Welcome to SSHORE

SSHORE is a network of scholars at Dalhousie University and Memorial University of Newfoundland interested in social sciences and humanities contributions to understanding our interactions with oceans. It held a SSHRC-funded workshop on “Canada’s Responsibility to Our Shining Seas” (Dalhousie, 10-12 May 2017), and other collaborative projects are in development.

Follow SSHORE on Twitter: @SSHORE2017

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What’s in a Word? Taking “Stock”

In our third blog post, Ian Stewart (History of Science and Technology Programme, University of King’s College) provides an overview of a panel, “Accounting for Loss in Fish Stocks,” featuring Jennifer Telesca (Pratt Institute). The panel, organized by SSHORE members Ian Stewart and Jerry Bannister, was made possible by SSHORE’s generous funding from SSHRC and other partners for the event. To watch the panel, click here.

During the 8th and 9th of March, SSHORE, along with the History of Science and Technology Programme (King’s), Ecology Action Centre (Halifax), EIUI (Dalhousie, Faculty of Management) and the Marine Affairs Program (MAP, Dalhousie), welcomed Dr. Jennifer Telesca (Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY)  to Dalhousie University and the University of King’s College. The range of sponsors was fitting, since Dr. Telesca  has turned her varied background in communications theory, law and society, women’s studies, and environmental anthropology to the study of fisheries science—its concepts, methods and institutions. Three years of field work at the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) has led Dr. Telesca to some challenging conclusions concerning ICCAT’s fundamental claim, announced on its website, that “Science underpins the management decisions made by ICCAT.” What “science”  is—and, indeed, what “underpinning” could mean in the context of “decisions” rendered in the complex space of ICCAT meetings—is the subject of her forthcoming book. Her work is of wider interest to the diverse disciplines represented by SSHORE scholars, not least those working in my own fields of science and technology studies and the history and philosophy of science. The previous day Dr. Telesca presented some reflections on her ICCAT fieldwork at the Department of Biology’s seminar series, co-hosted by MAP.

Her talk on March 9 at the University of King’s College focussed on the linguistic turn in the social sciences and humanities, considering the word “stock” and its rich history in science-based fisheries management (the event begins 4:35 minutes into the recording).

Dr. Telesca’s presentation, “Accounting for loss in fish stocks: a word on life as biological asset,” summarized the key findings of a published paper of the same title. Deeply influenced by the work of SSHORE member Dr. Dean Bavington (Geography, MUN) in his Managed Annihilation (2010), Dr. Telesca takes her cue from Raymond Williams’ approach to language in Keywords. She traces the role that the concept of “stock” has played in the commodification of fish, rendering possible the abstractions inherent in modern fisheries science, and their ultimate integration into the discourse of economically driven fisheries management. Her work amounts to a kind of archeology of language—in this case “stock” and its assemblages of conceptual, technological and managerial practices which condition the effect of the dangerous declines of fish and other ocean life the world over.

The word “stock” for Dr. Telesca is, in a complex sense, emblematic of the reasons that fish populations are in trouble, in that the word itself is a kind of icon for the capacity of fisheries science, with its sophisticated statistical models and risk management techniques, to be on the one hand internally “correct” in its attempts at conservation, while, on the other hand, manifestly getting it horribly “wrong” when one looks at the reality in today’s oceans.

Can a word have such power? To answer this requires not just a consideration of language and its uses. The exploration drew Dr. Telesca into the history of science, accounting, fisheries management, and ultimately into a kind of science-legitimated, imaginative reconfiguring of fish not as creatures in living systems, but as “biowealth, at the joint of both asset and population, which enables extractive capitalism to keep the productive power of nature off the balance sheet.”

In the following panel discussion Laurenne Schiller, PhD candidate in Dalhousie’s IDPhD programme, with a background in NGO fisheries management in the BC fishing context, questioned this form of linguistic turn. Ms. Schiller stressed other influences such as biological, social and cultural influences leading to fish declines, seeing in these a more direct causal link, and attributing to language a more correlative status. Dr. Suzanna Fuller, from the Ecology Action Centre, similarly urged for a wider view: distinctions between fisheries science and fisheries management point to the latter as the domain of the use of “stock” as an operative term, where “sustainable use” and not “conservation” is the explicit goal, and where the precautionary principle is effectively offloaded and reserved for scientists rather than managers (contrary to its original intent).

As the third speaker, I underscored the point that language, understood through its careful archeology in the tradition employed by Dr. Telesca, is not merely instrumental. We need also to explore language as a complex “legacy that needs to be questioned” and one in which causal (vs. merely correlative) stories are to be found. Doing so requires a view of language that is more complex than the instrumentalist account of language typical of modern science.

Of course, in what sense language is “causal” is what is in dispute here, reflecting disciplinary boundaries that have their own history, going back at least to the same period in which Dr. Telesca’s paper begins. The early modern period attests to the departure of language, in this richer sense, from the discourse of science: the instrumentalist rhetoric of the turn from “words to things” (intoned by the early propagandists of the Royal Society of London, for example), is about just this. But words continually come back to haunt science, and the early theorists of the “new science” (such as Francis Bacon) were astute archeologists (and psychologists) of language. The language of science, and its influence on discourse more broadly, continues to be re-examined by scholars in my field, working alongside other subfields of the social sciences and humanities. Making the case for the relevance of such examination for understanding the nature of modern science continues to be a challenge.

The event was indeed right up SSHORE’s alley: an interdisciplinary meeting of natural sciences, social sciences and humanities. A rich Q&A that followed the panel (chaired by SSHORE member, Dr. Jerry Bannister, from Dalhousie’s History Department) had over 40 audience members, and included contributions from Dalhousie and King’s faculty and students from Biology, Marine Affairs, Philosophy, History, Sociology and Social Anthropology, and History of Science, to name a few. For her part, Dr. Telesca reported afterward that she had never before been part of such a rich and fruitful gathering of disciplines across the natural and social sciences/humanities boundaries in a discussion about the ocean. The event attests to the need for a broad-based, informed dialogue among thinkers from fields well beyond fisheries science. Such dialogue is all the more pressing given that, if Dr. Telesca is right, its absence, especially within the academy, has contributed to the looming ecological crisis facing the planet and the ocean in particular.

Onwards!

 

The Atlantic Fisheries and Rural Resilience: New Models of Economic Development

In our second blog from the 2017 joint Dalhousie-Memorial SSHORE workshop, Karen Foster shares her experiences with Atlantic Canadian rural communities, economic development and the complicated idea of Import Replacement.

Karen Foster (CRC in Sustainable Rural Futures for Atlantic Canada, Dalhousie University)

We may learn more—and create more or better questions to ask ourselves—if we allow subsistence to mean production rooted in common sense, production that has not yet broached the monstrous threshold where food, both in its consumption and in its creation, becomes a fetish for exchange-value to the exclusion of its apparent and immediate use-values (Chappell)

From 2016-18, I worked in partnership with the Centre for Local Prosperity (CLP) on a study of the potential for ‘Import Replacement’ as an economic development strategy in Atlantic Canada. In the course of this research, we have also gained some understanding of community responsibilities toward “our shining seas”—responsibilities that are tangled up in wider relations of interdependence, care and conflict between urban and rural places, foreign and domestic markets, primary and secondary industries, and older and younger generations of coastal dwellers.

The impetus for the Import Replacement study was a dissatisfaction with the dominant mode of thought over the last half-century of regional economic development, which has prioritized “export-led growth.” The basic premise is that any economy, of any size, should have “balanced” trade—that is, it should not import much more than it exports or it will be too dependent on markets that are beyond its control.

The orthodox way of pursuing balanced trade in Atlantic Canada has generally been to try to increase exports. The problem with this approach is that it makes our region and its coastal communities more dependent on global markets, increasingly vulnerable to economic fluctuations far beyond their control, and less self-reliant as a result.

A better way to improve a community’s self-reliance, and thereby its resiliency in the face of economic shocks, may be found in an idea of the late Jane Jacobs: bringing down imports through “Import Replacement.”

A community or region focused on Import Replacement would, in theory, identify areas of local demand that are currently met by imports, and try to cost-effectively produce those products or services locally instead, keeping money circulating among community members.

But behind this elegantly simple idea is a more complicated, empirical question: how can a community actually reorient itself toward Import Replacement? Do they have the power to do it? To begin answering this question, we conducted focus groups in four Atlantic communities, three of which (Shelburne, NS, Burin Peninsula, NL and Souris, PEI) are coastal, fishing communities.

In each place, we heard multiple versions of the same “absurd story”: small communities send their products away, for consumption or further processing, and then (if they can) buy the same or equivalent products back for their own consumption. The story often revolved around seafood. The stinging irony is that all three coastal communities feed distant markets from their oceans and then suffer from food insecurity themselves.

Community living facilities and hospitals next door to some of the most active fisheries anywhere served their clientele “Captain Highliner,” as one participant put it. Locals did not know what to tell tourists looking for a fresh lobster roll in Shelburne or cod and scrunchions in Burin; with the exception of a handful of times when a local tried and soon failed to start a roadside seafood stand or restaurant, there were few obvious, accessible, ocean-to-table options. One of the research partners at a focus group in Shelburne, moderating the discussion, asked, “tonight, if I wanted to get steamed lobster?” And the group told him: “you’re not getting it. It’s a damn shame.” “Lobster capital of Canada—lobster capital of the world! [And] you have to go to Sobeys to buy fresh, and do it yourself.”

In Burin, the same thing: “The locals and tourists are amazed. We’re known for being a fishing province, and there’s no fish markets.” There was some hope that this would soon change, due to a recent regulatory shift allowing fishermen to sell their catch directly off the dock to consumers for household consumption and restaurateurs for preparation and resale.

The ironic scarcity of seafood in fishing communities stems partly from broad structural changes in the way the Atlantic fisheries have been managed from about the 1970s onward. As fisheries scholars Apostle et. al. explain, although we now think of fish as a stock that is managed through quotas and licenses, this was not always the case. For that to happen, it took international agreements and the establishment of “exclusive economic zones” (EEZs), which turned the fish along coastlines into the property of the nearest states and prohibited other countries’ fisheries from harvesting in those zones to create “a global fish market.”

Coastal nations with relatively abundant fish stocks became major suppliers of fish on the world market. Countries that had traditionally fished around the world became importers of fish. There was thus an enormous increase in measured trade in fish products.” These changes “meant a weakening of the links between harvesting and processing […] as it became cheaper for companies to source product elsewhere in the world, rather than harvest it locally with their own vessels, or to buy from the inshore fleet. (Apostle)

Atlantic Canadian fisheries have subsequently shifted toward a “high-volume, low-cost” model where the objective is to get rid of product as quickly as possible, in contrast to a low-volume, high-cost model that adds value and traceability that, according to market research, consumers are actually willing to pay a premium for. Looking only at Haddock imports and exports from Nova Scotia, a 2013 report from the Ecology Action Centre showed that over 90% of haddock is exported unprocessed, a loss of “over $7 million in direct export revenue in 2011.” Nova Scotia’s GDP takes a further hit because the province then imports haddock fillets back in (usually from China) for domestic consumption. Indeed, “over the past four years the export of whole haddock and re-import of haddock fillets has directly cost Nova Scotia’s GDP between $5 and $20 million each year, not accounting for the economic impact of employment in processing” (Nikoloyuk & Adler). This does not even touch on the deferred environmental costs—costs today’s grandchildren will pay—of transporting high volumes of seafood around the world and back.

While they did not articulate these exact transformations and their effects, people in the focus groups had an acute sense that the convoluted path locally-caught seafood now takes on its way to market hurts their local industries and people. It was clear within minutes of beginning each focus group that the rationale for Import Replacement, and the theoretical benefits of putting it in practice, were foregone conclusions. Participants had a sense that their communities ought to be trying harder to benefit from the fisheries—to engage in more ‘value-added’ initiatives, to keep processing and distribution closer to home and thus maintain or regain some control over the supply chain.

But there was also some trepidation about ‘leaning in’ to fishing by investing more in processing, distribution, and other value-added activities, for one main reason: people in each community were uneasy about the local economy even in good times, because every export boom they had been through had been followed by a bust. The stories we heard in Burin were anchored to pivotal moments in the cod fishery—from ageing fishermen’s boyhood memories of boats packed to the gunnels with fish, to the lasting community and personal impacts of the 1992 cod moratorium. In Shelburne, participants rode the rise and fall of lobster stocks and prices like deep ocean waves. Accordingly, participants in both focus groups told us that while things were “booming right now,” “the critical thing is to not think it’s going to boom tomorrow.”

To cope with this “come and go” existence (cf. Beck & Ionescu), participants emphasized the importance of diversification in economic development, business, and livelihoods. At the community and industrial levels, locals felt the need for sensible, sustainable diversification that complemented and did not threaten extant industries (“oil and lobster don’t mix”, e.g.), without being entirely dependent on the success of those other industries. Just as they understood, from experience—or common sense—the importance of not putting all of a community’s eggs in a single export basket, they knew production for the local market had to be diversified too.

But they did not know how to bring such macro-level diversification about. There were innumerable barriers to new, small, locally-owned businesses, from regulatory nets that trapped “the little guy” to indomitable competition from larger firms. Although they simultaneously internalized the tired and unproven assumption that rural places lack the requisite “entrepreneurial spirit,” they described a situation in which the consolidation of enterprise and the concentration of wealth and capital really do make it almost impossible for small communities to turn things around.

And so, they focused their efforts to diversify on their own individual livelihoods, engaging in the timeworn rural strategy that anthropologists and historians call “occupational pluralism,” holding multiple paid jobs or doing “petty production”, odd jobs or under-the-table work in the so-called “informal economy” in addition to their primary occupation (Reimer, 2006; Du Plessis, 2004). This was a common attribute of research participants and a practice they observed—and valued—in their communities. Importantly, they valued it partly, but not only, for its economic benefits; their orientation toward the informal and the unpaid resembled what 1970s philosopher Ivan Illich called “vernacular” practices—those activities that people do to satisfy wants and needs that are not motivated by economic relations of commodity exchange. Such practices are a point of pride and a part of rural identities. In Burin, one woman recalled what a former student told her: “‘my father said, that if he three jobs he’d hire one Newfoundlander, because he could do the three of them.’”

Participants in all communities perceived a gradual loss of these eclectic skillsets among rural Atlantic Canadians, who seemed to have had more useful skills when unemployment was high and labour mobility low. In other words, high-paying jobs “out west” prompted rural Atlantic Canadians to specialize in such a way that they lost the ability to adapt to and take advantage of sporadic, diverse local opportunities. Memories of the past were tinged with pride in the traditional resourcefulness and resiliency of locals, but not everyone wanted a return to “jobbing around.” It had its benefits, but it was usually “forced,” not chosen.

Near the end of our stay in Burin, I was beginning to feel like the coastal communities we visited were running out of options. They had no real control over the development of their oceans or their economies, whether by influencing policies or generating new wealth themselves—no power to push against corporate giants for industrial diversification, and little hope of their own enterprises competing with the economies of scale enjoyed by large multinational firms. It seemed unfair to expect rural people to continue to “get by” in ways that are admirable and traditional but precarious and stressful. People in my generation, although increasingly familiar with “jobbing around,” wouldn’t likely submit to rural occupational pluralism in enough numbers to replace dwindling rural populations. I wondered how I was going to write any recommendations about how to pursue import replacement with all of this discouraging data.

But then we visited the Petty Harbour Fisherman’s Cooperative (PHFC). It had recently begun supplementing its fishing income by becoming landlord to two new enterprises housed in its facility—a building constructed mostly by the cooperative members’ hands—and renting its bright, airy hall overlooking the harbor as event space. The PHFC has its challenges: ageing membership, fluctuating fish stocks and prices, complex regulations and licensing requirements, and competition from ever-larger firms. But in the face of all this, it was doing OK. The future looked bright.

As cooperatives do, the PHFC collectivized the risk and reward of investment and, importantly, of diversification. It’s an old model, but it’s surviving in new times. (In fact, the two longest, continuously running fish processing plants in Newfoundland are cooperatives.) Nobody is getting particularly rich in the co-op. There are no ground-breaking “innovations”—nothing that would trigger a cascade of today’s governmental buzzwords: growth! Productivity! Competitiveness! But the PHFC’s resilience is remarkable. It is doing what people in our case study communities want, but have difficulty imagining: it is carving a space for shared, local prosperity in a global economy otherwise characterized by private greed.

References:

Apostle, Richard, Gene Barrett, Petter Holm, Svein Jentoft, Leigh Mazany, Bonnie McCay, and Knut Mikalsen. (1998). Community, state, and market on the North Atlantic rim: challenges to modernity in the fisheries (Vol. 4). University of Toronto Press.

Beck, Lauren, & Christina Ionescu (2015). Challenges and Opportunities Faced by Small Communities in New Brunswick: An Introduction. Journal of New Brunswick Studies/Revue d’études sur le Nouveau-Brunswick 6(1).

Chappell, M. Jahi (2016). Alternative Agriculture, the Vernacular, and the MST: Re-creating Subsistence as the Sustainable Development of Human Rights. In Murton J., Bavington D., & Dokis C. (Eds.), Subsistence under Capitalism: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (pp. 254-292). Montreal; Kingston; London; Chicago: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Du Plessis, Valerie. (2004). Self-employment activity in rural Canada. Rural and Small Town Analysis Bulletin 5(5). Ottawa: Statistics Canada

Nikoloyuk, Jordan and David Adler. (2013). Valuing our Fisheries: Breaking Nova Scotia’s Commodity Curse. Halifax, NS: Ecology Action Centre. Accessed June 14, 2017 at https://foodsecurecanada.org/sites/foodsecurecanada.org/files/valuingourfisheriesfinal.pdf

Reimer, Bill. (2006). The Informal Economy in Non-Metropolitan Canada. Canadian Review Of Sociology & Anthropology, 43(1), 23-49.

Why the Sea Needs Us

In the first of a series of blogs from the 2017 joint Dalhousie-Memorial SSHORE workshop, Sean McGrath questions the conventional division between nature and technology and urges us to think of the “technosphere” as being, like the oceans, fluid and dynamic rather than linear and hierarchical. Part of our environment, they both must be included in our thinking about ethics and conduct in the Anthropocene.

Sean J. McGrath (Philosophy, Memorial University)

The first to speak of the death of nature was Carolyn Merchant in her book of the same title, a seminal text in eco-feminism that describes patriarchy, technological domination, and mechanistic science as related features of an axial sixteenth-century shift in thinking about the human being’s place in the world. Merchant locates the latest appearance of the notion of kosmos in the Renaissance, when followers of Paracelsus, the peregrinating medical doctor and alchemist of Switzerland, inundated the bourgeoning book industry with lavishly illustrated texts elaborating the possibilities of a science that works within kosmos, and promising the empowerment of the human community. Merchant contrasts androcentric Enlightenment atomization, objectification, and dissection with this Renaissance version of holism, which, she argues, preserved the premodern idea of cosmos and—most importantly for eco-feminism—promoted a fundamentally gendered approach to reality. She contends that nature conceived as an organic whole, “the female earth,” simultaneously knitted individuals together in concentric circles of belonging: family, community, state, creation. The good of the individual was, in the order of things, subordinated to the common good. The “dominion” model of techno-science, in contrast, sundered humanity into atomistically self-interested individuals and reduced the earth to an exploitable resource.

I have an objection to make to Merchant’s thesis, an objection which is central to the argument I wish to formulate concerning the new form of modernity, which I believe is our best chance. It concerns the gendering of the technology/nature distinction. Without for a moment underplaying the crucial contribution of eco-feminism to the literature of environmentalism, we need to ask ourselves if the correlation of violence against women and the early modern utilitarian attitude to nature still adequately characterizes the ecological situation in the Anthropocene. Male technology raping a female earth is too simple a dichotomy to describe, for example, the technosphere, which no one seems to control, which is self-reproducing, and which could hardly be described as male and patriarchal. The technosphere is rhyzomatic rather than arborescent, uterine rather than phallic, and relational rather than hierarchical. The digitally sutured second-nature, in which most of us now live, move, and have our being (humans and the domestic plants and animals that depend upon them), is no longer simply the product of linear thinking, phallocentric domination of the wild, etc.; it has itself become a new form of wilderness, proliferating without plan, wherever there is a cellphone to connect to the web, i.e., everywhere. In fact, the struggle of traditional models of male-dominated economic power, to maintain control of the technosphere—from corporations suing individuals for file sharing, to fantastic geo-engineering projects to fight climate change—indicates that the dichotomy between phallocentric technology and feminine nature is simply no longer tenable.

Technology itself has now assumed features associated with the ‘female earth’: the technological is not a tool but a ‘space’ for the growth and development of organic life, a receptacle; it is deeply relational, creating a proliferation of communities, human and non-human, and engendering new forms of social and political life. It is for the most part parasitical on the biosphere, but it might evolve into a commensal mode of symbiosis. In a commensal relationship between two organisms, the relation of dependency is not at the expense of the host. In any case, the technosphere is self-organizing, if not alive in the strict sense, organic in its manner of developing. The technosphere has taken on the grounding and life-enabling function that was previously held to be a signature quality of “earth”: many life forms, not only human, now depend on the technosphere and cannot exist apart from it. Without the technosphere millions of domesticated animals, from the animals we raise to consume to the pets we choose to live with, would perish. We are indeed dealing with something new in our times, something unprecedented in previous eras: the creation of a new material support system for life, human and non-human. It cannot be dismantled without causing a global catastrophe. It is not in the command of any one central authority. For every population privileged by it, another segment of the population that would never otherwise have had a chance (certain species of canine, for example) is enabled. For every non-human species sacrificed by it (reptiles for example), other non-human species benefit. The technosphere is too all-inclusive, too de-centralized and too unpredictable to be simply vilified as a patriarchal-domination of nature. But neither is it to be regarded as simply benign (anymore than the earth could be regard as benign). It is the home of life in the Anthropocene, the new form that nature has taken in our age, and if we have no choice but to live in it, we must learn to live justly in it.

Which brings me to the title of this blog: why the sea needs us. Because it too is now part of the technosphere, because what we do to the climate will affect all life in it, because to persist in thinking that it exist for itself in the Anthropocene will only perpetuate neglect of our responsibilities towards it.

References and further reading:

Merchant, Carolyn, 1980. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution. New York: HarperCollins.

Morton, Timothy. 2010. The Ecological Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Latour, Bruno. 2004. The Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy. Trans. Catherine Porter. Harvard University Press.

—. 2013. Facing Gaia. Six lecture on the Political Theology of Nature. The Gifford Lectures, given in Edinburgh, 18-28 February 2013. http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/downloads/GIFFORD-ASSEMBLED.pdf

Williams, Mark, Jan Zalasiewicz, P.K. Haff, Christian Schwägerl, Anthony D. Barnosky, and Erle C. Eills. 2015. “The Anthropocene Biosphere.” The Anthropocene Review 2 (3): 196-219.

Žižek, Slavoj. 2008. Nature and Its Discontents.ˮ SubStance. Issue 117 (vol. 37, no. 3): 37-72.