind of technological dilemma: Much of the world’s population has become fully dependent on and deeply addicted to the market system and our interlocking technological systems, yet these economic and production-based regimes are threatening the viability of life on Earth. It is becoming increasingly evident that ultimately we cannot live with our current technology and market orientation, yet we can’t imagine living without them.

In the early 1970s there were those who saw this dilemma emerging. Led by such prescient prophets as E. F. Schumacher, they began planning for the inevitable day when we would realize that survival requires devolving our technologies and changing our economy so that they both better comport with the animate and inanimate systems of nature. A small but persistent movement began urging the substitution of “appropriate technologies” for the mega- technological system that was rapidly decimating creation and us with it. Many of us in the legal profession worked hard to institute national and international laws and regulations limiting or halting the advance of the globalizing market system and its attendant harmful technologies. We believed that in time we would have laws to adequately protect nature from the uncontrolled onslaught of capital and industrial technological systems. We also began developing a more holistic science that could move beyond mere mechanistic thought and invention.

What many of us did not foresee was that the economic and scientific elite had a very different solution to the looming dilemma. They too came to realize, albeit slowly, that current technology was not compatible with life and that the contradictions between the growing globalizing market system and the laws of nature were ever heightening. They too saw that a solution was urgently needed. To deal with this historic dilemma they began a breathtaking initiative. This initiative was not, however, intended to change our economics and technology so that they better met the needs of living things; rather, corporations and government researchers decided to engineer life itself so that it would accommodate the market system and the technologies upon which it is based. Instead of technology and economics adapting to the needs of living systems, living systems were to be remade, engineered at the genetic and molecular level, to conform with the requirements of our current market and technological milieu.

It is in this chilling context that the enormous significance of the current headlines in matters of science and technology can be most fully understood. Recombinant DNA technology is the tool that allows engineers to attempt to alter life at the genetic level so that life forms are adapted to the industrial production system and can become true commodities. More recently nanotechnology engineers are similarly altering nature at the molecular level. Genetic engineering in fact allows for life to be treated as a technological commodity. It is now possible to snip, insert, recombine, rearrange, edit, program, and produce genetic material much the same way that the engineers of the industrial revolution were able to separate, collect, utilize, and exploit inanimate materials. Just as the factory system allowed for the production of unlimited amounts of identical machines and other products, advances in cloning are attempting to produce unlimited amounts of identical life forms. And just as prior generations initiated a patent system to encourage the production of novel machines and products, we are now witnessing the patenting of plants, animals (including the salmon), and even human genes, cells, and embryos. Life forms have been redefined by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office as “machines and manufactures.”

Seen from this perspective, biotechnology becomes the ultimate technological fix for the contradictions of the current market system. Global warming is dealt with not by stopping profitable pollution but by trying to genetically engineer plants and animals to withstand the temperatures and droughts resulting from climate change. Chemical pollution in agriculture is addressed not by reducing pesticide use but by engineering herbicide-tolerant plants that can survive regardless of the volume of chemicals used. (More than 80 percent of genetically engineered plants grown today are designed to be herbicide tolerant, which means hundreds of tons more chemicals sold and applied, polluting our land and food. It also means exponential profits for the Monsantos of the world.) The problem of spoilage of food in our global food system is solved not by encouraging local food production but by genetically designing foods for longer shelf life. We do not change our profitable but unspeakably cruel factory-farm system to comport with the nature of animals; instead, we attempt to genetically engineer our poultry and livestock to withstand the intensive confinement and multitude of diseases endemic to the system.

Species after species is being genetically engineered in the hope that they can be transformed into more profitable commodities that can better meet the demands of industrial production. This includes more than 35 species of fish and shellfish. Not surprisingly, salmon have been among the species on which the engineers have focused most of their attention. For more than two decades governments and corporations have been genetically engineering salmon, trying to create more efficient, faster growing “supersalmon.” In the late 1980s Canadian scientists experimented with boosting salmon size by engineering them to contain growth genes from humans, cattle, and chicken. Others have tried genetic engineering to alter salmon’s reproductive behavior so that they can spawn in salt water or brackish bays instead of in rivers or fresh water. If successful, this would halt forever the spawning journey and all of its redistributive and reciprocal relationships.

In more recent years a variety of companies and scientists intensified their efforts to ratchet up the natural salmon growth rates in hopes of maximizing the profitability of aquaculture. With much experimentation it was discovered that salmon size and growth speed could be boosted most efficiently by engineering them with growth genes from other fish species. In 2000 a Massachusetts and Canadian company, Aqua Bounty, was the first to seek permission from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to grow and sell Atlantic salmon genetically engineered to grow faster and larger.

Subsequently, however, it was discovered during laboratory experiments that the new genes in the salmon were potentially catastrophic to the species. Researchers called them “Trojan” genes, reminiscent of Homer’s account of the horse that entered Troy and ultimately caused its destruction. It turned out that the larger, engineered salmon were more attractive to mates during reproduction, but because of unexpected physiological havoc caused by the new genes, there was one-third greater die-off in the offspring of the gene-altered fish. This stood the concept of evolution on its head. It was survival of the unfittest. The engineered fish were triumphant in dominating reproduction, but they were destroying the species as they reproduced. When the researchers looked at the terrible reproductive arithmetic, they calculated that the release of only 60 of these genetically engineered salmon into the environment could result in the extinction of a native species of 60,000 salmon in just 40 generations.

It is important to realize that once the salmon engineered with the Trojan genes escape or are released, they cannot be recalled or eliminated. Chemical pollution most often dilutes over time, but biological pollution such as that caused by these engineered salmon is irreversible. The altered salmon, once in rivers or the ocean, will reproduce, mutate, and disseminate. Their polluting power will only gain with time. Extinction of the wild salmon will be impossible to halt.

The engineering of salmon and myriad other species reveals the hubris of the market system. Corporations assume that they, obeying market laws and in pursuit of ever more profit, can profoundly alter the physiology of the salmon, honed in its ecosystem for millennia, without adverse results. Here are both the irony and the criminality of this technological attempt to refashion nature’s life forms as technological commodities, for what results is not a market utopia of greater abundance and profits, as advertised, but rather the irreversible biological pollution and complete disappearance of one of our most treasured species.

The year I returned from my first trip to the Tsiu I, together with the other lawyers in my organization, filed five separate legal actions to halt the introduction and commercialization of these genetically engineered fish. Thus far we have succeeded in preventing the FDA and other agencies from allowing ocean farming and commercialization of the genetically engineered salmon, but as for the future there is no way of knowing. Obviously we, along with so many now alert to these dangers, will do everything in our power to stop Aqua Bounty and other corporations like it.

Here the salmon, which engineers focus on so intensively, teach us yet another lesson, albeit involuntarily on their part—namely, that as a human community we find ourselves in a defining historical moment. On one hand technology is increasingly attempting to alter living systems to suit the mandates of the market system; at the same time an increasing number of us are devoting ourselves to attempting to abolish the prevailing market orientation and devolve our technologies so that they better conform to the needs and laws of living systems. It appears to me that the very future of not only salmon but of ourselves and nature as we know it rests in the outcome of this struggle.

The Salmon Are Us

First they came for the sick and disabled but I did not speak out because I was not sick or disabled; then they came for the socialists but I did not speak out because I was not a socialist; then they came for the trade unionists but I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist; then they came for the Catholics but I did not speak out because I was not a Catholic; then they came for the Jews but I did not speak out because I was not a Jew; then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.

-Martin Niemöller

Concrete steps such as filing law suits, protecting habitat, and staging protests are critical in protecting salmon, and nature itself, from the onslaught of the demands of capital, technology, and the market. It is becoming ever more evident, however, that these and similar actions will not be sufficient in and of themselves to generate the paradigm shift to a new Earth-centered economics. As we continue our day-to-day work to prevent the extinction of the salmon and innumerable other instances of “bleeding” caused by our current systems of production and consumption, I believe we must also do whatever we can to change the consciousness that is creating this unfolding emergency for the Earth and ourselves. We must somehow address the psychological and spiritual issues behind the terrible destruction we are intentionally and unintentionally causing.

Even a partial diagnosis of the pathologies behind our current dilemma quickly leads us to the conclusion that a prime task must be to identify and then overcome the pathological mind-set that is fostered by the market system. Most important in this task is to understand the profound consequences of consciously or unconsciously seeing ourselves as market commodities, little different ultimately than from the reductionist view we have of the salmon and the rest of creation. Interestingly, most major psychologists over the past century have not focused on the impact of this novel reality for humans in a market society. Erich Fromm, one of the twentieth century’s leading psychologists, was a notable exception. He wrote:

The average person today is terribly alone and feels alone. He feels himself to be a commodity, by which I mean he feels that his value depends on his success, depends on his saleablity, depends on approval by others. He feels that it does not depend on the intrinsic . . . value of his personality, not on his powers, his capacity to love, not on his human qualities—except if he can sell them, except if he can be successful. . . . This is what I mean by the “marketing orientation.”

Being ensconced in the marketing orientation, we not only view ourselves as commodities but everyone else as well. We do not only see ourselves as things, we also see our neighbors as things. Fromm continues:

Others are experienced as commodities like oneself; they too do not present themselves but their saleable part. The difference between people is reduced to a merely quantitative difference of being more or less successful, attractive, hence valuable. This process is not different from what happens to commodities on the market. (Emphasis in original)

The pathology of the market orientation affects virtually all of our relationships. When the true self is routinely neglected or even avoided and we select out and develop only those portions of our personality designed to please, compete, and succeed, then our relations with other “commodities” become by necessity both superficial and unloving. Competition for success is after all not an ethic of empathy or inclusion but of elimination. We need to “beat out” the other. Our media are rife with reality shows where people are told, “You’re fired” or “Goodbye, you are the weakest link.” Whether achieving success in school, love, marriage, work, acquiring wealth, or in our recreational games, there are winners and losers, and we all desperately want to be winners. Sadly, as psychologist Rollo May points out, losing does not prompt us to question the morality and humaneness of accepting competition as our governing ethic but often only intensifies the need to regain our self-esteem by redoubling our competitive efforts. After all, along with its economic consequences, being a permanent “loser” is akin to a kind of psychological death.

What’s even more distressing is that for well over a century we have been taught a widespread but misplaced understanding of evolution that has projected this human market orientation and its competition/success obsession into all of nature. We neglect the lessons of redistribution, reciprocation, and gift-giving epitomized by the salmon because we have been taught from the earliest age to see all of nature’s interactions as nothing but a competitive fight for survival and have been led to adopt the Hobbesian view of nature as a “war of all against all.” This results in viewing as “natural” the permanent war with one another for success and with the rest of nature for our survival in a “dog eat dog” struggle.

No avenue of modern life embodies this attitude more than our relationship to work and workplace. While most workers in the so-called developed world no longer suffer the extreme exploitation of the early days of the satanic mills of industrialization, our labor still ingrains in us an inner sense of being commodities. As a starting point in examining the psychology of our work in the capitalist milieu, it may be well to dispel the myth that our market system is somehow linked to the growth of freedom and democracy. Those who promote this idea fail to take note that almost every workplace—be it a corporation, factory, or government bureaucracy—is a dictatorship, a mini- totalitarian state. There is little or no democracy in our market-driven workplaces.

Although we often state that we live in a democratic society, the reality is that tens of millions of Americans spend every hour of their working day comporting themselves with the dictatorship of the market-oriented labor system. (They learned this behavior early on in the dictatorial and regimented schools that educated them.) This dictatorship has its own implicit policing function. As long as we continue to sell ourselves as commodities, our success will be determined by others who are not just beyond our control but who control us. Failure to obey the dictates of the workplace means becoming the dreaded economic “loser” facing unemployment, financial hardship, and the loss of health care, social status, and even the respect of family and friends. Not surprisingly, success in the totalitarian workplaces of the market system, as with success in any political totalitarian system, is predicated on obedience, repression of self, and the display of a controlled, deliberate, calculated, and manipulative responsiveness. To go further and rise among the ranks, to become a financial leader, requires that one be aggressively goal oriented, undistracted by emotional and personal factors, and able to tune out extraneous ethical or social factors that are unrelated to the end goal, namely profit.

With this workplace-engendered market orientation, not only are our work hours being controlled but our very psyche is being mechanized, We tend to become more and more like the computers and other machines and commodities with which we work and less and less able to empathize and learn from our fellow creatures or to be attentive to the rhythms and patterns of nature. Sociologist Lewis Yablonsky has termed this workplace-induced mentality “robopathology.” Robopaths (and most of us share at least some of this complex) are those whose behavior “simulates machines”—human products of a society that worships mechanical efficiency, regularity, and predictability. They (we) are individuals who tend to be “rigidly conformist, compulsively orderly and efficient, unemotional and unspontaneous.” Yablonsky and other observers see the condition of robopathology as endemic to the market- driven, technological society and term it “the classic disease of the era,” which they see as worsening. “The twenty–first century,” Yablonsky warns, “may be characterized by an epidemic of robopathology.” Ashley Montagu decades ago summarized this human fate within the industrial system:

The mechanization of life could be complete only with the mechanization of man. . . . Man in effect had to be emptied out of essential humanity in order to be restocked with artificial needs and conditional reflexes. . . . [This] process of dehumanization would be consummated in the moment when it was no longer felt or comprehended by its victim, no longer opposed but welcomed. What was required, in short, was the unconditional surrender of self.

The surrender of a life in real relation with others and the rest of nature, which is demanded by the market orientation, does, however, come with some extraordinary potential perks. The great unconscious bargain of the capitalist economy was that even though the humans living under it would sacrifice their sense of self as they became successful commodities in the supply-and-demand labor market, they would nevertheless gain the ability to amass other commodities, both human and nonhuman, for themselves. Under the market mentality their very desires were colonized so that they comport with a consumption society. They would give up a life of being for a life of having. In short, “I am what I own, not what I do, experience, or believe.” Giving one’s life over to life-dulling and amoral daily work in the dictatorship of a corporation or bureaucracy could be redeemed by the satisfaction of accumulating capital and buying the most up-to-date cars, homes, boats, audio/visual equipment, computers, and other techno-toys.

As a result of this trade-off, Americans today work far longer hours than their parents did and hundreds of hours more a year than their European counterparts. Each year the work-hour load increases. Americans even work many more hours annually than did the supposedly overburdened peasants of medieval Europe. And again, for the most part this is not good, meaningful work that utilizes the creative potential of people, not work that is a vocation or calling but rather a “job,” a word that retains its original meaning of robbery (as we still use it in terms of a bank job or con job). Our jobs rob us of our hours and days and of the ability to live ethical work lives. Most of the jobs in our economy are at best amoral and frequently immoral in their use of, and consequences for, humans and the rest of nature. Moreover, these jobs often involve meaningless, repetitive mental or physical movements, all scaled for maximum efficiency. It is not surprising that repetitive-motion disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome represent the vast majority of today’s workplace injuries.

In compensation, however, each year brings new products, including exciting gadgets such as HD TVs, Blackberries, iPhones, and so many others that flood the market and are eagerly snatched up as the desperation over selling one’s life is assuaged by the amusement and purported conveniences provided by acquiring ever more technology. In reality our cell phones, computers, or new nano devices bind us ever more firmly to the workplace and its demands as our “free” time and vacations are incessantly disturbed by these machines ringing or buzzing and by pop-ups designed to remind us that we are to perform yet another task or buy yet another product.

Through this work/consumption cycle our humanity of course becomes repressed, but like all repressed aspects of ourselves it does not actually go away but comes back at us in the form of anxiety, depression, insomnia, and addictions of all sorts. Ironically, Smith’s dictum of each acting in one’s own “self interest” has lead to a profound undermining of the sense of self. As the market-driven speed and demands of work and consumption pull on us, we are unable to cope. Each day 60 million Americans take psychotropic medication to get through that workday, and each night an even greater number take some sort of medication to try to sleep. (I am among those who often seek this help in finding sleep.) Up to seven million of our school-age children are on cocktails of psychotropic medication to get through their school days, and more than half a million U.S. children under three years of age are on similar medications to see them through their routinized day care while their parents are away working ever longer hours.

Here we see the fallacy of many ecological thinkers who suggest we are arrogantly lifting ourselves above nature in our current devastation of the environment. It is true that we are changing the biochemistry of the planet with our economic system and its technologies, but the inhuman demands of the marketplace are also causing us to change our own biochemistry to accommodate it. We are not just altering our fellow creatures to meet our production needs, we are altering our very psyches and bodies. We are not only genetically engineering plants and animals such as the salmon but also have begun the genetic engineering of humans and the cloning of human embryos.

Now that DNA-altering technology has begun to include human beings, some in power have belatedly seen its unique dangers. I have worked with many members of Congress to attempt, so far unsuccessfully, to ban the genetic engineering and cloning of humans. A leader in the fight for such a ban is socially conservative Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), who used to be the agriculture commissioner for his state. Although a strong supporter of agricultural biotechnology, he opposes the engineering of humans. He once told me he was puzzled by my adamant opposition to the genetic engineering of plants and animals. “Senator,” I replied, “first they came for the tomato, but you said nothing; then they came for the pig, but you said nothing; then the salmon, and you said nothing. Well, now they are coming for you.”

In this sense we are the salmon, we are among the animals subjected to exploitation, profound alteration, and yes, even slaughter to accommodate the system. Whatever the horrors committed against the ten billion animals slaughtered each year on the “disassembly” lines of the factory-farm system, we have created equal horrors against humanity during the wars of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Whatever the myriad invasive reproductive technologies used on farm animals, we have also used them on women. As noted by activist and writer Vandana Shiva, just as we have monocultured plants and animals for greater production and profit, so too we have monocultured our minds. Our market orientation has not turned us into mini-gods as some have claimed but rather into sullen commodities who are selling our souls in return for survival and the added pleasure of having ever more products to consume. Here we have a reprise of the familiar motif of the oppressed becoming the oppressor: We as oppressed humans now either willingly or reluctantly participate in the oppression of the other species of the Earth, causing them to suffer from the same technological and market usurpation that has us under its considerable yoke.

My ultimate fear here is that we as members of the modern market society will become so entranced with having and consuming commodities that we will cease altogether to experience and empathize with the “being- ness” of the natural world. The thrill of seeing a whale on one’s cell phone may become greater than experiencing it in the wild. We will have become so transformed into consumers that we will cease to experience being creative. We will buy food or flowers but never grow them, listen to music but never make it, read books and poems but never write them, buy clothes but never design or make them. As Montagu predicted, we may witness the continuing erosion of the essence of our human pursuits, each of which will continue to be emptied and turned into a mere commodity: work without meaning or responsibility, education without learning, medicine without healing, food without nutrition, sex without love, religion without belief, science without wisdom, law without justice, politics without citizenship, community without relationship.

In this way the global spread of the market mentality will result in not only increasing robopathology but also in what Fromm termed an increasing incidence of the “necrophilia” complex, that is, humans so devoid of actual living experience that they can only be invested in, and excited by, the destruction of that which is most alive and vibrant in nature and human nature. They then become energized by the almost obsessive drive to replace living things with ever more advanced technology and machines. Fromm contrasted this kind of person with the biophiliac personality, one that finds meaning in and experiences wonder at living things and is invested in promoting the full expression of each life form and individual.

The necrophilac personality will find the salmon’s life and journey to be of little interest but will be excited by the possibilities that genetic engineering can bring to altering its size, reproductive behavior, and profitability. The media mania over genetic engineering and other emerging technologies such as nanotechnology significantly contributes to the unfortunate spread of the “necrophiliac” complex throughout our society. As we try to halt the destruction of the salmon and other elements of the natural world, I believe we also must attempt to further diagnose and then change the necrophiliac, mechanistic, and efficiency-directed market mentality endemic to our current economic and social systems. In its stead, as part of an Earth-centered economics, we must foster an empathetic attitude toward nature and an observant participation in it. It seems to me that it will take something of a biophiliac revolution—a metanoia to love and wonder at all living things—to protect nature from the continuing pace of destruction we are witnessing.

The Salmon and the Meaning of Life

There are no straight lines in Nature.

-Gertrude Stein


Since my earliest years, despite often laughable failure, I have secretly sought for perfection—or at least some progress towards perfection. I have been deeply attracted to a number of religious thinkers and credos from Ramakrishna and Vedanta to Thomas Merton and Catholicism. In a more extrovert fashion, I have seen my life in terms of professional and financial progress. In both my introvert and extrovert attempts I am disturbed when I run into my shadow side and other obstacles to my linear progressive path.

I am of course not alone in my pursuit of progress. It is perhaps the central pillar of the market ideology. Ever since the sixteenth century Western society has habitually viewed as salvific any period of historical development during which we pass increasingly into the role of master observer and manipulator of nature. Ensconced as we are in the market system and our technological milieu, this development seems inevitable and preordained to us. Questioning a progressive path toward total control over and commodification of nature is regarded as an impiety analogous to one of our religious forebears questioning the perfection of the soul and eternal salvation. As noted by philosopher Richard Weaver, “By a transposition of terms, ‘progress’ becomes the salvation man is placed on earth to work out; and just as there can be no achievement more important than salvation, so there can be no activity more justified in enlisting our sympathy and support than ‘progress.’”

Technological and economic progress still may be the only concept that gives the average American and European a sense of something bigger than themselves, a pursuit they feel compelled to accept and even sacrifice for. We imagine we can achieve the “perfect” solution by means of progress, attaining unheard-of wealth and comfort, curing all disease, and perhaps someday even defeating death itself through genetic engineering or nanotechnology. This linear path of progress to salvation becomes, then, a “concretized” form of the salvation-and-eternal-perfection eschatology of Christianity. It is the creation, through progress, of a “heaven on earth.” In the memorable phrase of philosopher Eric Voegelin it is the “immanentization of the eschaton.”

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. As Gertrude Stein noted, straight lines are antithetical to almost all of nature’s patterns. For salmon it is the circle of completeness that marks their life work. They keep the eternal promise of renewal, not because they are “progressing away from” the past but because they are “recycling” it into each new generation. In their end is their beginning. Thus, the coho’s return is not a progressive attempt to escape death; it is a drive for a life-giving death. And they succeed. As the five species of salmon come home to the rivers of their birth, a vast ecosystem is replenished.

The repeated refrains of the silver salmon’s cycle and journey vibrate in me still. They have not left me, nor will they. The silvers have become actual and symbolic companions, both comforting and inspiring. Since my first encounter with them many years ago I have often returned to the Tsiu and nearby wilderness streams to be with the cohos for the mystery of their seasonal life-and-death journey (a time that includes my own birthday). Despite the frightening realities our current economic and technological systems have brought us and them, the salmon continue to teach me calmness and courage in my search, no longer for perfection or progress but for completeness and a life-giving return journey. I understand why they have so often attained the highest place in the hierarchy of native Alaskan totems. They have become for me, an often disillusioned child of Christian culture, both a sacrament (something that embodies the sacred) and a lesson about the cyclical journey of giving one’s life so others may live.


* * *


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Publication By

Andrew Kimbrell

Andrew Kimbrell is an attorney and author. He also holds a graduate degree in psychology. For many years he was policy director of the Foundation on Economic Trends. Currently he is Executive Director of both the International Center for Technology Assessment (ICTA), which he founded in 1994, and the Center for Food Safety, which he founded … Continued

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