idle wonderings about idle wonderings in the Economist

An economist I am not. I get all confused by graphs, charts, and numbers. Plus, I hate statistics, as they are so often invoked to justify telling individuals what to do based on group norms.

However, when I read The Economist, I expect to see arguments based on economic principles of some sort, and supported by data (whether I can understand it, or like it or not). Not a personal opinion based on personal idiosyncracies, a political lecture, or a moralistic scolding.

A recent piece which purports to be "The argument for giving up fish" has me utterly baffled. Perhaps there's something I'm missing, but it just seems like one individual's very personal rant about why he or she (the author is anonymous, but I'll go with the she-subsuming "he") doesn't want to eat fish:

Gather your oysters while ye may--because, come September, fish will be banned from my diet. I tried this once before, when I became a vegetarian at the age of ten. The precipitating event was a pig-roast picnic held by my grandparents. I can still remember my anguish as that huge animal turned slowly on a spit.
Hey, I can remember lots of anguishing moments! Do the readers of the Economist want to hear about them too?

Apparently, the fish eating was a "concession" to the author's parents, but (for shame!) it actually tasted better than the profoundly bland tofu he ate but didn't prefer:

Initially my vegetarianism extended to fish too. But as a concession to my parents--two meat-eaters worried about raising a waif--I decided after a few months to reinstate seafood. The occasional grilled swordfish or blackened tuna was a welcome break from fried tofu, my profoundly bland protein alternative.
No one was making him eat fried tofu, and his parents were worried. Yet, there seems to be an element of pride in the profound blandness of his diet. This begins to sound like a hair shirt mentality.

He's worried about overfishing, and the fact that fish is popular:

In the past few years I have been worrying about the dramatic decline of fisheries around the world. Everybody wants to eat fish because it is healthy (mercury issues aside). So consumption is growing--as is the world population. In a report last year to Congress, the National Marine Fisheries Service stated that 25% of fish stocks appearing in American waters were overfished (insofar as they can be categorised; for many more types of fish, officials do not have enough information to determine their status). If even America cannot keep its fisheries in robust health, imagine the problems offshore of India or Africa.

The bad news is that there may be very few fish in the sea left within a few decades.

Rather than eat fish that aren't overfished or farm-raised fish, the author thinks it is easier to give up fish entirely. This enables him to avoid the "tiresome" process of educating people about the difference between good and bad fish. Besides, even people who mean well just don't get it; one relative was so cruel as to boil a lobster alive! is tiresome to explain the distinction between good fish and bad fish to people who are kind enough to feed me. Perhaps I should seize the opportunity to educate them; but I am not boorish enough to inflict the minutiae of my dietary preferences on those who invite me to their homes. There are already enough people in this world who seem to be on wheat-free, dairy-free, no-peanuts, only-local-foods diets.

Broad, simple categories are best: fish or no fish. (Mocking my fish consumption, my brother once called himself a "meat-eating vegetarian".)

Finally, by eating fish but not meat for two decades, I have ensured that fish has been constantly on my menu. Last month one of my relatives fed me a lobster while everyone else ate steak. It was very considerate, but I was sorry that it had been boiled alive for my sake--and idly wondered how well Maine's lobster fisheries were managed.

Idly? Why not actively? I mean, here he is, writing for the Economist, and instead of investigating the issue of whether lobsters feel pain or how well managed their stocks are, the reader is left wondering about idle wonderings! But let there be no doubt that fish will be banned. No exceptions.
So after a summer of indulgence, I will ban fish. No sushi, not even if it is made with troll-caught tuna. Worse, no oysters. I have, at least, learned how to cook tofu creatively.
I'll just bet... Notice he doesn't say it tastes good; only that it's now cooked "creatively."

Actually, I have learned how to make tofu taste good, but the key is to use plenty of oyster sauce!

The latter contains oysters, though, which means my "argument" probably does not measure up to the Economist's hair shirt standards.

But I guess if everybody gave up fish, there'd be a better world, right?

UPDATE: Commenter "Eric Blair" reminded me of another point:

That whole essay just drips with the sort of self-indulgent drivel (plenty of which Eric points out) that passes for "meaningful" commentary these days.
Look, many, many blogs (including this one) are loaded with what could be called "self-indulgent drivel," and there's no reason why they shouldn't, as it's a personal process. Depending on the perspective, and depending on my mood, I may or may not enjoy reading about someone's personal feelings on a given subject. But with blogs, you know what you're getting into, and if you read a blog regularly, you know what to expect from that person, whose identity and philosophy are generally no secret. (Even anonymous bloggers usually develop a very characteristic style or persona.)

The trouble with this piece is that while it reads like a typical self-indulgent blog post, there's no identification of an author, a persona, or his or her overall philosophy.

Just "The Economist."

Did "it" just wake up one day and start prattling anonymously about personal feelings?

MORE: It is not my goal to imply here that there isn't a problem with overfishing. Far from it. But supplying moralistic and emotional reasons to not eat fish fails to address the reality of what to do. OTOH, this analysis does:

Ecologist Garret Hardin wrote his classic, "The Tragedy of the Commons" in 1968. The logic of this article is straightforward. When no one has control over a resource, be it a parcel of ocean or a dormitory lounge, it tends to be poorly maintained, overused, or depleted. This explains why prized resources, such as ocean fisheries, available to all, will be over exploited.

Without social or legal constraints, the incentive is for people to seek narrow personal advantages at the expense of the group and the resource. Few people act as wise stewards because others take a "free ride" on such actions, and rarely reciprocate.


...Other open access resource problems, ocean fisheries for example, can be solved by assigning property rights to fishermen in the form of tradable quotas.

It's a challenge to extend property rights to wildlife and their ecosystems.
The traditional approach has been to create protected areas and limit human use (usually with a uniform and badge). But this frequently fails, especially in developing countries where poverty drives people to exploit the natural world and there are no institutions to foster conservation. A key to success is to structure institutions such that local people have incentives for conservation.

Over a decade ago, a group of conservationists gathered to discuss an approach that was sensitive to the aspirations of local people. They collected their thoughts in an attractive booklet, "The View from Airlie." Conservation success often depends on the active involvement, rather than the exclusion, of local communities.

(Via Glenn Reynolds.)

People who fish and people who eat fish have the most at stake here. It strikes me that the Economist would do better to present an argument based on how to preserve and expand the stock of fish than share the feelings of a newly minted crusader against fish.

posted by Eric on 08.09.07 at 12:34 PM


Sounds fishy to me.

M. Simon   ·  August 9, 2007 12:44 PM

I have heard that something like 95% of all soybeans are GM (Gene Modified) strains.

I'd love to see the writer's reaction to that bit of trivia.

That whole essay just drips with the sort of self-indulgent drivel (plenty of which Eric points out) that passes for "meaningful" commentary these days.


Eric Blair   ·  August 9, 2007 1:04 PM

I'll toast him the next time I'm eating a steak or a pork loin.

Sigivald   ·  August 9, 2007 1:58 PM

"I'd love to see the writer's reaction to that bit of trivia."

I find myself wondering whether that would be a personal reaction or an institutional reaction.

(That's the whole problem with this.)

Eric Scheie   ·  August 9, 2007 2:05 PM

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