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Excerpt from A Language Older Than Words

The Great Auk (p. 143)

From chapter "Economics"

Make no mistake, our economic system can do no other than destroy everything it encounters. That’s what happens when you convert living beings to cash. That conversion, from living trees to lumber, schools of cod to fish sticks, and onward to numbers on a ledger, is the central process of our economic system. Psychologically, it is the central process of our enculturation; we are most handsomely rewarded in direct relation to the manner in which we can help increase the Gross National Product.

It’s unavoidable: so long as we value money more highly than living beings and more highly than relationships, we will continue to see living beings as resources, and convert them to cash; objectifying, killing, extirpating. This is true whether we’re talking about fish, fur-bearing mammals, Indians, day-laborers, and so on. If monetary value is attached to something it will be exploited until it’s gone. This story is oft-repeated and oft-ignored. Take the great auk, also called the spearbill in tribute to its massive bill, and called by the Spanish and Portuguese pinguin, which means the fat one, in reference to the soft jumpsuit of blubber that enveloped it. This flightless bird was common throughout Europe, existing side-by-side with humans as far south as the Mediterranean coast of France. By the year 900, the great auk was no longer perceived as a neighbor; it had become a commodity. It was slaughtered commercially for the oil derived from its fat, and for its soft elastic feathers. By the mid-seventeenth century, hyperexploitation had killed all but one of the great auk nesting sites in Europe, and that was destroyed before 1800.

In North America, too, humans coexisted with great auks for thousands of years, perhaps thousands of human generations. But they didn’t develop an economics requiring the objectification of all others, and so the relationship continued. Humans smoked auk meat to eat through winter; they ate their eggs; they rendered fat into oil which they stored in sacks made from the birds’ inflated gullets; they dried the contents of eggs, then ground them into flour from which they made winter pudding. Humans did all this, season after season, generation after generation, causing no appreciable harm to the birds. I do not know what these humans gave to great auks in return, but I would stake any hope I have for continued human existence on the belief that the humans gave something back to these stately black birds, with their powerful lungs and wings made for diving and undersea propulsion. Perhaps all they gave back was the right for them to be.

The earliest description we have of a North American encounter between Europeans and great auks ends, as these encounters always do, in tragedy for the natives: “Our two barcques were sent off to the island to procure some of the birds, whose numbers were so great as to be incredible. . . . In less than half-an-hour our two barcques were laden with them as if laden with stones.” The next year another chronicler noted, “This Island is so exceedingly full of birds that all the ships of France might load a cargo of them without anyone noticing that any had been removed.” Having been noticed by members of our culture, the fate of the great auk was sealed.

They were slaughtered for their meat, which was sold. They were slaughtered for their oil, which was sold. They were slaughtered for their feathers, which were sold. Their eggs were taken for markets in Boston and New York. Wrote an Englishman: “These Penguins are as big as geese and . . . they multiply so infinitely upon certain flat islands that men drive them from hence upon a board into their boats by the hundreds at a time, as if God had made the innocence of so poor a creature to become such an abundant instrument in the sustenation of man.”

At last, around the turn of the nineteenth century, bans were placed upon the killing of remnant auk populations. The bans, being as nominal as environmental restrictions are today, were of course ignored, and the last known rookery was destroyed in 1802. But one colony, a tiny one of perhaps 100 individuals, remained, near Iceland. Word of this colony finally reached Europe, and collectors quickly offered a local merchant high prices for eggs. By 1843, most of the birds were gone, and on June 3, 1844, three fishermen killed the last two auks, and smashed the last auk egg.

It would be easy for me to hate that local merchant and his three hirelings for what they did to the world in general, and to me in particular, when they eradicated these creatures. But as with Chivington, Hitler, Descartes, Bacon, the authors of the Bible, “free market” economist Milton Friedman, and so on ad nauseam, these men were not alone. They had, and continue to have, an entire culture for company. A bureaucrat with the Canadian Department of Fisheries and the Ocean stated the matter perfectly. His honesty is frightening: “No matter how many there may have been, the Great Auk had to go. They must have consumed thousands of tons of marine life that commercial fish stocks depend on. There wasn’t room for them in any properly managed fishery. Personally, I think we ought to be grateful to the old timers for handling the problem for us.”

Any being that sparks economic interest is doomed. Eskimo curlews, passenger pigeons, puffins, teals, plovers, all these and more were exterminated or diminished by the insatiable lust for killing that our economics both rationalizes and rewards.

Sea mink, exterminated for their fur. Beavers, decimated. Wolverines. Fisher, marten, otter. Buffalo, wood bison, pronghorn antelope. Salmon: “A ball could not have been fired into the water without striking a salmon.” Cod: “So thick by the shore that we hardly have been able to row a boat through them.” Halibut. Herring: “I have seen 600 barrels taken in one sweep of a seine net. Often sufficient salt cannot be procured to save them and they are used as manure.” Capelin: “We would stand up to our knees in a regular soup of them, scooping them out with buckets and filling the wagons until the horses could scarcely haul them off the beaches. You would sink to your ankles in the sand, it was that spongy with capelin eggs. We took all we needed for bait and for to manure the gardens, and it was like we’d never touched them at all, they was so plenty.”

You or I could catch all the fish we could ever eat, cut all the trees we could ever use, kill all the animals whose skins we could wear, and we still would not destroy the planet. Or rather, we could kill all that is given to us only so willingly as we give back. What the hell use would it be for me to overfish West Medical Lake, where just tonight I caught my dinner? Why would I possibly take every fish? They would rot. It makes more sense to leave them so I can come back next week or next year, or never. Why should I stop them from living out their lives in their own manner?

Right now in the Bering Sea forty-five trawlers, each larger than a football field, drop nets thousands of yards long and catch up to 80 tons of fish per day. These ships can remain at sea for months, catching sea lions, seals, pollock, whales, halibut: anything that crosses their paths. Most of what they catch is not worth any money, so it is simply shredded and dumped back in the ocean. If none of the eighty tons of fish could be converted to cash, no sane people would ever want to kill so many, which is itself powerful support for the thesis that our economic system makes us crazy, or at least manifests prior insanity, or both.

But money doesn’t rot. It doesn’t swim away to live another day. It doesn’t fight back. It doesn’t disappear to the bottom of the ocean. It doesn’t get eaten by other fish.

Like the Christian heaven far from Earth, and like the roboroaches made more pleasing by the removal of their wings and the insertion of electrodes to facilitate their control, money perfectly manifests the desires of our culture. It is safe. It neither lives, dies, nor rots. It is exempt from experience. It is meaningless and abstract. By valuing abstraction over living beings, we seal not only our own fate, but the fates of all those we encounter.