The humble tuna, “the chicken of the sea”, is an unfortunate metaphor for all that is dysfunctional about our contemporary, western, capitalist world. Once carefully husbanded by the limits of individual brawn and courage, then incorporated into international business vacuums automated to maximize returns on insatiable consumer driven investment, tuna stocks around the globe are being decimated and verge, for some species, on extinction. The story of the Tuna is the story of our triumphant world, and provides a unified theory of its runaway excess.
My spouse grew up dirt poor on the East coast of Canada. With ten mouths to feed, household economics meant both tuna and lobster in everything. Both were cheap and plentiful, with easy access to communities that had lived off the sea for centuries. Each year the family would load into small, aluminum boats laden to the gunnels, and cruise the rivers for fiddleheads; tightly wound new shoots of the fern plant, and a local delicacy served fried with butter and garlic. These they would sell and barter for the tuna and lobster (amongst other things) that fed the family. Families of similar station owned the tuna boats and lobster trap-lines, and there was a primitive harmony to the economics, one that had sustained their ancestors for generations. That’s the way it was in 1974.
I grew up in the industrial heartland of Canada, with steel mills and toxic waste pouring into the lake, pleasantly hidden beyond “hissing summer lawns” and well cared for hedges. My memories of tuna are quite different. Ours came from a tin can, casually tossed into my mother’s overflowing shopping carts as a lunch supplement or terrifying tuna casserole (bless her heart, my mother couldn’t cook). Two cans maybe, four if it was on sale. My sister and I demanded tuna — Star-Kist tuna, “the chicken of the sea”, made palatable no doubt by that irascible cartoon mascot, Charlie. We knew Charlie from TV of course. My spouse on the other hand missed it not having a TV, and so our motivations for tuna were civilizations apart. They got to eat, and we got to participate in the emerging industrial corporatism that had swallowed up tuna — and everything else on the earth.
Know your tuna. There are several species of tuna, all in various states of depletion. The “Bluefin Tuna” is, by some estimates, a scant two years from complete extinction. Not surprisingly, it is the most popular tuna species amongst its only real predator, humans. The Giant Blue Fin can exceed ten feet in length, and weigh in excess of 310 pounds. Some live to 30 years or more. Or used to at least. They can cruise at depths of up to 1500 feet and cover 4,800 miles in under 4 months. They can reach 40mph. Yet, the Bluefin Tuna has still melted like snow on hot summer asphalt before the wholesale corporate industrialization of tuna fishing.
There are three main ways to kill a tuna. One is the small scale, ancient method of harpooning the things one at a time from an open boat, still used today wherever tuna and fishing are found. Industrialization solved this sustainable quaintness of steady speed and simple efficiency however, by employing boats that move across the ocean with the horsepower to pull drag lines up to 80 miles long behind them, each line dangling baited hooks by the hundreds up to depths of 500 feet or more. Purse Seine fishing is all that and more. Giant nets a mile in circumference and 600 feet deep are deployed around great schools of fish, and drawn up from the bottom, trapping hundreds of flailing dolphins, sharks, turtles — and of course tuna — at the surface. There the tuna are slaughtered on a true, industrial scale, and hauled aboard company boats by hook and gaffe. The unfortunate sea borne collateral damage sinks to the bottom as so much surplus chum.
Horrible. But hey, ya gotta kill ‘em if ya want to eat ‘em, right?
The shoreline communities who could catch their meals on a daily basis, and eat them fresh before they spoiled consumed tuna — as well as other water borne foods — at sustainable levels for centuries. This was in the era before the refrigerated container or beverage-dispensing refrigerator, as it remains in many places today. However, amongst the many benefits of industrial technology, there lay the Trojan horse that opened up the earth’s oceans to every man, woman, child, and household pet on the planet. Mechanized fishing fleets and robotic assembly line production, distribution, and retail of the humble tuna had brought great, fresh chunks or tin cans of the stuff to every remote station of the earth. At that point, it was just simple math as a billion or more munching cats and humans a day relentlessly gnawed away at the ever-dwindling fish stock.
For the Bluefin Tuna, the math has run down to single digits.
Scientific and regulatory bodies all agree that the Bluefin Tuna stock cannot sustain a catch greater than 15,000 tonnes (think 15,000 compact cars) in the Mediterranean, home of the greatest tuna runs on the planet. Last year the quota was set at 29,000 tonnes. European member nations, some of them a day’s long drive from any water at all, overfished the limit by 25,000 tonnes. This year, Turkey alone will fish 25,000 tonnes, thumbing its nose at both regulatory agencies and the future. These Nations will also fish during spawning season in June, out of both capitalist ignorance and the fact that large fish are simply impossible to find, the younger, smaller ones now the most plentiful Tuna demographic in the sea. Estimates are that even the breeding stock will be gone by 2012, which means gone forever. There are now only three years to forever.
While over 70 countries fish tuna, Japan and the United States account for two thirds of the consumption. The largest fleet is Japanese, and the largest company in that fleet is Mitsubishi – think compact cars, coincidentally. Last year Mitsubishi alone fished 60,000 tonnes of tuna. 20,000 of those tonnes were not immediately taken to market, but frozen and warehoused against the day that tuna disappears, which should be sometime in the third or fourth quarter of fiscal 2012. Did I mention a single large tuna will fetch $100,000 at market? Mitsubishi, the giant Japanese mega corporation, is deliberately fishing the species to death in an attempt to drive up prices and unload its investment.
The story of the Bluefin Tuna is the story of everything. It is a unified theory of the human universe. Its laser straight tale contains within it an entire understanding of the state of civilization, all the pillars that hold up the shiny, creaky edifice that is us.
In the beginning, there was capital. Excess stuff. Things you didn’t need as much as things other folks had. A bag of grain for a jar of salt. A bale of fiddleheads for a few pounds of tuna. A professional class developed (as they always do), and traders became intermediaries bartering goods and services for others, earning a primitive existence from the economies of scale that yielded even more stuff left over, which in turn was “invested’ in even more stuff, earning a “return” to the trader of even more stuff again. And in this way was born an insidious virus with an insidious name, hidden for eons in the thick dull pages of Lipsey and Stiener, the holy grail, the secret code to the universe… Return on Investment. Alternatively, as it is colloquially known, ROI.
Beg, borrow or steal excess stuff (literally, that’s what the term was coined for), and invest it for return or profit. It’s a hell of a gig. You consume nothing but your own, otherwise useless time, and get stuff out of thin air, like magic. We call that stuff wealth now. Too many problems hauling salt up and down hill and dale caused the creation of promises to pay; to many problems collecting on promises to pay caused the creation of script. We call script money now. Further problems collecting script caused the creation of governments, laws, and communities.
Of course, the power of ROI became irresistible, and the sight of well-dressed folks apparently doing nothing for their salt, while you busted your hump in the salt mines didn’t help matters much either. Class structures developed, all variations on the theme of have excess stuff, and have not excess stuff. The haves needed protection from the have not’s — and each other — the government needed the wealth these wizards were creating to pay armies to protect themselves in turn. A lasting marriage of convenience was formed welding the ruling class to the wealthy class, and with it a consolidating of laws and rights progressively honouring the achievement of Return on Investment.
The next step was the sudden realization that several wealthy traders, mine owners, and government types who pooled their capital would, through the magic of arithmetic, yield even greater amounts of wealth. The magic of human greed created fraud, theft, and lawyers. Here in the western world, it was that feisty group of capitalists, lawmakers, and lawyers who invented the corporation, a legal fortress created to pool great lumps of capital for the express purpose of maximizing its investors Return on Investment.
It is a simple alchemy. Find something somebody wants and make it worth their while for you to get it for them. Find a lot of stuff a lot of people want, and you are a capitalist member of the ruling class in any civilization. The people want salt to preserve their foods and add to tuna casseroles, but are to otherwise involved in scraping a mean harvest from the earth? Go and figure out a way to dig enough of the stuff out of the earth to sensibly trade for whatever the other guy produces. Risk death, starvation, or worse in exchange for opportunity to work the magic of ROI. Roll the dice and come up sevens enough times, you transit the barriers of class at the speed of compound interest. Crap out, and you vaporize into that invisible demographic, the statistically irrelevant cohort unknown as those that failed.
The winners write history, and law.
The ancient trade of Fish Monger is a simple case in point. Fish, and other bounty of the sea, lakes, and streams, is an essential foodstuff powerful with calories and proteins. Fish, along with loaves, were the classic staples of the burgeoning human food chain. An early problem was however, that fishing was capital intensive. You needed a boat, a net, and a sea stocked with fish. Trading these things with folks without them for the grains and meats your sea didn’t provide gave rise to the fish trader, who transferred the produce from one geography to the other. Better diets all around gave rise to larger populations, each one of whom represented additional demand for fish and loaves each way. Traders made out like bandits, as did all members of the process of producing and investing for return — including bandits.
In Japan, the large capital costs involved in feeding an Island nation naturally developed into conglomerated groups of fishermen to do the fishing, mongers to handle the transactions, bankers to raise the money, private “security” to protect the investment, and on top of it all, a CEO who became a de facto member of the national ruling class. These family owned businesses set the rules that allowed themselves to develop unfettered, becoming the fabric of culture and society itself by the time of the Meji Restoration of the 19th century, as “Zaibatsu”.
With the defeat of Japan at the end of the second world war, these Zaibatsu’s were easily transferred into law and put to work rebuilding Japan on the American model. Mitsubishi (remember them?) became stupid wealthy as one of the big four, ancient “Keiretsu” organizations controlling, among other things, the business of feeding the people fish. The Industrial Revolution visited Japan as it did Europe, and the Mitsubishi Keiretsu harnessed the emerging technology better than most, that technology aiding and abetting the chemistry of ROI just as it would everywhere else. More people, more demand, more supply. World markets were opened, and Japanese fish began to emerge in places a thousand miles from any ocean.
Where demand did not exist, the suckerfish of the great capitalist whale created some. We call that marketing now. Kids demanded “Chicken of the Sea”; thirty something’s in Peoria began to eat Sushi on Saturday nights. Pets consumed trailer loads of their less fortunate, wondrously free friends of the ocean — an incredible feat of return on investment.
Great scads of wealth were created, wealth that was reinvested in other, better, faster ways to maximize return on investment. The occasional gold bidet was purchased, as were billion-dollar fishing fleets; an investment specifically intended to return the maximum, its holy charter not just protected, but also limitless by law. Be it an American hedge fund churning out insane algorithms for digital cash, or Japanese Keiretsu machine harvesting the oceans, all are protected by law, and sanctioned by various forms of corporate charter to brook no opposition in the single-minded pursuit of return on investment.
A simple exchange of goods, the magic of grade school arithmetic, and the pure, innate curiosity and inventiveness of man (we call that greed today), all combined to bring us the funky western civilization we love and enjoy. The creation of wealth and capital so long ago has allowed a handful of powerful, professional “interests” to organically develop around the world. Protected by laws they themselves write, and the willing acquiescence of a population that depends on the efficient functioning of the system for its plasma TV’s, the modern free market capitalist enriches his nation as he enriches himself, spreading wealth by ever reinvesting, ever creating and filling demand. If he isn’t the de facto ruling class or government, he (there are the occasional “she’s”) is the power behind it. It is not economics as much as it is religion and as such, nobody but heretics is going to screw with that.
Extracting stuff from the earth, then creating a system that magically creates wealth by leveraging it a million times over, sanctioning the whole thing in law, and then demanding by natural right limitless return… does beg a series of humble questions. If the infinite and exponential creation of wealth depends entirely on the very limited resources of the earth, is there a point where the two lines on some graph may sometime cross? A point where unlimited demand meets exponentially diminishing supply? What happens then? What would it look like? How would we, simple earthlings, know when it was coming or if it had arrived?
Which brings us back to the Bluefin Tuna, completely fished out by 2012, and not a damn thing to be done about it. I thought about that recently when shopping at the local mega grocery outlet. Tuna was on sale, two cans for 99 cents. The daughter threw a few cans into the cart. “Sorry,” she said sheepishly “gotta have tuna”.
God had spoken for the Bluefin Tuna.