The Intersection

I continue to believe that personal decisions do have an impact through collective action. With regard to the sea bass, no, I didn’t stand up to make a scene or ridicule the organizers for their meal selection (they likely had no idea of the culinary faux pas). Here’s what I did:

I declined the fish. While I didn’t seek to influence everyone in the room (for how could I establish the credibility to do so quickly enough among a crowd that large?), I did notice that the folks at my table were interested in what I had to say. Many remarked I was the first marine biologist they’d met – complete with references to Seinfeld. We discussed fisheries, overharvested stocks, and sustainable choices in good company and they asked all sorts of questions. And would you know it.. seven others chose to decline the sea bass along with me.

So I didn’t incite a rebellion or change broad scale fishing practices that night, but a few more people will hopefully continue thinking about the broader impacts of their choices. They may consider this the next time they’re out to a meal with family and even share what they’ve learned. Globally, it’s easy to feel like the scale of these problems is too large to deal with, but by acting locally, we’re able to pay attention to what we consume and where it comes from.

i-749194c256d2b36d41dc16ab3775b639-S068.jpg.gif I’m also curious to learn from whether you think we’re too far gone to act on an individual basis for the greater good? Are environmental solutions giving way to a diffusion of responsibility or am I correct that we have reason for hope?


  1. #1 Linette Ancha
    July 24, 2007

    I find it appropriate to restate the famous Margaret Mead quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

    Environmental scientists are oftentimes the “bearers of bad news,” or at least the people that are aware of issues usually ignored or dismissed by the majority of the population. It is incredibly easy to become overwhelmed by the doom and gloom. Nevertheless, it is essential to make sustainable individual choices (like declining the sea bass), or we too will fall subject to the Tragedy of the Commons.

    If we had no hope at all that small changes can make a difference, how would we stay motivated? Maybe you can’t change the dietary habits of a whole room, but you can make someone (or seven people) think twice the next time they see Chilean sea bass on a menu. Planting little “seeds of conservation” is better than idly taking no action at all…

  2. #2 Johnny Wilson
    July 24, 2007

    Sheril handled this situation amazingly well. 10/10. Though we often want to throw our toys on provocative and somewhat emotional issues, a calm and collected method can sometimes do wonders. Especially where ignorance is the culprit. Indeed individuals can make a difference; hopefully the people on Sheril’s table will spread the news!

  3. #3 Webs
    July 24, 2007

    That’s pretty cool!

    It’s too bad more people can’t figure out how to communicate an idea that effectively. I think the world would be a much more civil place if we could.

  4. #4 decrepitoldfool
    July 24, 2007

    Someone told me about a sign over a commuter highway in Vienna, “You are not in a traffic jam; you are the traffic jam.”

    (Insert similar quote here about no drop of rain ever feels responsible for a flood, etc.) Without condemning anyone you declined to be part of the problem.

    It was beyond your power to force everyone in the room to start marching behind you. But you did what you could, and did it graciously.

    This is a pretty good metaphor for the whole science/religion thing.

  5. #5 llewelly
    July 24, 2007

    This is exactly the right choice: Politely decline the fish, politely explain why. Congratulations.

  6. #6 ChrisC
    July 25, 2007

    In my experience, the only way to gain credibility and to encourage others to see your point of view, is to practice what you preach.

    Take the attacks on Al Gore for instance. All Gore’s critics have unanimously named him a hypocrit. This he may be, but it doesn’t change his message at all. However, it does make it much more difficult for Gore to maintain his credibility to spread his message.

    I think you dealt with the situation very well. While your own descion may have only made a small direct effect on the stocks of Patagonian Tooth Fish, you gain credibility by your actions, which make it much easier to convince others. It’s a nessessary (but by no means sufficient) condition.

    Credibility can make all the difference, and nobody likes a hypocrit. Well done Sheril.

  7. #7 Dano
    July 25, 2007

    What llewelly said.

    I’m also curious to learn from whether you think we’re too far gone to act on an individual basis for the greater good? Are environmental solutions giving way to a diffusion of responsibility or am I correct that we have reason for hope?

    “Having an ecological education means living in a world of wounds” — Aldo Leopold.

    In my view, if we continue like we are going, we are too far gone. But I like the fact that you are seeing instances where people are paying full price for their actions. Only by pricing things properly will you give people trained in our society clear feedback as to whether their actions are ecologically benign.

    For example: we see people in London changing their behavior because of congestion pricing. They are driving less. When gas in America is $6.00/gal, people will drive less. Will there be too much damage by the time gas is this price? It could be soon if there’s political will. And we make political will. It is up to us. When the people lead, the leaders will follow.



  8. #8 Sheril R. Kirshenbaum
    July 25, 2007

    The best I can do is live what I advocate and encourage others to realize the potential broader impacts of individual and collective decisions.

    While I’m glad readers support the way I handled the situation, I’ll be most appreciative and pleased if sharing the experience has resulted in just one more person thinking about the way his/her choices can influence this world of ours.

  9. #9 Joseph O'Sullivan
    July 25, 2007

    This is an interesting question. It would be giving way to a diffusion of responsibility if there was only reliance on personal choice.

    Personal choice and explaining to others why you are making that choice is useful with other efforts. I recall the organized efforts to persuade chefs not to serve swordfish, which did influence the seafood industry even though no laws required them to do so. If the stores and restaurants themselves can also be persuaded to make the better choice that would have a greater effect than just individuals declining some types of seafood.

    A successful personal choice campaign could also create a large group of people and businesses that would be supportive of regulatory actions, like shutting down some fisheries or the creation of marine reserves. Conservation laws are more likely to be passed and enforced if a large constituency supports them.

  10. #10 Joey Francesco
    July 25, 2007

    I agree with you, mostly, Sheril.

    Just to play Devil’s Advocate for a second: how do you decide where to draw the line? I mean, you might have been more effective by standing up and shouting. So why is it best to just sit there and be polite?

    Or maybe it’s morally better to not worry about the fish, but then go home and donate $20 to Save the Oceans… that’s the logic of carbon trading, right?

    What I’m saying is, your solution is good, but what if there are better ones? Shouldn’t we go after those instead?

  11. #11 Steve Reuland
    July 26, 2007

    I would have eaten the fish.

    All the stuff about making personal choices that benefit the environment and whatnot is badly overblown. I’d even go so far as to say that it often hurts the cause of environmentalism, because it places emphasis on activities (namely, personal abstention from certain goods) that are unlikely to have any significant benefit for the environment. And it plays into anti-environmentalists’ hands, who are all too happy to allow environmentalism to be defined a matter of personal sacrifice only for those who care, and then to shout “hypocrite!” when someone like Al Gore fails to live up to an unreasonable standard.

    The emphasis needs to be on the point of production, not the point of consumption. If the fish is in danger of going extinct, then the act of killing it and selling it is what needs to be stopped. It’s not practical to expect millions of like-minded individuals to simultaneously abstain from eating the fish, thereby placing enough economic pressure on producers to stop catching them. Although most people care about the environment, they aren’t going to volunteer to be the ones who give up their creature comforts when no one else bothers to. It’s a classic free-rider problem.

    We have the same problem when it comes to things like electricity consumption or gasoline usage. Every time I’ve ever seen some bit of advice on “what you can do to curb global warming”, it consists of things like changing your light bulbs and unplugging unused electronics. Not that these aren’t useful bits of advice, but they will at best have a tiny impact on the margins of energy use, and will certainly have no measurable impact on global warming. Meanwhile, coal plants by the hundreds are being built all over the world, and absolutely nothing is being done about it.

  12. #12 scienceteacherinexile
    July 27, 2007

    Steve Reuland,
    While I don’t entirely agree with you, your last paragragh was of interest. Here in South Africa, there has been a big media push for reducing energy consumption. CEOs and celebrities appear in TV ads giving that type of advice. “Use a dishwasher, use this type of light bulb, turn off your geyser (that’s a water heater to us)”, one TV talk show host is even in an ad telling us that if we want tea, only boil one cup of water.
    Now here’s the difference in South Africa: they are not doing this primarily to save the planet. They do this because the state run power provider is crap. State owned bearaucracy that is the biggest mess you can imagine, and can’t keep the power on. There are blackouts often, and in fact there have been a couple of huge ones that were long lived (I’m talking days to over a week). Every night on television, a meter comes up several times advising people of the power usage, and to turn off appliances if it gets into the orange or red zone.
    Obviously more power is needed here, and they are making plans to build. With a great opportunity to get ahead of the game with regard to the environment, the government has instead opted to build more coal burners, and to re-open some that had been shut down (at least last time I heard). Unfortunately, not many people said “hey, wait a minute….”. Maybe people (and businesses) are just too gatvol (some Afrikaans I’ve learned) of blackouts to care how the power is produced.

  13. #13 K
    July 27, 2007

    For the most part I agree with you, but I believe we have to take things a step further. As mentioned in previous comments, most of the public is either ignorant or apathetic towards fisheries. Readers of this blog are, most likely, environmentally aware and already know the oceans are in trouble.

    Apathy will be nearly impossible to stop, but we can educate people about making sustainable choices with regards to consuming fish. Almost everyone is aware of global warming, but it seems that over fishing has gone under the radar.

    Looking at the West Coast Seafood pocket guide, would the average person be able to tell the difference between White Sea bass or Chilean Sea bass? You being able to convince those seven to choose a sustainable meal proves that some people really do care, we just have to get the message to them in order to have a bigger impact.

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