Let them eat cake

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?

Published by

Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

5 thoughts on “Let them eat cake”

  1. goodness, has it been a year already???

    It’s important to know how get and sustain your own resources… unfortunately one of the costs of ‘civilization’ is the loss of these abilities in favor of mass-industrialized economies and trade.

    The problem is not a new one. All specialization requires sacrifice of generalized features, and vice versa.


    1. Hi Daphne!


      But mass industrialization is dependent on a finite, nonrenewable resource: fossil fuel. Ergo, at some point, mass industrialization will end, right?


  2. I REALLY don’t like to see them restricting fishing for the Native Alaskans. The villagers need it to sustain their lives in their little communities. The shortages are probably the fault of the commercial and sports fishermen. It would be more sensible to allow the Alaskan villagers to get what they need and stop all others. This is a repeat of the awful way we treated the Native Americans. It was unforgivable the way we stripped all their land and hunting grounds away from them. They were put on reservations where it is IMPOSSIBLE to live off the land. I have driven through “their” lands and it is the worst possible excuse for land that I have ever seen. It’s shameful.


  3. The myth that you can just go on with mass industrialization is destroying us. Either there’s a helluva lot of intelligent and creative thinking being suppressed or bought out by vested interest, or we have become lazy thinkers and have simply put our stamp of helpless approval on mass industrialization. The answer lies somewhere between. For what its worth.


    1. In addition to what you’ve mentioned, Don, is the fact that a lot of people do not like the system but see no other replacement for it. We are now several generations into this thing, and many people have a difficult time even envisioning something else, let alone making it work. I have conversations with middle and lower class conservatives and defenders of capitalism all the time and quite often they end up conceding that capitalism is far from ideal; at the end of the day, I get the sense that they are just primarily afraid of the only alternatives they believe are possible: “communism” or some form of totatlitarianism. For the rich conservatives, who are fleecing the masses, it is a different story, of course, because they’ve got huge power and massive wealth on the line. So, they either have to deceive themselves (“me having massive amounts of wealth really is good for society”) or just say, “wtf, take the money and run!” Either approach seems to boarder on pathology.

      Well, that’s my experience, anyway…What have you found, as you converse with conservatives?

      There are many alternatives to both the totatlitarianism of corporate capitalism and totalitarian socialism. People are starting to find these alternatives in isolated sectors of their lives: farmers markets and alternative food chains, employee owned corporations, home gardening, local banking, local currency, local businesses/shopping, etc. So, there are alternatives that do not focus on bare profit but also on happiness, well-being, and community cooperation. A big part of the liberal/progressive task these days, I think, is less on deconstructing a system that has collapsed and is unsustainable, but more on shining the spotlight on alternatives. I, for one, need to do a better job of this. But like most people, I’m learning myself, unplugging from the capitalistic matrix.

      What have you found, Don?


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