‘Only when the last fish has been caught, will you realise that you cannot eat money’. We are moving perilously close to the actualisation of my paraphrase of these words from the well-known saying attributed to Alanis Obomsawin of the Abenaki tribe northeast of Montreal in Canada. The usual wording of the saying is: “When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that one cannot eat money.” The full statement by Obomsawin is more specific regarding the kind of economy that rules in the West, however, and goes as follows:

“Canada, the most affluent of countries, operates on a depletion economy which leaves destruction in its wake. Your people are driven by a terrible sense of deficiency. When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.” (see http://quoteinvestigator.com/2011/10/20/last-tree-cut/)

My reason for saying that we are getting dangerously close to the actualisation of at least a part of this saying (the part that applies to fish), which is really a warning to the West, is prompted by signs of probably wilful, deliberate overfishing for the sake of future profits. Let me explain by starting with an excerpt from Louis Herman’s wonderful book, Future Primal (New World Library, Novato, California, 2013), in which he argues that the wilderness origins of the human race show us in which direction we should move in future. In the Introduction (p. XI-XII:) Herman observes:

“All past cultures and civilizations have had some intuitive sense that humans lived within a larger process — a story whose ultimate origin was the most profound and sacred mystery. Each had a cosmology, a story of origins that formed the foundation of its way of life and guided its economics and politics. The viability of a society depended on the success of its cosmology in attuning human activity to the larger, ultimately unfathomable reality that created and sustained all of life.”

This is a VERY significant observation, particularly because human beings today believe that they live in the most ‘advanced’ and most ‘knowledgeable’ era in the whole of history. BUT there is no generally adhered-to and shared cosmology that guides our actions the way such cosmologies guided the actions of people, or communities, in eras preceding modernity. To ask someone today what cosmology (or ‘story/myth’) they believe in, which guides their actions, is to be met with an uncomprehending stare. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and even university studies, do not provide you with this kind of knowledge, except perhaps to those students who study philosophy, anthropology, archaelogy, (social, cultural and art) history, and related subjects ‘in such a way’ that they gain holistic knowledge of past societies and of our own. Switching to contemporary society, Herman continues:

“Today, the story we tell ourselves about our economics and politics has run its course and is exhausted. Humanity enters the twenty-first century in a state of extraordinary crisis. It is a crisis of planetary dimensions involving every major social and biological system, affecting almost every aspect of our individual lives. The same method of persuasive scientific inference we trust to splice genes and rocket humans to the moon tells us that industrialized humanity is directly responsible for the collapse of ecosystems on every continent. All our oceans are polluted, our fisheries dying, coral reefs bleaching, deserts expanding, and forests shrinking. Almost half the terrestrial surface of the earth has been transformed by urbanization and agriculture. There is overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is accelerating global warming and climate change, which in 2012 melted the Arctic ice sheet to its smallest expanse in recorded history. Scientists warn that our civilization is forcing a planet-wide tipping point — a transition in our biosphere that is dramatically changing the conditions under which civilization developed and flourished for the past ten thousand years. They tell us we have entered the Anthropocene, a geological epoch marked by the destructive impact of industrialized humanity on the earth. There is a growing awareness that nothing this catastrophic has happened to life on earth since the last great mass extinction, which ended the age of dinosaurs sixty-five million years ago. Almost as astounding is the fact that most human beings are completely unaware of our situation. In the words of William van Dusen Wishard, we are ‘sleepwalking through the apocalypse.’”

Specifically regarding Herman’s reference to polluted oceans and dying fisheries, I would like to repeat something here that he drew attention to in support of his remarks when he addressed our UFS philosophy doctoral seminar group in Port Elizabeth a few weeks ago. As part of his presentation on his book (Future Primal), Herman showed photographs of tightly packed deep-frozen bluefin tuna in Mitsubishi Corporation’s storage rooms. If this seems to be nothing unusual, Martin Hickman reminds one where we stand regarding bluefin tuna numbers in the world, and what Mitsubishi’s actions mean – and this was before 2012 (http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/nature/revealed-the-bid-to-corner-worlds-bluefin-tuna-market-1695479.html):

“A corporation within the £170bn Mitsubishi empire is importing thousands of tonnes of the fish from Europe into Tokyo’s premium fish markets, despite stocks plummeting towards extinction in the Mediterranean.

“Bluefin tuna frozen at -60C now could be sold in several years’ time for astronomical sums if Atlantic bluefin becomes commercially extinct as forecast, a result of the near free-for-all enjoyed by the tuna fleet…

“Fish stocks across the world are in retreat because of over-fishing. One study suggests oceans will be stripped clean of all fish by 2048. Bluefin is imminently at risk of commercial extinction. The wildlife charity WWF forecasts that breeding stocks of the fish that migrate from the Atlantic to spawn will be wiped out in the Mediterranean by 2012.

“Although the legal bluefin catch is set at 22,000 tonnes, conservationists suspect the actual catch is 60,000 tonnes, four times the maximum that marine scientists recommend. After studying catches and sales, Charles Clover, the environmental journalist behind the film The End of the Line, believes that businesses involved in the ransacking are deep-freezing 20,000 tonnes of bluefin a year for later use.”

In a nutshell, for the sake of financial profit (please note, NOT in any other sense of ‘profit’, such as ‘the way life on the planet may benefit from something’), corporations like Mitsubishi are stripping the oceans of the ‘tiger of the seas’ – a beautiful species that should be preserved for our descendants. And what ‘profit’ means here is important to note. Mat McDermott reports that in 2010 already a single Bluefin tuna fetched more than 16 million yen at a Tokyo fish auction (https://www.treehugger.com/green-food/endangered-bluefin-tuna-fetches-record-price-at-tokyo-auction.html ). To be sure, as one of our seminar members pointed out, this was a freshly caught fish, but it does not tax the imagination too much to conceive of frozen tuna fetching even higher prices once the species providing this sought-after delicacy has been hunted to extinction. What would Japanese tuna lovers pay for it at sushi-restaurants when they know it’s the last available bluefin?

Needless to say, this picture is obscene, in my view. And one should remember that this scenario is unfolding in what most people worldwide regard as the most advanced, ‘highest-developed’ civilization in history. In technological terms it may be ‘advanced’ (although even that is questionable, depending on the meaning of ‘advanced’), but in terms of self-understanding and holistic cosmological orientation, it is backward. What other kind of civilisation would consciously destroy the very thing that ensures its survival, namely, nature in her splendour and diversity, and that for money?


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

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