stuff gets examined.

Shark Fin Soup

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For the past couple of decades or so, China has been demonstrating a particular but huge problem the earth faces on many fronts.

A long time ago, Shark Fin Soup was considered a delicacy fit only for emperors and the most noble members of society on special occasions. This was probably due to the fact most of China is inland and sharks are dangerous. Who knows if they actually thought the soup tasted good – it was a status thing and probably had all sorts of mystical effects related to shark fins, all probably pertaining to prolonging life and penis size/function, apparently the two big issues for ancient Chinese nobles.

Now that more and more of the Chinese people are experiencing an improved standard of life, the demand for Shark Fin Soup has gone through the roof. People who were once subsistence peasants are now urban workers making decent wages and assuming for themselves the trappings of the nobility of old. As a result, sharks are rapidly disappearing from world oceans.

‘Who cares, they’re freakin’ dangerous!” you may think. Apparently  more people are killed each year by domestic pigs than by sharks. Reputation counts for a lot, I guess.

The loss of shark populations is having unfortunate effects on fisheries everywhere. Creatures that the sharks formerly preyed on are thriving, and as a result are destroying populations of smaller sea animals that shark normally don’t take an interest in. New England fisheries are being damaged by ray populations that normally would be kept down by sharks – the huge ray population is devouring local shellfish communities that fisheries depend on. Shark hunting, largely illegal, has spread across the world in efforts to satisfy Chinese demand.

This is the problem, generalized: once upon a time the vast majority of humans on the earth were “lower classes,” rural or urban labourers who had very low expectations of life, usually focusing on remaining fed, having a few kids, and maybe getting drunk now and then. Extensive personal belongings were the domain of a small percent of humanity, the nobility and rich, as before industrialization the manufacture of even clothing was laborious and time-consuming, pushing the prices way up – the theft of clothing was a major area of crime in England of yore; rag-picking was a going industry. This probably shaped our images of street people and the poor being dressed in patched rags. Every country experienced this scheme – the United States had poor houses and roving gangs of European-origin labourers who sought only to remain fed, as did Canada.

Industrialization changed that. It made clothing and other goods easy to produce, and improved the working conditions for the lower end of the scale in an ever-increasing manner. common labourers became skilled factory workers who developed unions to protect their rights. The financial world boomed due to industry, and created jobs that actually had nothing to do with actual labour; soon the balance shifted from “actual work” to ‘paperwork”, and we ended up where we are today, with most “developed” nations having populations employed in undertakings that have nothing to do with any actual useful work producing hard goods or food.

With the improvement in standards of living , increase in the supply of goods and wages, and a few convenient revolutions, the  privileges and expectations of the “upper classes” were transferred to the large portion of humans. This of course was also encouraged by the boom in capitalistic consumer culture – peasants don’t consume profitably. It’s better to copy the model of the “upper classes” and infect the majority of people with the attitude They Deserve It. Whatever the “It” under discussion happens to be.

The earth could sustain a small population of nobles expecting a comfortable lifestyle on the backs of labouring peasants.  Silver dinnerware, carriages, and the occasional peasant girl or boy is a small price. But what happens when the part of humanity who believes themselves to be Important and deserving of material gratification increases? Especially when the goods desired have so increased their complexity, and therefor the resource complexity required to produce them? (A silver candelabra has a longer life of use and is easier to “recycle” than a crappy cellphone you’ll only use for a couple of years, and is a lot easier for the earth to deal with if it isn’t recycled).

In short – when we reduced our material class structure, we copied the wrong behaviour pattern. An individual North American’s expected lifestyle burns through the resources required by numerous third-world people, and numerous North Americans of a century ago. The Earth can’t cope with this indefinitely. The innate expectation that the individual is important enough to have a personal vehicle to toddle off to the corner store in, or a sprawling house isolated from their place of work so they have to use the vehicle to get there isn’t supportable. This idea was created in a time when regard for the earth was laughable and resources were considered unlimited, a time when consumer culture was just getting off to a booming start.

We need to look at the material expectations of peasants of past days. They did not see themselves as individuals of immense importance in most cases, as the nobility often did or the average consumer of today has been pumped up to believe. Simplicity has always been seen as a desirable trait, and it is even easier to achieve in this day and age of the internet and urban living within cities so well supplied with the goods and foods of many origins. We are not that important, individually or in a group. Each of us daily leaves a trail discarded plastic, empty cups, and a cloud of bad smoke, much of which will remain on the earth having an impact long after we’re dead.


Written by balloonhed

April 26, 2010 at 7:09 pm

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