Small fish and monkfish
In some ways, Peter and Ruth Bechtel’s presentations seemed to be the perfect rejoinder to Michael Shellenberger’s criticisms of environmentalism. Their multipronged projects seemed supremely constructive and hopeful, acknowledging the real, inescapable, material needs of the people they hope to enlist and serve.
Like Maria I came into their presentation skeptical. In environmental history we expect that the development of “wilderness preserves” will lead to human dispossession and the destruction of human landscapes. The American notion of “pristine wilderness” implying the total absence of humans, has been used to make human landscapes illegitimate. In landscapes from Yellowstone to Mt. Kenya, conservation legislation has turned subsistence hunters and fisherpeople into “poachers” and wood-users into “thieves.” Such legislation has turned landscapes of work into landscapes of elite recreation. The Bechtels’ work with fishing preserves seemed to acknowledge this history and learn from it. I was impressed and encouraged and moved.
However key aspects of the Bechtels’ success in Mozambique highlight dimensions of difficulty in the American context with great force. As the Bechtels’ pointed out, their negotiations with local communities on Lake Malawi took advantage of the fact that the people endangering the fishing themselves relied on the fish. A local conversation about self-interest naturally came around to fish preservation. The same conversation seems a lot harder to imagine with an Amazon logistics expert in Carlisle. The specialization and depopulation of the American countryside means that most Americans do not depend for their livelihood on any particular landscape or resource. Even if we turned Chesapeake into a dead zone, stretches of ocean from Alaska to Thailand to Chile would still supply us with fish, at least for a while.
This separation and competition hides our limits from us. As the nets of the people of Lake Niassa grew finer, they saw the fish growing smaller. As our fish stocks are depleted we simply see shifts to new fish from new places—the orange roughy of the 1990s, the monkfish of the 2000s. Ann Vileisis’s Kitchen Literacy shows us that this process is of long standing. During the nineteenth century, as railway lines lengthened and market hunting intensified, metropolitan consumers ate their way unthinkingly through hundreds of wild bird species, of which the passenger pigeon was only the most famous. The gap left by each species was filled by a new one—giving a mass extinction the feeling of a cornucopia. For them as for us, depletion could be disguised by novelty. For them as with us, lengthening transportation lines made local pollution acceptable. As long as lobster could be caught in Maine, it didn’t matter that nothing could be caught in the Hudson.
If we move beyond fish, of course things get even more complicated—it’s hard to imagine any area of the United States where a single resource would attract unanimous local allegiance, where tourism isn’t competing with lumbering, or farming, mining, or oil refining.
I realize looking back over this post that I’m characterizing the Bechtels’ work (which is clearly appallingly difficult and often personally dangerous) as somehow simpler than similar efforts in the U.S. I don’t mean to do this. I also don’t want to downplay the incredible promise their work holds. However, I’ll be thinking hard about about how to practice Community Based Natural Resource Development here, in a place where communities are so far flung, with such heterogeneous, and so torn between different interests. I’d love any thoughts (or readings) people in our group have to suggest that describe the process of coalition-building and negotiating among groups with conflicting interests.