I originally came to Alaska for a three week stint, and I stayed for a year. After a period of travel, I find myself a permanent resident of “the great land.” Currently, I am in Alaska’s southeast, working the summer at a tourist job in the pristine wilderness area of Glacier Bay National Park. On Friday the 22nd, I spent a serene day kayaking on a rare day of sunny brilliance, the rugged and majestic world on full display as I paddled through glassy waters. Yes, even the patron ecological Saint, John Muir, would be jealous at my opportunity to glide through the waters he visited years ago.
I moved to Alaska to escape, at least in part, the sterility and constrictions of our modern industrial world; however, there is no place untouched by the unjust choices forced on us by an unsustainable culture. As such, the day after kayaking, I found myself watching a horrendous Youtube video (see above) of Alaska State Troopers seizing the fish and nets of villagers, mostly native peoples. These are natives who, in large part, exist on subsistence: their food comes from the natural world, and they rely on salmon runs. I watched a State Trooper toss the fish into his boat while a frustrated villager bangs his hands against the motor. The fish these troopers collect will most likely be dumped or otherwise wasted.
Alaska Fish & Game made a decision this last week to enforce an emergency shut down of fishing for king salmon. The runs are way too small. No commercial fishing. No sport fishing. No subsistence fishing. It is a decision to conserve.
Conservation is good. Still, witnessing video of officers taking the food out of the boats of native villagers is horrendous. It is appalling in any circumstance, but given the U.S. history of native genocide and theft of their homeland and hunting grounds, it is particularly egregious. We are wise to reflect on these ramifications. Also worthy of deliberation is the neoliberal dilemma of good 21st century progressives: respect the rights of native peoples to their land and ancient livlihoods or conserve the run of king salmon. There is more, however, to this story, and the irony cuts deep into the flesh of our unfolding environmental crisis.
In an Alaska Dispatch article, State officials try to contain Western Alaska salmon revolt, I read of “Teddy,” a villager trying to push back. In what was most likely a desperate attempt to communicate with Alaskan residents, to get across the point that villagers need to eat, Teddy compared the streams and rivers where his people fish to the shelves at the ubiquitous Walmart: this, the natural world, is their Walmart, the place they go for food. Telling villagers not to fish is the equivalent of not visiting Walmart for a week or more.
A state biologist responded to the comparison, and I cite the article as follows: “If only it was that simple, state fisheries biologists said. When a Wal-Mart runs low on supplies, it can easily order another shipment. But it doesn’t work that way with wild resources. Tomorrow’s salmon are dependent on the spawning success of today’s salmon. Salmon can only restock the shelves by way of reproduction. If too few make it to the spawning grounds this year, there will be even less in the future. If the precedent is set for allowing overfishing to meet human needs, the runs will be overfished year by year until there is almost nothing.”
When faced with the dilemma of her people having no bread to eat, “a great princess” was purported to have said, “let them eat cake.” These few words from this little incident may have been a delightful fable from the bubbling imagination of Jean-Jacques Rousseau; but whether historical or fictitious, it resonates. Generally, people view it as a commentary on the ability of the ruling elite to fall out of touch with commoner, which is true enough, of course. However, there is also a deeper, more profound, ecological disconnect: cake doesn’t just appear. Even a wheatless cake has to be compossed of something.
There will never be an ecological food crisis, not as long as we have Walmart. Their shelves are always stocked. So, as the world’s salmon runs dissappear, let the people shop at Walmart. As the soil, air, and water is damaged and destroyed, as species go extinct and the planet warms, as the foundations of our natural world reach breaking point, let us shop at Walmart.
Our ability to shop in grocery and department stores is somehow no longer truly connected to finite resources and above the laws of nature. As such, our shopping stores are supernatural, they transcend the usual limits of nature. As an individual case, the king salmon runs are subject to natural law. We have to respect it as a natural resource. The system of industrial food production, however, is somehow above these laws. For some reason, we can’t quite connect the dots, to bring ourselves to believe that the system itself will fail us.
While salmon runs can dwindle for the villagers, our local Walmart only needs to put in an order for extra Fourth of July hot dogs or more red-white-and-blue napkins, and *poof*, they appear on the shelves. The grocery and department stores of global capitalism are the New Jerusalem, “coming down out of heaven from God,” with trees bearing abundant fruit. (Christian Bible, Revelation chapter 21-22) We are “Jack,” of “Jack and the Bean Stock” lore. Monsanto sells us magic beans with the promise that they will grow crops that reach up into the clouds.
Did our faith in this sort of magical supernatural provision, this “mana from heaven,” serve us well in the past? Or is the root of the problem more material: are we all just too plugged in to the economic matrix of global capitalism, determined to individually squeeze as much profit out of the system before it all collapses? This, that, or the other reason – whatever the cause(s), the effect is that our industrial food system is furiously bent on destruction. Although Teddy and other native villagers are simpletons in the minds of our sophisticated engineers of modern capitalism, the villagers have still preserved at least some methods of subsistence living. But what of you and I? What will we do when the shevles of Walmart are empty, the doors of the grocery stores chained shut, and plastic bags roll like modern tumbleweeds across deserted strip malls?