An Economics Informed by Salmon

Imagine if leading economists spent time in the wilderness. Perhaps the chair of the Federal Reserve could spend an afternoon standing at the mouth of the Tsiu River on central Alaska's little explored lost coast, as the sleek bodies of silver salmon everywhere swelled upstream pushing against him.

Andrew Kimbrell, driven by his personal experience of the Coho salmon on the Pacific Coast, is on a quest for an economic ecology, a consideration of our economic system as subservient to and informed by nature. As a result of that afternoon in the river, he "began to imagine a world where the economist knows the salmon." For Kimbrell, the salmon embodies the qualities of nature abandoned and ignored by our competitive free market system, namely redistribution, reciprocation and gift-giving.

Included below you will find a selection from Kimbrell's "Salmon Economics (and other lessons)" E. F. Schumacher Lecture pamphlet. The section, titled "Return to Sanity," provides an outline of the salmon's natural economy and its core principles.

The pamphlet goes on to address the crises the salmon are facing due to environmental degradation, bioengineering, and the forces of the competitive market, and then he shows how these crises are our own. Kimbrell offers persuasive arguments about the deleterious effects of the commodification of land and labor, nature and man. He shows how the salmon offer inspiration for living well: "The salmon teach a different lesson. For them there is no linear progress or search for perfection; instead, they seek and fight doggedly to complete their cycle of life."

Salmon returning from the sea to the precise river inlet in which they were spawned bring with them nutrients from the ocean. This vital gift-giving represents an essential part of the economy of all living systems. Kimbrell writes how: "Unlike the self-interest of the market, embodied in legal contracts, gift-giving affirms a sense of community, charity, reverence, and a spontaneous sense of the relationship between humans and the natural world."

The full text of Andrew Kimbrell's "Salmon Economics (and other lessons)" is available as a pamphlet or can be read in its entirety here.


* * * * * * * * * * *
The Return to Sanity


“To live on the land we must learn from the sea.”
George Sumner

What can the salmon offer that will move us toward a new paradigm in economics? Can their homeward journey help us rid ourselves of the obsolete, dangerous, and somewhat pathological market mentality? To answer these questions we will need to look more closely at the “economy” of the salmon’s life cycle.

When the Pacific salmon return to the rivers of their birth, they carry in their bodies a number of nutrients, including nitrogen and phosphorous garnered from their ocean sojourn. In fact, isotopic analyses indicate that riverside vegetation near spawning streams receives 22 to 24 percent of its nitrogen—the nutrient that most commonly encourages plant growth—from salmon. As a result, trees on the banks of salmon-stocked rivers grow more than three times faster than their counterparts along a salmon-free river. Alongside spawning streams Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) have been found to take eighty-six years instead of the usual three hundred to reach 50 cm. in thickness. Research also shows that at least one-fifth of the nitrogen in the needles of Sitka spruce trees and other plants near spawning sites comes from the ocean via Pacific salmon carcasses. These same trees that have been fertilized by the carcasses enhance the quality of breeding and rearing habitats for the fish by providing shade, sediment and nutrient filtration, and large woody debris.

It is not just the vegetation that profits from these nutrients. Muscle samples taken at these riversides from vertebrate herbivores (deer mice, voles, shrews, and squirrels) show increased levels of nitrogen compared with samples taken from animals farther away. The animals eating the salmon also help with the spread of these nutrients. It has been estimated that 70 percent of a black bear’s annual protein comes from salmon. During a 45-day spawn each black bear catches about seven hundred fish and leaves half of each carcass in the forest. At 2.2 kg. per fish, this amounts to 120 kg. of nitrogen fertilizer per hectare of land. British Columbia’s 80,000 to 120,000 bears could be transferring, through salmon carcasses and the bears’ dung, as much as 60 million kg. of salmon tissue into the rainforest, accounting for half of the nitrogen fixed by old-growth trees

Salmon are also the principle source of food for the brown bear. And analysis of hair from grizzly bears, who became extinct in Oregon’s Columbia River Valley in 1931, has shown that 90 percent of their diet came from salmon. Additionally, the salmon’s eggs and carcasses are the major source of food for sea otters and several trout species. The carcasses also provide critical nutrient resources for aquatic invertebrate scavengers, detritivores, and aquatic microbes—organisms that in turn help enrich the nutrient capital of the wetland itself. And perhaps most crucial of all, 50 percent of the nutrients that young salmon receive comes from their dead parents.

In contemplating this “salmon economics” we find no trace of the self-interest and laws of supply and demand endemic to the human market mentality. What alternative economic values are taught by the cohos’ life cycle and final journey? One value is redistribution. The riches of the ocean are redistributed to the wetlands and the rivers. It is an intricate, diverse, and egalitarian redistributive system, extending to the needles of the Sitka spruce, the muscles of the vole, the intertidal microbes, the bodies of the fry, and then even to the bear dung that becomes fertilizer for the trees farther inland.

We do, course, have redistribution in our current economy. Through taxation, for example, we redistribute wealth to aid those in need, whether the unemployed, elderly, disabled, or poverty stricken. But these programs are constantly under attack by free-market advocates and are often eliminated under the rubric of tax relief. Unfortunately, those defending these programs never amplify and undergird their argument by pointing to the natural and ecological archetype of redistribution as found in the salmon cycle and throughout nature. Redistribution is not only altruistic or an expression of largesse, it is the fundamental element in successful and sustainable natural economies. In sum, redistribution is the way nature survives and thrives. It is a kind of natural law. By contrast, the purported free-market laws of supply and demand are recent intellectual constructs with no foundation in nature.

Then too, the salmon teach us about the value of reciprocity. There is a complex reciprocal relationship between the salmon and future animal and plant generations. As noted, the salmon’s nutrients help the growth of riverside vegetation, which in turn provides shade, protection, and nutrients for the growing parr and smolts, preparing them for their ocean journey and the repeating of the cycle. Moreover, the nutrients given to the animals help fertilize the trees, whose roots in turn protect the rivers and streams from erosion. Overall, it would be virtually impossible to comprehensively describe the entire reciprocal interaction between the salmon and the life around them, from microbes through mammals.

As with redistribution, our current economy also contains many reciprocal elements. We pay our taxes so that we can have roads, schools, and other basics that will be there for us. We participate in civic associations, on zoning boards, or in local governments, with the assumption that our time spent will benefit us, our families, and future generations. But perhaps more importantly, the vast majority of Americans’ work is based on reciprocity. My research indicates that more than 70 percent of us get up every morning to take care of something or someone, not to make a profit by selling something for more than we paid to produce or buy it.

This is what I term “the care economy,” which I contrast with “the profit economy.” Teachers, doctors, nurses, firemen, policemen, social workers, and all those working in government and the public-interest community, including those protecting our fellow creatures and the natural world, will not make more or less profit depending on how much they produce. They are the care economy and are paid a flat-rate salary for their service. Firemen will not pick one house to save and turn down another based on making a profit for saving the more expensive house. Teachers will not pick one child to teach over another because they will be paid more for teaching the richer child. After a natural disaster, animal rescuers save mutts and purebreds with equal energy without wondering whose owner will pay more.

The tragedy of September 11, 2001, provided a graphic contrast between the profit and care economies. During and after the terrorist attacks Wall Street closed down, and there was a virtual halt in trading for days as brokers looked to foreign investment until they could assess whether it was safe and profitable to invest once again in America. Meanwhile, from the very first the care economy was fully invested. Emergency workers, police, and fire personnel worked tirelessly and under great personal risk for days and weeks as did health professional, government, and nonprofit organizations. Everyone seemed to grasp intuitively the reciprocal nature of this sacrifice, to understand that the greater community can function only when each of its members gives in this way, knowing that it would will be reciprocated should tragedy strike elsewhere. The fate of each is wedded to the care and skills provided by the other.

The care economy, though it represents a solid majority of us and we all depend on it, is not privileged in our society. Even progressives often call it the “service” economy, which is more suggestive of entry-level restaurant workers than of the vast majority of Americans who are part of this care economy. Instead, America is often portrayed as the land of “entrepreneurs,” where “the business of America is business.” Never do we hear in defense of reciprocation that it is a fundamental principle of natural economic life and has the imprimatur of eons of successful natural economies behind it, whereas the market system with its profit mandate is just over two hundred years old and is already unsustainable.

Along with redistribution and reciprocation, the salmon teach yet another a third economic value—gift-giving. Unlike the self-interest of the market, embodied in legal contracts, gift-giving affirms a sense of community, charity, reverence, and a spontaneous sense of the relationship between humans and the natural world. In a way it is the antidote to the market system. As ethicist Thomas Murray explains:

Gifts create moral relationships that are more open-ended, less specifiable, and less contained than contracts. Contracts are well suited to the marketplace, where a strictly limited relationship for a narrow purpose—trading goods or services—is desired. Gifts are better for initiating and sustaining more rounded human relationships, where future expectations are unknown, and where the exchange of goods is secondary in importance to the relationship itself.

Salmon provide the ultimate relational gift—a gift for the otters, the bears, the rainbow trout, their own offspring, and a gift for all of us who witness and learn from them. This gift is an eternal promise, always kept if not sabotaged by the intrusion of humans and their technology. It is an intrinsic aspect of the very being of the salmon, not given in calculation of receiving something in return. There are so many in our society who give without looking for a return: the teacher staying late to help a student, the neighbor helping the elderly couple next door, those millions giving their time, work, and money to help in a cause they believe in or to help others more needy than themselves. This generosity represents a major sector of our economy but is usually marginalized as exceptional altruism instead of being understood for what it is—an essential part of the economy of all living systems.

One additional and critical economic lesson of the salmon I will mention is the profound importance of the local. Salmon provide remarkable instruction about the fundamental value of place. Father Thomas Berry has spoken about the importance of the “smell of home,” the odor of place. No creature better embodies this teaching than the salmon. An Alaskan Fish and Wildlife study found that just one drop of water from the home stream of salmon added to 250 gallons of water will take these salmon in the direction of that water. It is impossible not to be astonished by the great odyssey of the salmon and their uncanny ability to ultimately find the exact stream or even rivulet of origin and to mate there, with all the redistribution, reciprocation, and gift-giving going to that local place and its environs.

Every Thanksgiving, when tens of millions crowd the airplanes and jam the roads, we catch a glimpse of the homing instinct, however alienated, that survives in each of us. Mobility is prized and privileged in our society (just think of the automobile, which embodies the glorified values of autonomy and mobility—ergo “auto-mobile”). And this is a necessary attribute of the supply-and-demand market economy, which may cause extreme dislocation many times in our lives as we—purported human commodities—move about, often involuntarily, to find work, economic survival, or increased opportunity. Although this dislocation corresponds to the logic of capital, it is not what most of us seek. Reminiscent of the salmon’s journey is the yearning we still carry for home, place, and community.

Moreover, in economic terms the idea of the local is becoming ever more important. For millennia human economics was local, but over recent decades we have seen a massive expansion in the global economy. Now transnational corporations—obeying the call of the market, whose only motive is profit and their own self-interest—roam the world in search of resources and markets for their products. They forcibly bring down trade barriers and any protections that localities might have against this economic onslaught. Corporate-led globalization brings a corresponding contraction, and destruction, of the local economies it replaces. The corporate enclosure of these local communities and eco-systems devastates the natural world, homogenizes cultures, disrupts communities, and deprives their members of any meaningful control over their lives.

How is this process to be halted and reversed? The salmon give us the answer: local production for local consumption. Note that the salmon travel freely as they grow and become mature but always ultimately return to provide their local community with what it needs. I like to think of this as a kind of internationalism based in the local as opposed to the homogenizing juggernaut of market-based globalization. Internationalism allows each of us to travel and learn from all peoples and cultures and geographies, but unlike globalization it understands that the purpose of this travel is to return and nourish the local with a diversity of knowledge and experience.

Fortunately we are beginning to see a rebirth of the local around the world in food and energy production, local currencies, and emphasis on local governance. To those who inevitably will state that this localization is contrary to the ersatz laws of free trade and the market we need only point to the salmon and note that localization corresponds with the laws of nature.
Over recent decades there has been a growing interest in the field of ecological economics, a field that infuses certain ecological realities into current economic thinking. Much good work has been done in this area, but perhaps it is time to reverse the adjective and noun in ecological economics and call it economic ecology, not privileging thereby human economy but recognizing that our economic needs fit into the larger ”economy” of our eco-systems. The tendency in ecological economics can be to “greenwash” capitalism or socialism, By contrast, an earth economics would base the allocation of resources primarily on ecological principles, including those so beautifully embodied in the salmon life cycle and other of the earth’s living systems. It is a call for the economist to truly meet and learn from the salmon, a call for an economics of earth that is based not on the abstractions of thinkers but on the study of, and wonder at, its creatures.

This new and important discipline is not without its precedents. Indigenous societies were never based on market economies but on a mix of reciprocal service and exchange, redistribution of resources, and gift-giving in local situations. These societies based their economic behavior—redistribution, reciprocation, gift-giving, and localization—on the archetypal patterns of the natural systems around them. To survive we must follow their lead, and without delay. We must learn and integrate the great economic lessons of the salmon.