Collapse of cod fishing around Newfoundland (Canada): a metaphor for our unsustainable and over-confident societies?

(Picture: Total capture of North Atlantic cod, from 1950 to 2000, in thousands of tonnes. Graphic by Epipelagic — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

For over 500 years, fishermen from Canada, but also from Europe (Spain, Portugal, France, Germany) had been fishing the abundant banks of North Atlantic cod around Newfoundland in Canada. Pierre Loti, in his novel “an Iceland fisherman” published in 1886, describes the “myriads upon myriads of fish, all alike, gliding slowly in the same direction”, which could be seen immediately below the surface of the sea, “plainly distinguished through the transparency”, and illustrates the fantastic plenty of these cod banks, where fishermen just needed to drop their lines, see the cod biting the hooks, haul the lines, take the cod off the hooks, and throw the lines over and over again. A fisherman’s dream, explaining why boats travelled from Europe, thousands of kilometres across the Ocean, to participate in this bounty.

However, these fisheries were brutally closed in 1992, following a complete collapse of the number of fishes – and have not recovered since, making it the most important industrial closure in Canadian history, with 35,000 jobs lost overnight. I find the history of this collapse an interesting metaphor of the flaws of our over-confident, technology-driven societies.

What happened? Traditionally, fishermen used lines to selectively catch cod only, near the surface, and depended upon luck to find the fish banks. Starting in the 1950s, new technologies were introduced: trawlers captured all kinds of fishes in addition to cod (including the commercially worthless capelin), at greater depths, using sonar to locate the fish banks. As a result, the quantities of cod being fished initially exploded, from 500,000 tonnes yearly in the 1950s to 1.8 million tonnes in 1968. Additionally, the individual size of the cods being captured rose, so that the economic yield improved even further. Technology seemed to have triumphed, economic growth brought prosperity, in an endless upward curve.

A first warning happened in 1968, when the quantities being fished experienced a first partial collapse, from 1.8 million tonnes captured yearly to 1 million and then further to 500,000 tonnes in the mid-1970s. The Canadian government reacted by setting up an Exclusive Economic Zone of 200 nautical miles around its coasts in 1976, and forbade any foreign fishing boat from operating in this Zone. This had an immediate effect of reducing fish capture, because the number of fishing boats temporarily declined. This resulted in a partial recovery of the fish stocks. Under the intense political pressure of local economic and social interests, and despite increasingly alarmist warnings by scientists, the Canadian government did not impose stringent enough fishing quotas to prevent Canadian fisheries from increasing their capacity, so that the captures of cod increased again over the 1980s, until the final collapse of 1992.

The fundamental reason of this collapse are that deep-sea fishing using trawlers captured two ecologically important categories of fishes:

  • the capelin, which is an important prey of adult cods
  • the old adult cods, which are by far their most productive reproducers.

This was overfishing, because it depleted the food upon which cods depended for their survival, and because it destroyed the basis of the population replacement of cods. But this did not appear in statistics, bearing on economically valuable fish only, so that capelin was not accounted for. In addition, these large, old adult cods captured from deep sea increased the mass of captured cod in the short term. They made believe that the deep sea accessed by new technology contained a wealth of unexploited resources just waiting to be harvested – a fatal illusion.

I consider this sad sequence of events as a good metaphor of our contemporary societies:

  • our addiction to economic growth, and our refusal to accept limits to the ecological pressure we exert on our natural environment
  • the pressure of social and economic interests to preserve short-term economic activity and employment,
  • the denial of unpleasant scientific evidence, under this social and economic pressure, and because of our aversion to loss, delaying and watering down the policy measures necessary to reduce our pressure on environmental resources
  • our over-confidence in technology, where we believe that the solution consists in doing more of the same, employing ever more energy and resources to maintain structurally wasteful techno-economic models
  • and the ultimate collapse that these factors lead to when our over-consumption collides with the biological and physical limits of our natural resources, if strong, restrictive policies are not implemented early enough.

State of Union speech: time for trans-national democracy, at last?

In his “State of the Union” speech of 13 September 2017, President of the Commission Jean-Claude Juncker expressed his “sympathy” for the idea of trans-national lists in the elections to the European Parliament. This is a courageous move, knowing the reluctance – to say the least – of many nationally-elected politicians towards a proposal that would make them obsolete overnight.

I consider Jean-Claude Juncker to be fundamentally right. The only alternative to populism is trans-national democracy, not the global ploutocracy that we currently are heading towards.

I would define trans-national democracy as follows.

A trans-national democracy unites citizens, and takes action, beyond national, linguistic and cultural boundaries. Its institutions are democratic, and built at a supra-national scale. Officials are elected at trans-national scale. They have the mandate to act in the interest of the whole community of citizens being administered, independently from their nationality, language or culture. Democratic debates oppose different political views, not cultural or national differences. They result in political agreements and decisions at a scale large enough for public policies to be effective. The decisions taken are legitimate, and enforced by the power of law. Trans-national democracy thus overcomes the weaknesses, inefficiencies and illegitimacy of inter-governmental negotiations that plague most attempts of political action at scales larger than the nation-state.

The institutions of the European Union, and specifically the European Commission and the European Parliament, despite all their weaknesses, are to date the most advanced and developed prototypes of a trans-national democracy, at the scale of a single continent. I will come back to this, and justify this assertion further, in a later post.

In my views, a trans-national democracy is the only way for collective decisions to be taken at the scale made necessary by the evolutions of scientific knowledge regarding our planet, and of technical networks connecting humans. It is the only way for institutions to ensure that justice be given to the legitimate claims of all. It is the only way to reach the legitimate political agreements necessary to overcome the global challenges of the 21st century. It is the only way forward.

I rejoice that Jean-Claude Juncker, in a speech that may become historic, has started to set the rail tracks for a trans-national democracy. I hope that he will be able to have his views move forward – despite the vast majority of the political class, and of the press, being structurally against him.

Equality – and social security – is better for everyone, and for a sustainable future

The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone was published in 2009. Written by [British epidemiologists and economists] Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, the book highlights the “pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, (and) encouraging excessive consumption“. It shows that for each of eleven different health and social problems: physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being, outcomes are significantly worse in more unequal rich countries [than in equal rich countries]. (Excerpt from the Equality Trust website launched by the authors, with links to further details on each of the “health and social problems” listed).

The book is structured as follows to demonstrate its thesis. The first chapters contain statistical evidence, in which inequality is positively correlated to each and every one of these “health and social problems” (i.e. the trend is that more unequal societies experience more problems). The entities being considered in the statistical investigation are the large countries of the OECD, the club of industrialised countries that produces homogeneous sets of statistical data, and the 50 united States of America. The following chapters explain the causal relationship (beyond the statistical correlation) between inequality and these “health and social problems”: inequality causes stress, which itself releases the hormone called cortisol. Permanent high levels of cortisol are known to increase violence, to cause inflammations (and thus cancer), to deteriorate mental performance (and thus educational achievements), and to generate obesity.

The conclusion is in the title: Equality is better for everyone – including for the rich. As an example given in the book, neonatal deaths are less frequent among poor Finnish women (an equal society), than among rich English and Welsh women (an unequal one).

This book has changed my life, and the way I look at society and at social problems. I recommend it highly to anyone. I used to feel afraid and helpless when confronted with the myriads of social problems that our societies experience, and discouraged at the thought that no prevention or cure existed for them, only costly palliatives. I thought that there was no other possible action than to give money to the admirable social care associations who fight desperate battles to keep drowning people afloat. After reading this book, I know where political action is possible, and where efforts should be concentrated, because they are effective and efficient: towards equality. The road is difficult, and long – but clear. I stopped complaining about the misbehaviour of motorcycle riders, the rudeness of café waiters or the place taken by obese people in public transport. I know that all of them are victims of the same plague, inequality, and that this political struggle for equality is the common means to solve or alleviate most of these problems.

The book induced in me two more reflections:

  1. it initiates a very interesting argument connecting equality with sustainability
  2. I believe that further research would be needed to investigate the role of precariousness in these stress-induced “health and social problems”.

I knew already that equality is a condition for sustainability policies to work. It is only if the adaptation effort required by the transition to sustainability is fairly shared that it will be socially and politically acceptable. The book “the Spirit Level” adds another, anthropological, dimension to this connection between equality and sustainability. In unequal societies, people consume, over-consume and fall in debt, not to fulfil their needs, but to display their social status. This display is not a personal choice, it is a necessity for them to be protected against hostility: it is only by showing that I belong to the rich and the powerful that I deter people from harming me. Reciprocally, only equal societies can stand to consume to fulfil needs only, and thus be frugal enough to be sustainable.

The connection made by the authors Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson between inequality and stress makes sense. In unequal societies, the competition for social status is fierce, and society gives less to those having less, so that any failure entails a risk of spiralling down: after a failure, I have less, so that I receive less support by society, causing me to fail even more, and fall deeper. The threat of a downward spiral ending in poverty and homelessness is a frightening – and stressful – reality in unequal societies.

There may be a second, and powerful, factor causing stress in societies: precariousness. When my income can disappear at any time, when I have no form of social security nor of employment protection, I live in permanent fear for my immediate future, as the poor social classes in the global South bitterly experience daily. Since the rich unequal societies (mainly in the Anglo-Saxon world: the United States of America, the United Kingdom) are also those with the highest level of precariousness – because of their libertarian “hire and fire” dogma – the respective effects of inequality and of precariousness may be difficult to disentangle from each other in statistical data. But investigating the effects of precariousness on the “health and social problems” highlighted by Pickett and Wilkinson would definitely make sense. Does anyone know about existing studies?

Why we need more regulation, not less

Everybody complains about regulation. Regulation is criticised as a restriction of one’s freedom, of one’s capacity to innovate and exploit new opportunities. This discourse is frequent among ordinary citizens. It is a leitmotiv of businesses of all sizes. The last avatar of this regulation-bashing trend is the REFIT programme of the European Union, based on the work of the “High Level Group on Administrative Burdens” chaired by former conservative (CSU) Bavarian Minister-President Edmund Stoiber (final report “Cutting red tape in Europe”, July 2014, available here).

The discourse is the following: (1) the European Union (or any government) produces “too many laws”, which place a “burden” on businesses (and specifically on the SMEs), (2) this burden has reached an “unbearable” level and threatens the very survival of the said businesses, (3) thus, the overall volume of legislation must be maintained at the same level, or even reduced. This last ambition is summarised in the recommendation N°2, p.8 of the Stoiber report: “offset new burdens on businesses stemming from EU legislation by removing existing burdens from elsewhere within the acquis [i.e. the existing body of EU laws]”. This statement has been upgraded into a political slogan “one [law] in, one out” (or two, or three, depending on the level of demagoguery or of libertarian dogmatism of the speaker), and is now widely used in Europe, in the REFIT programme of the EU as I mentioned above, but also in the United Kingdom (where it has become a Conservative mantra), Germany, France (centring on the Labour Code), …

This level of nonsense makes me furious, for two reasons.

First reason: By definition and by essence, a law restricts freedom and is costly. It imposes obligations to perform actions that some people or organisations would rather not do, or forbids actions that some people or organisations would like to do. No law exists that forces people or organisations to do things that everyone would do anyway (e.g. to breathe), or forbids them from doing things that nobody would do anyway because they are technically not feasible (e.g. pick-nicking over the week-end on Jupiter) or suicidal. A law is also costly, by definition. Obligations mobilise time and resources to fulfill, and prohibitions prevent some lucrative opportunities from being taken. Arguing against law because it is costly is just not understanding what law is – or pretending not to: instead of attacking the legitimacy of the law itself, engaging a sidewards attack against its “costs”, as if a law could exist without.

Second reason: Three major global trends of our societies – technology, science, globalisation – generate the need for more regulation, not less:

  • with technology (and energy), we are able to perform more actions than before, that have more transformational impact on the social, physical or economic worlds (e.g. encrypted messaging, low-cost air transport, crowd-working platforms),
  • with science, we are more aware of the consequences of these actions, even if they are distant in time or space (e.g. on climate change),
  • with globalisation, geographically distant consequences of our actions impact us more than before (e.g. the civil war in Syria generating a flow of refugees towards the European Union).

The convergent consequences of these three global trends of our societies lead to: we are able to perform more actions, whose consequences we know more and matter to us more. If law is there to prevent such actions from being undertaken – and I would argue that this is a fully legitimate role for law – then we need more regulation than ever, and not less.

A cause of “populism”: the mismatch between the scale of political action and that of underlying phenomena

Let’s take “populists” seriously. Let’s listen to them. They want to “take control back”. They feel that democratic institutions at national scale have lost the capacity to act on the collective future of the population.  My argument is: they are right in this statement – but wrong in their solutions.

What are the important political decisions? Those addressing large-scale, long-term issues, such as global warming, international trade, or the taxation of multi-national corporations. Where are they taken? In the secrecy and unaccountability of inter-governmental negotiations, in the United Nations, bi-lateral negotiations of free trade agreements, in the G20 or in the Council of the European Union.

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