Friday, February 8, 2013

Life in a Fishbowl - A Parable of Growth

Voice of the Mountain

by Shawn K. Inlow

My son came home from kindergarten and he had this small beautiful fish in a plastic bag.  Folks from the local pet store came and chatted with the kids about pets.  They made a gift to the kids of these pretty fish.
I had to buy a fish tank.  But that wasn't all.  I had to buy fish food.  I had to buy devices to heat the water and filter the water.  I had to buy replacement charcoal packs for in the water filters to be changed every week.  I bought neat little plants that would grow using fish waste.  I bought snails that would slowly scale along the inside of the glass, feeding off algae.  I bought cute little objects to populate the fish tank floor all covered with red and blue gravel.  I bought a fish tank light to put on top.

By the time we were done, we'd constructed a 10 gallon closed system.  An independent biome the variables of which we could maintain or change.  It was a science class in my kindergartener's bedroom.

We found out that the water from our tap was heavily chlorinated and this could be deadly to the fish.  So we learned about measuring pH and how to treat the water to suit the little biological world we were creating.  We wound up taking a great deal of care of that little world and we got the fish tank into a place where it was balanced in harmony that we could sustain with just a little bit of care.

Eventually, we decided to get some other fish for our aquarium.  We heard that you could have up to one fish per gallon of water in the aquarium, so we were pleased to bring home nine more fish of varying types and sizes.

Instantly, the balance of the ecosystem we'd created was radically changed.  There was a population explosion to the factor of 10 in our little closed world.  Suddenly there was too much waste in the water and we had to change the filters much more often.  This became expensive.  We had to purchase chemical treatments that would lock down the ammonia content in the water.

We found out the little fish that had been given us did not like other types of fish.  After some research we found that the extremely beautiful fish was, in fact, extremely aggressive with other kinds of fish.  We witnessed population stress occur in the little world we'd created and devoted ourselves to caring for.  Certain fish had their fins chewed ragged and went from being the beautiful creatures we'd purchased to being haggard and eventually died.

Some of the fish liked to eat the snails we'd purchased and so algae began to build up on the fish tank walls faster than the snails could eat it, so we purchased magnetic cleaning devices with which to keep the glass clean so we could observe the goings on in our little closed system.

One fish went mad and he was powerful enough that he found a hole in the top of the tank and kept propelling himself out the top and we'd find him on the carpet when we'd return home and put him back in the water.

Other fish began to develop lesions and their beautiful, shiny scales and gills would become ugly before they died off.

After more than a decade, when our last fish died, the return on that gift fish to a kindergartener had to be 1,000 fold to the pet store.  Smooth operators, the folks who owned it.  Good sustainable business model:  Give fish to kindergarteners.

But I had learned something.  If you think about it, the planet Earth is also a closed system.  And as human populations continue to grow, our planet, in many of the same ways of our little aquatic experiment, has also been thrown out of balance.  And many of the maladies experienced by Shaboogamu and Posseidon II can be seen in human populations:  excessive pollution, diminishing natural resources, myriad diseases, madness.

And our society grows more and more complex in the ways it throughputs energy, making our food chain and our biome more and more technological, expensive and stressful. 

You, dear reader, and I are just fish in a fishbowl.  

We exist in a closed system.  And we've added too many fish.  To the point that the very seas of the Earth are dying off.  The very base of the food chain is evaporating beneath us.  Cattle used to be raised on farms, now they are raised, sick and dying anyway, in mechanical feed-lots where they are fed on corn (instead of grass) and steroids and actually become hazardous to eat.  Don't even get me started on the chicken industry.  Or genetically modified "Frankenfoods" which are legal here in the U.S. but more closely regulated in the E.U. and other places.  You used to be able to fish for salmon:  Now you have to farm them.

Our society is largely based on an economy that calls for perpetual growth.  Our political leaders call for growth and development and the expansion of markets and the infection of all the other populations of the world with the capitalist paradigm of permanent growth.

Permanent growth cannot take place in a closed system.  My fish ran out of usable oxygen and produced too much waste and polluted their own world until they choked to death.  Humanity is doing much the same.

We cannot always call for more.  We must decide on less.

We cannot always go for bigger.  We must decide on smaller.

In the Christian Bible, God gave dominion over all the world to man, saying be fruitful and multiply.  But God is not changing the filter.  We've been told to husband the Earth, but what kind of husbandry have we practiced here?  If there is a resource, where is it written that we MUST exploit it?  Why can we not have a resource we choose not to use?

The paradigm of constant growth, dear reader, is a death race for our kind.  It must be replaced with an ethos of balance.  Of sustainability.  Of stewardship.

You'll have to excuse me now, dear reader, I've got to go.  My hands keep breaking out in the strangest rash.  Maybe some lotion.  Until next week, have a great weekend.

Shawn Inlow
Osceola Mills, Pa.

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