Planet Earth

Can Guilt Save the Oceans?

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJan 15, 2010 3:51 PM


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This is the first in a series of guest posts by Joel Barkan, a previous contributor to "The Intersection" and a graduate student at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The renowned Scripps marine biologist Jeremy Jackson is teaching his famed "Marine Science, Economics, and Policy" course for what may be the last time this year (along with Jennifer Jacquet), and Joel will be reporting each week on the contents of the course.

Guilt. Shame. These aren’t emotions commonly associated with fish. According to Jennifer Jacquet, however, they may actually be effective tools to prevent destructive overfishing. Jennifer knows a thing or two about guilt—she writes the Guilty Planet blog for Her lecture today covered creative ways to convince corporations to buy and sell fish caught in a sustainable manner. A supermarket that sells orange roughy, for instance, might change its practices if made to feel shame for peddling this exploited fish. Greenpeace, which graded the major seafood markets for sustainability, has made headway by calling out less ocean-friendly chains like Trader Joe’s. Can we go further, though, and attach a real public stigma to the trade of unsustainably caught fish? Jennifer talked about the importance of corporate transparency to bring about policy changes, using examples from other industries. She mentioned the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), which forces polluters to publicize their emission levels. On the day after the first TRI figures were released in 1989, the polluting firms saw their stocks fall a combined $4.1 million. These corporations—feeling guilty and seeking to deflect public scorn—soon announced plans to reduce emissions. Jennifer also referenced restaurant hygiene report cards, which grade the cleanliness of restaurants: you get an A if diners can eat your risotto off the floor, a C if the vermin outnumber your patrons. No restaurant wants the scarlet letter “C” tacked to its window—it would be hard to recover from the public shame of such a poor grade. Our class discussion, as it has a tendency to do here at Scripps, delved into a number of tangents, all of them thought-provoking. One student, who moved to San Diego from China in June for graduate school, cautioned that with shame can come unfair humiliation. He spoke of China’s Cultural Revolution, when citizens who were suspected of supporting capitalism were forced to walk through the streets wearing hats bearing the sign “Capitalist Dog.” Now, he asserts, China feels regret for putting its people through such a public disgrace because it realizes its original convictions were misguided. I brought up the success of anti-smoking campaigns and the shame placed on cigarette companies for being deceitful about the health effects of smoking and its youth-targeted advertising. Prof. Jeremy Jackson countered by pointing out that a backlash against anti-smoking campaigns actually makes smoking appealing to some young people. But back to fish—after all, this is a marine policy course. Can seafood retailers like Walmart and Red Lobster be guilted into changing their practices? I think we have a long way to go: it’s still a social norm to buy and eat trawl-caught shrimp, which includes 12 pounds of unintended, wasted bycatch for every pound of shrimp caught. The public looks down upon corporate misdeeds like embezzlement and pollution. It’s time to add trade in unsustainable fisheries to that list of offense.

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