Eating the Ocean

Elspeth Probyn / University Of Chicago Press / 360 pages

At its heart an ethnography, Eating the Ocean, by gender and culture professor Elspeth Probyn, is a challenging and unexpected contribution to the growing “food politics” genre. Although focused on questions concerning the sustainability of eating (and growing) seafood, the book has a basis in storytelling. It weaves themes—complexity, relatedness, the role of women—that bring depth and richness to the challenge we face in conservation of how people “come to care.”

Once a pescatarian (a consumer of fish, but no other meat) who “voted with her fork,” Probyn today rails against consumer-led “fish-activism” as “deluded narcissism” and “neo-liberal fantasy,” casting it as an oversimplification of the “complex entanglement [that] fish, fishers and ocean have forged over millennia” that only works for the middle class with access to alternatives and time to care. Her approach to bringing people to care about the survival of the oceans is to tell the stories of different marine species—oysters, blue-fin tuna, and anchovies—and their “metabolic intimacy” with the humans who for millennia have caught and processed and, more recently, farmed them.

The book celebrates—and revels in—complexity, always drawing the reader back to the sea, which itself has become oversimplified by overfishing. Probyn decries the “intellectual hypoxia” of oversimplifying science and solutions. The result is a tightly woven, highly unusual book for its genre that would be equally at home on the shelves of gender theory. Her approach to ensuring the sustainability of “eating the ocean” is to bring readers to think more deeply about human interrelatedness with the sea; her goal is for us to “eat with the ocean.” This is an admirable ambition, but faced with an urgent crisis—almost 70 percent of monitored wild fish stocks are fully exploited or overexploited, including to provide feed for aquaculture—readers may be looking for more practical guidance than Probyn provides concerning our role as top predators.