Thursday, October 15, 2009

Save the Whales, Screw the Shrimp - by Joy Williams

This is a required reading assignment for a university literary class. As this work is found nowhere else online, I have decided to set a precedent for many college students everywhere who so desperately look for a re-posted work online to copy-&-paste to a text-to-speech program. By having it read back to them, they spend a fraction of the effort otherwise spent manually reading this passage. Students seek paths of least resistance. I am constructing one of them.

I don't want to talk about me, of course, but it seems as though far too much attention has been lavished on you lately--that your greed and vanities and quest for self-fulfillment have been catered to far too much. You just want and want and want. You believe in yourself excessively. You don't believe in Nature anymore. It's too isolated from you. You've abstracted it. It's so messy and damaged and sad. Your eyes glaze as you travel life's highway past all the crushed animals and the Big Gulp cups. You don't even take pleasure in looking at nature photographs these days. Oh, they can be just as pretty as always, but don't they make you feel increasingly . . . anxious? Filled with more trepidation than peace? So what's the point? You see the picture of the baby condor or the panda munching on a bamboo shoot, and your heart just sinks, doesn't it? A picture of a poor old sea turtle with barnacles on her back, all ancient and exhausted, depositing her five gallons of doomed eggs in the sand hardly fills you with joy, because you realize, quite rightly, that just outside the frame falls the shadow of the condo. What's cropped from the shot of ocean waves crashing on a pristine shore is the plastics plant, and just beyond the dunes lies a parking lot. Hidden from immediate view in the butterfly-bright meadow, in the dusky thicket, in the oak and holly wood, are the surveyors' stakes, for someone wants to build a mall exactly there--some gas stations and supermarkets, some pizza and video shops, a health club, maybe a bulimia treatment center. Those lovely pictures of leopards and herons and wild rivers--well, you just know they're going to be accompanied by a text that will serve only to bring you down. You don't want to think about it! It's all so uncool. And you don't want to feel guilty either. Guilt is uncool. Regret maybe you'll consider. Maybe. Regret is a possibility, but don't push me, you say. Nature photographs have become something of a problem, along with almost everything else. Even though they leave the bad stuff out--maybe because you know they're leaving all the bad stuff out--such pictures are making you increasingly aware that you're a little too late for Nature. Do you feel that? Twenty years too late? Maybe only ten? Not way too late, just a little too late? Well, it appears that you are. And since you are, you've decided you're just not going to attend this particular party.

Pascal said that it is easier to endure death without thinking about it than to endure the thought of death without dying. This is how you manage to dance the strange dance with that grim partner, nuclear annihilation. When the U.S. Army notified Winston Churchill that the first A-bomb had been detonated in New Mexico, it chose the code phrase BABIES SATISFACTORILY BORN. So you entered the age of irony, and the strange double life you've been leading with the world ever since. Joyce Carol Oates suggests that the reason writers--real writers, one assumes--don't write about Nature is that it lacks a sense of humor and registers no irony. It just doesn't seem to be of the times--these slick, sleek, knowing, objective, indulgent times. And the word environment. Such a bloodless word. A flat-footed word with a shrunken heart. A word increasingly disengaged from its association with the natural world. Urban planners, industrialists, economists, developers use it. It's a lost word, really. A cold word, mechanistic, suited strangely to the coldness generally felt toward Nature. It's their word now. You don't mind giving it up. As for environmentalist, that's one that can really bring on the yawns, for you've tamed and tidied it, neutered it quite nicely. An environmentalist must be calm, rational, reasonable, and willing to compromise; otherwise, you won't listen to him. Still, his beliefs are opinions only, for this is the age of radical subjectivism. Some people might prefer a Just for Feet store to open space, and they shouldn't be castigated for it. All beliefs and desires and needs are pretty much equally valid. The speculator has just as much right to that open space as the swallow, and the consumer has the most rights of all. Experts and computer models, to say nothing of lawsuits, can hold up environmental checks and reform for decades. The Environmental Protection Agency protects us by finding "acceptable levels of harm" from pollutants and then issuing rules allowing industry to pollute to those levels. Any other approach would place limits on economic growth. Limits on economic growth! What a witchy notion! The EPA can't keep abreast of progress and its unintended consequences. They're drowning in science. Whenever they do lumber into action and ban a weed killer, say (and you do love your weed killers--you particularly hate to see the more popular ones singled out), they have to pay all disposal costs and compensate the manufacturers for the market value of the chemicals they still have in stock.

That seems . . . that seems only fair, you say. Financial loss is a serious matter. And think of the farmers when a particular effective herbicide or pesticide is banned. They could be driven right out of business.

Farmers grow way too much stuff anyway. Federal farm policy, which subsidizes overproduction, encourages bigger and bigger farms and fewer and fewer farmers. The largest farms don't produce food at all, they grow feed. One third of the wheat, three quarters of the corn, and almost all of the soybeans are used for feed. You get cheap hamburgers; the agribusiness moguls get immense profits. Subsidized crops are grown with subsidized water created by turning rivers great and small into a plumbing system of dams and irrigation ditches. Rivers have become conduits. Wetlands are increasingly being referred to as filtering systems--things deigned useful because of their ability to absorb urban runoff, oil from roads, et cetera.

We know that. We've known that for years about farmers. We know a lot these days. We're very well informed. If farmers aren't allowed to make a profit by growing surplus crops, they'll have to sell their land to developers, who'll turn all that arable land into office parks. Arable land isn't Nature anyway, and besides, we like those office parks and shopping plazas, with their monster supermarkets open twenty-four hours a day and aisle after aisle after aisle of products. It's fun. Products are fun.

Farmers like their poisons, but ranchers like them even more. There are well-funded federal programs like the Agriculture Department's "Animal Damage Control Unit," which, responding to public discomfort about its agenda, decided recently to change its name to the euphemistic Wildlife Services. Wildlife Services poisons, shoots, and traps thousands of animals each year. Servicing diligently, it kills bobcats, foxes, black bears, mountain lions, rabbits, badgers, countless birds--all to make this great land safe for the string bean and the corn, the sheep and the cow, even though you're not consuming as much cow these days. A burger now and then, but burgers are hardly cows at all, you feel. They're not all our cows, in any case, for some burger matter is imported. There's a bit of Central American burger matter in your bun. Which is contributing to the conversion of tropical rain forest into cow pasture. Even so, you're getting away from meat these days. You're eschewing cow. It's seafood you love, shrimp most of all. And when you love something, it had better watch out, because you have a tendency to love it to death. Shrimp, shrimp, shrimp. It's more common on menus than chicken. In the wilds of Ohio, far, far from watery shores, four out of the six entrees on a menu will be shrimp something-or-other, available, for a modest sum. Everywhere, it's all the shrimp you can eat or all you care to eat, for sometimes you just don't feel like eating all you can. You are intensively harvesting shrimp. Soon there won't be any left, and then you can stop. Shrimpers put out these big nets, and in these nets, for each pound of shrimp, they catch more than ten times that amount of fish, turtles, and dolphins. These, quite the worse for wear, are dumped back in. There is an object called TED (Turtle Excluder Device) that would save thousands of turtles and some dolphins from dying in the net, but shrimpers are loath to use TEDs, as they argue it would cut the size of their shrimp catch.

We've heard about TED, you say.

At Kiawah Island, off the coast of South Carolina, visitors go out on Jeep "safaris" through the part of the island that hasn't been developed yet. ("Wherever you see trees," the guide says, "it's actually a lot.") The visitors (i.e., potential buyers) drive their own Jeeps, and the guide talks to them by radio. Kiawah has nice beaches, and the guide talks about turtles. When he mentions the shrimpers' role in the decline of the turtle, the shrimpers, who share the same frequency, scream at him. Shrimpers and most commercial fishermen (many of them working with drift and gill nets anywhere from six to thirty miles long) think of themselves as an endangered species. A recent newspaper headline said, "SHRIMPERS SPARED ANTI-TURTLE DEVICES." Even so, with the continuing wanton depletion of shrimp beds, they will undoubtedly have to find some other means of employment soon. They might, for instance, become part of that vast throng laboring in the tourist industry.

Tourism has become an industry as destructive as any other. You are no longer benign in traveling somewhere to look at the scenery. You never thought there was much gain in just looking anyway; you've always preferred to use the scenery in some manner. In your desire to get away from what you've got, you've caused there to be no place to get away to. You're just all bumpered up out there. Sewage and dumps have become prime indicators of America's lifestyle. In resort towns in New England and the Adirondacks, measuring the flow into the sewage plants serves as a business barometer. Tourism is a growth industry. You believe in growth. Controlled growth, of course. Controlled exponential growth is what you'd really like to see. You certainly don't want to put a moratorium or a cap on anything. That's illegal, isn't it? Retro you're not. You don't want to go back or anything. Forward. Maybe ask directions later. Growth is desirable as well as being inevitable. Growth is the one thing you seem to be powerless before, so you try to be realistic about it. Growth--it's weird--it's like cancer or something.

As a tourist you have long ago discovered your national parks and are quickly overburdening them. All that spare land, and it belongs to you! It's exotic land too, not looking like all the stuff around it that looks like everything else. You want to take advantage of this land, of course, and use it in every way you can. Thus the managers--or stewards, as they like to be called--have developed wise and multiple-use plans, keeping in mind exploiters' interests (for they have their needs, too), as well as the desires of the backpackers. Thus mining, timbering, and ranching activities take place in the national forest, where the Forest Service maintains a system of logging roads eight times greater than the interstate highway system. Snowmobilers demand that their trails be groomed. The national parks are more of a public playground and are becoming increasingly Europeanized in their look and management. Lots of concessions and motels. Paths paved to accommodate strollers. You deserve a clean bed and a hot meal when you go into the wilderness. At least, your stewards think that you do. You keep your stewards busy. Not only must they cater to your multiple and conflicting desires, they have to manage your wildlife resources. They have managed wildfowl to such an extent that, the reasoning has become, if it weren't for hunters, ducks would disappear. Duck stamps and licensing fees support the whole rickety duck management system. Yes! If it weren't for the people who kill them, wild ducks wouldn't exist! Many a manager believes that better wildlife protection is provided when wildlife is allowed to be shot. Conservation commissions can only oversee hunting when hunting is allowed. But wild creatures are managed in other ways as well. Managers track and tape and tag and band. They relocate, restock, and reintroduce. They cull and control. It's hard to keep it straight. Protect or poison? Extirpate or just mostly eliminate? Sometimes even the stewards get mixed up.

This is the time of machines and models, hands-on management and master plans. Don't you ever wonder as you pass that billboard advertising another MASTER PLANNED COMMUNITY just what master they are actually talking about? Not the Big Master, certainly. Something brought to you by one of the tiny masters, of which there are many. But you like these tiny masters and have even come to expect and require them. In Florida they're well into building a ten-thousand-acre city in the Everglades. It's a megaproject, one of the largest ever in the state. Yes, they must have thought you wanted it. No, what you thought of as the Everglades, the park, is only a little bitty part of the Everglades. Developers have been gnawing at this irreplaceable, strange land for years. It's like they just hate this ancient sea of grass. Maybe you could ask them about this sometime. Every tree and bush and inch of sidewalk in the project has been planned, of course. Nevertheless, because the whole thing will take twenty-five years to complete, the plan is going to be constantly changed. You can understand this. The important thing is that there be a blueprint. You trust a blueprint. The tiny masters know what you like. You like a secure landscape and access to services. You like grass--that is, lawns. The ultimate lawn is the golf course, which you've been told has "some ecological value." You believe this! Not that it really matters--you just like to play golf. These golf courses require a lot of watering. So much that the more inspired of the masters have taken to watering them with effluent, treated effluent, but yours, from all the condos and villas built around the stocked artificial lakes you fancy.

I really don't want to think about sewage, you say, but it sounds like progress.

It is true that the masters are struggling with the problems of your incessant flushing. Cuisine is also one of their concerns. Great advances have been made in sorbets--sorbet intermezzos--in their clubs and fine restaurants. They know what you want. You want A HAVEN FROM THE ORDINARY WORLD. If you're a NATURE LOVER in the West, you want to live in a WILD ANIMAL HABITAT. If you're eastern and consider yourself more hip, you want to live in a new town--a brand-new reconstructed-from-scratch town--in a house of NINETEENTH-CENTURY DESIGN. But in these new towns the masters are building, getting around can be confusing. There is an abundance of curves and an infrequency of through streets. It's the new wilderness without any trees. You can get lost, even with all the "mental bread crumbs" the masters scatter about as visual landmarks--the windmill, the water views, the various groupings of landscape "material." You are lost, you know. But you trust a Realtor will show you the way. There are many more Realtors than tiny masters, and many of them have to make do with less than a loaf--that is, trying to sell stuff that's already been built in an environment already "enhanced" rather than something being planned--but they're everywhere, willing to show you the path. If Dante returned to Hell today, he'd probably be escorted down by a Realtor talking all the while about how it was just another level of Paradise.