My life there and afterwards

I have written quite a bit about my life at the Community of Jesus. Check out the archived posts for all of that. For now, I am sharing some of my educational journey after I left.

This is a reflection on the writings and philosophy of Descartes, Introduction to Philosophy class summer of 2014

What is real?


Let’s suppose for starters that I am dreaming now, as I write this. My nighttime dreams never have this much sensory detail in them. That does not prove I’m not dreaming now, when I think I am awake, but does speak to a difference in the dream states. Dreams when I am asleep are not as “real” as when I am “awake”. Therefore, I can truly say there is a difference between what I call dreams (at night, asleep, or daydreams when awake) and what I call being awake. So, let’s look at what I call reality, the “awake” state. If this is a dream – if I am totally deceived by a malevolent god – does it matter? This is the most reality I am aware of, so I make the best of it that I can. It is like those who are living in Plato’s Cave. There may be a realer reality that I am unaware of, but what practical use is that to me, unless I know of it? My reality is what I am experiencing, and/or thinking about. My reality consists of both my senses and my thoughts, whatever they are, and on whatever level they may be. If there is another level of reality for me to discover, why should I concern myself with it until I discover it?

You might say that I won’t discover it until I look for it, but if I have no indication that it might exist, then why would I bother to look for it? You might say, the man who left the cave came back to tell the others of the whole new world waiting for their discovery, and they would be foolish indeed to not listen to him and go into that wonderful new world. However, what if he were crazy? We have many people telling us many different things. God, aliens, angels, ET, multiple lives – anything man can dream up, he has told others about it. How do we know what is true, and what is imagination? I propose that it is only by own experience that I can know. If you truly have been kidnapped onto an alien ship, and returned and told me about it, I’m not going to believe you unless I experience it myself. If you have a conversion experience, and know that God exists, I won’t believe you unless I have a similar experience. That’s why it never works to browbeat anyone into a “faith”.

How do we distinguish between dreaming and not dreaming? We cannot know for certain that we are in the ultimate reality. Even if our senses are real, our interpretation of them may be clouded by a dreaming state. I can only determine the most alive state of my awareness and live in that. I can distinguish between levels of “awakeness”, levels of awareness and alertness, but I cannot know for certain that my most alert state is not still less than what is really true. I can tell that my nighttime dreams are not as sensory active as my daytime living and that they are not complete. There are sensory dropouts. No color, no details, no peripheral vision, gaps in the action, etc. I can tell when I am dreaming and not dreaming, as I currently know it. Dreams are real, but they do not have the same sensory experience as awakeness. Dreams can inform me about myself, and they are real, but they are “me” and I can gain control over the information in them. They are in my own head, so I can work with them. In the “real” world, a lot of the actions that happen are beyond my control. I can only control how I choose to respond.

I cannot tell whether there might be a further state of awakeness that I have yet to experience. I accept there could be, because I can remember “awakening” to new experiences and realizations as I have lived and grown in the past. Until I have some experience of something further, I would not know how and where to search for it. Once I get a glimmer of it, then I could pursue a search, but not before.

As to whether someone or something is controlling our minds already, yes, of course they are. Advertising, social norms, and peer pressures do this already. That is another whole field of psychology to learn about. If there was something way beyond this earth also controlling us, well, maybe what we learn about being true to ourselves on the earth will help us to recognize that also. I think questioning and awareness, mindfulness, is the way to see if we are being controlled. Always be asking ourselves questions about what we truly feel and believe. Always be seeking within ourselves for honesty. Only in that way could we get a glimmer if there were something controlling us. I can’t help but think of the movie Matrix, in the beginning when he was starting to get suspicious, and then awoke to the real reality instead of the virtual reality that was being fed to him.

Matrix trailer:


Philosophy – Plato

I have written quite a bit about my life at the Community of Jesus. Check out the archived posts for all of that. For now, I am sharing some of my educational journey after I left.

I took Introduction to Philosophy class in the Summer of 2014. This is a reflection on Plato’s teachings

Comparison of experiential knowledge and reasoned knowledge

My concept of “perfect” starts with experiential knowledge, and is furthered by reasoned knowledge. I propose that any thinking we do comes from a base of what we have experienced. Newborns do not reason abstractly, they experience. As we grow, our reasoning begins to activate. When we are in “The Cave” (, even though what we are experiencing is not total reality, it is all that we know, and we base our reasoning and actions on that experience. Therefore, experiential knowledge is imperfect, changing, and we should always be aware of that and looking for new input.

Reasoned knowledge is that which I can conceive of. I believe it is what separates us from the other animals. For instance, through experience I become aware that an object is incredibly round, almost perfect. That gets me to thinking about the concept of perfect circularity, and how “real” life never matches the ideal. I can remember in my early teens having profound thoughts as I extrapolated experience out into pure reasoning. Therefore, I propose that knowing the concept of perfection is a combination of sense perception and reasoning.

Plato thinks that only pure reasoning can give us an understanding of the Forms (Forms are the perfect ideal of anything we see). As I have stated above, how then did we come to use our reason in those directions? Is it not because we have experienced something that led our thinking in that direction? How can we have “pure” thinking without some kind of experience to base it on, or to compare it against? Once we leave “The Cave” we compare our new experience to the old, and that comparison, and the conclusions that result, is the act of reasoning. I think about Helen Keller, who had an extremely limited sensory experience. Yet she learned to communicate through the sense of touch. She became a great speaker and teacher, but her reasoning abilities were stunted until, through sense, she learned to communicate and think in relation to other people.

An innate idea is one that we are born with in common with all mankind. Whether there are innate ideas is still a matter of debate and the thinking has gone back and forth over the centuries. From my limited knowledge, I think we are born with a few survival oriented, innate ideas, such as the need for family/group. However, not all men have the same ideas about God, or morals, or what is expected in society. I do think there are some things that all men tend to think about, such as the possible reality of a higher level of existence than just the physical world. I agree with C. S. Lewis that we all seem to have a sense of right and wrong and of what is expected as fair play, but whether we are born with that, or it is developed as part of our brain chemistry and environmental training, I do not know. I can remember, as a child, becoming aware that my friend’s demands were similar to mine, and that I had to give as well as take. Did I learn that through experience and training, or was the basis of that awareness in me innately? Can we ever know the answer to that question?

According to Plato, sense perception is not reliable because they are less real than concepts and ideas. They are dependent on the Forms, having no reality except for what the Forms give them. He says the senses give us a sense of belief, but not of knowing. He says that knowledge is pure reasoning, and is based on 1) that it is true, 2) that I believe it and 3) that I can give a relevant justification for it.

The shadows in the Cave were the truth of those peoples’ existence. We know they were not the full truth from our perspective, but they believed it, and I’m sure could talk a blue streak justifying their belief. We can never come to absolute truth, because we will never know for sure whether or not we are completely out of the Cave. There could always be another level of existence/experience/knowledge still beyond our comprehension. Plato’s Forms are a concept of pure knowledge (perfection). The people in the Cave based their lives on their limited, imperfect knowledge and their lives were very limited because of it. However, they did not know that. We base our lives on the “True Knowledge” that we know, but how limited are our lives? We don’t know, because we don’t know the next level of experience.

Plato’s concept of ideal, true “Forms” comes from his reasoning, which is based on his experience, and which cannot be proved to be the sum of all experience or knowledge, Therefore his concept of the Forms is also imperfect.

Plato is a rationalist. A rationalist says our knowledge is gained independently from our senses, purely by thinking.

An Empiricist says that the senses are our source of knowledge.

My opinion is that our knowledge begins with our senses, and is then molded by our reasoning.

I have written quite a bit about my life at the Community of Jesus. Check out the archived posts for all of that. For now, I am sharing some of my educational journey after I left.

At the end of our Environmental class, we were asked to write a letter to the future 50 years ahead, incorporating what we have learned, and our personal feelings about it.

Letter to the Future in 2064

Dear Future,

Greetings from 2014. If you are reading this because the time capsule has been dug up, then I can assume that society continues to function enough for someone to remember and care about the time capsule. That would be a good thing, for from our perspective, we are unsure whether 2064 will have a functioning society or not. Yes, we are that worried. We are now at the point of awakening to the drastic state our planet is in, and to the significance of just how voracious our appetites have become for non-essential goods, and how this is quickly depleting the earth’s ability to supply our demands. I know that we can reverse this damaging trend, but the question remains as to whether we as a species will do it.

You might wonder if we were aware of the significance of our situation, and what it portended for the future. Our scientists in many fields have been aware of the global environmental problems for many years. The natural sciences are observing and tracking changes in our environment; the social sciences are studying how our behaviors have caused this and finding ways to reverse the destruction. Their voice is now being heard, as weather changes begin to impact our lives.

Education is intensifying. More of us now know that biodiversity is critical to saving our planet. For instance, the codfish, once one of the most prolific of fishes, which were so numerous as to astound people and give the impression that there would never be an end to them, have been so overfished that their very existence is threatened. Our bees are beginning to die off, which as I’m sure you are aware, will completely devastate the plant kingdom. The harvesting of the Amazon Rainforest will affect the atmosphere around the globe, both the quality of the air and the weather patterns, for they are truly the “lungs of the world.”

The global warming has been caused by the excessive CO2 emissions from human activities, the output of our non-essential “toys” as I will call them; appliances, cell phones, computers, the list goes on. To fuel these technologies we are sucking the oil from below the planet’s surface without really knowing how this will change the earth’s stability. We have reached the oil supply peak and the declining supply will do two things. If we are slow in using alternative sources of energy, hunger, panic, and war will erupt. Solar, wind, and nuclear energy is already available if we will just commit to putting them into use. We will also see displacement of large populations caused by the melting glaciers and rising sea levels. The declining quality of life will spur us on to implement the solutions. Governments have grown so big, and the market economy has grown so powerful, that the average person often feels helpless to do anything. The rich are usually reluctant to decrease their wealth for the common good. This is the trap we have been caught in, but in seeing the environmental changes all around us, we cannot deny any longer that we are over-populating and over-using the earth’s ability to sustain us.

Population explosion is a problem. Mankind is not the largest or physically strongest species, but we are the dominant one. We are gifted with a cognitive ability that is quite astounding. By conquering many diseases, and advancing food production, we have been able to provide for and prolong life like never before. We have grown under the belief that the supply is limitless and that the earth’s supply will always exceed our use. Only now are we realizing that this grand delusion is not only false, but threatens our continued existence. This generation won’t die tomorrow, but what will your tomorrow be like? That is the significant question we are becoming aware of. I can only hope as you read this that our awareness has been in time to be of benefit to you.

You may ask, as we certainly have, “How did we get here?” Ignorance is part of the reason, blindly letting ourselves be driven by the way we are biologically wired. We inherited instincts for survival that include gathering resources to see us through hard times. As social creatures, we see surplus as status. As with all addictions, more use begets more desire. Our wisdom and knowledge have not kept pace with these basic instincts. In our societies a combination of a small minority of people addicted to wealth and the all-pervasive power of media influence have driven our economy to grow without any view to responsible sustainability. The large majorities of people still struggle to either have enough resources, or are convinced they need to compete with the wealthy and gain more products that are un-essential. We have become use to and dependent upon technology whose over-use is harming our environment.

What steps do we see that we can take? The word is being spread. Through the media (TED talks, advertisements), through institutions of learning, through local gatherings and speakers and clean-up efforts, the young and old are taking action. We are not hopeless. We are gathering momentum to change the direction and mentality of society. We are faced with tremendous odds, for the business/government consortium is powerful and does not want to change, but the common people are speaking up.

On a personal level, I do own a car and that is important to me for keeping in touch with family and friends, but I can look into buying a hybrid car. I can shop at local farmers’ markets, buy at fair trade shops, dispose responsibly, and always ask myself “Do I need it, or do I just want it?”, and let that guide my buying. I will continue with my education, looking for ways to connect with others to support the ongoing effort to raise awareness and implement changes, locally first, and then nationally and globally. It is important to start with the local issues and solutions. It will take years for nations to hammer out how they will cooperate and monitor each other, but it does not have to take years for many, many small groups of us to put the changes into practice. We can start today.

We have the knowledge and the means to save the planet and ourselves for the future. Our biggest challenge will be the psychological one of changing peoples’ behaviors. It is possible. If we were trained by post-WW II programs to be consumers, which preyed on our existing tendencies, then it is possible to train ourselves to be responsible, cultivating our other tendencies to be socially minded and to preserve ourselves. We have the capacity to extrapolate into the future the consequences of our present actions. The choice is before us to act on this ability and to curb the excesses that are harmful.

We will do our best to save our planet and our human race. The outcome we may not know, but I have high hopes that you will see this letter as a quant record of a previous generation’s worries before we got our act together, rather than an attempted apology for the mess you have inherited.


A member of the 2014 human race.

I have written quite a bit about my life at the Community of Jesus. Check out the archived posts for all of that. For now, I am sharing some of my educational journey after I left.

In my Environmental class, we were assigned to research a vacation, and then to write a journal of that vacation as if we had gone on it. This essay is fictional, but the facts contained in it are true, taken from the research that I did.

My Vacation Journal

It’s May 23rd, 2014, and I am finally on the plane from Miami, Florida, to Manaus, Brazil, to visit the rainforest there. My friends think I’m crazy to spend this much money for a three-day trip, but it’s my only chance for a long while to come, and so it’s a splurge I’m willing to do. This is just after the rainy season is over, so the Amazon will still be full, and I can’t wait to boat through the flooded forest. I’ve got my summer clothes with me, but mostly long pants and short sleeves. I don’t know how wild the terrain will be, and don’t want to get all scratched up, and rain gear of course. The rainy season may be over, but they say they get thundershowers all the time. The view out the plane window is pristine, adding to my euphoria. The plane is pretty full, lots of tourists. It’s a five hour flight, so I’d better get my reading out and settle in.

We’re here. It’s a large city, like large cities everywhere. Maybe on another trip I can explore its virtues, but for now, I hail a taxi and get to the speedboat dock, where I anxiously board. It is another thirteen-hour trip from here to Alter do Chao, where the tour starts. I hope they know what they are doing, as the speed makes me gasp. It will be late when I get there, but the tour guide has promised to meet me. The beauty here is overwhelming, especially after being on campus and studying for so long. The smells of the forest, the salt tang of the ocean, the hot sun, all fill my senses. I strike up a conversation with fellow passengers and to pass the time they tell me about the wildlife, tall tales of narrow escapes, folklore and legends.

We pull up to the dock in Alter do Chao with twilight casting a warm glow over this beauty of a town. A slight breeze caresses me, and there are many small boats pulled up on the riverbank. No time to explore this treasure as we have to get settled on the tour boat. I hang my hammock that has been given to me among all the other passengers. I get very little sleep as I anticipate the next day. While the night passes, the boat slowly heads up the Rio Tapajos (a major tributary of the Amazon). Since this is a one-day outing, they are wasting no time. Strange night sounds assail me, birds and grunts and splashes. I wonder what they all are.

Dawn breaks. The raucous calls of myriad birds brings me awake. I am struck by the variety of trees I see. Different colors and leaf shapes and sizes – it is a beautiful patchwork, mostly of dark greens, but other shades of green and brown also. They tower above me, and underneath the shade is deep. The canopy filters out most of the sunlight. I see ferns and vines, moss and a hint of color high above that has to be orchids. The vegetation is rich and thick and there seems to be an endless variety, always something new to catch the eye. The ground is relatively free, as there is not enough sunlight to sustain plant life. Only insects and decaying matter are there.

Fish abound in the water and some are jumping for their morning meal. Some 300 different species of fish live here, among them the Tambaquis, Pirarucus (ancient, air-breathing fish), stingrays, and catfish. A flash of pink and the crew points out a dolphin. We arrive at the Floresta Nacional do Tapaios, one of the Amazon’s national parks. From here, we board canoes, and set off through the flooded forest. The gigantic sumauna trees tower above us, making me realize just how small and insignificant we are. I spot a large snake slithering away on a tree branch. There are hundreds of species of birds, animals, and insects all around us and we can feel the vibrancy and pulse of life even without seeing it. As we glide along, a cayman (small crocodile) submerges and moves away. We see spider and capuchin monkeys cavorting overhead. Although we do not see them, we are told there are jaguars, tapirs, two-toed sloths, and Howler monkeys here.

Around a bend and we come onto a gathering of huts where an indigenous family lives. They are used to tourists visiting them, and welcome us graciously. We disembark, and the interpreter tells us of their activities in rubber tapping, fishing, and the cultivation of Brazil nuts. They also make accessories out of vegetal leather, and I buy a carry bag.

As we move along and head back to the park’s headquarters, we pass an area with piranhas thrashing the surface as they attack a hapless frog. A shocking and yet natural view of the struggle for survival that is intertwined with the beauty.

At the park headquarters we unpack and eat the lunch we have brought along with us, and enjoy the pure white sand beach. We talk about the diversity around us. Over 300 species of birds can be found in the Tapajos national forest. Reptiles, amphibians, and insects are also plentiful and very few studies have been carried out in this field, creating an infinite environment for researchers.

We board the boat and head back downstream as twilight engulfs the forest, and the night birds strike up their calls. It is never completely quiet here. The next day is one of travel, speedboat and plane, and I have plenty of time to reflect on what I have seen. The Amazon basin, of which I have seen only a small part, is so unique on this earth. Just the sheer magnitude of the variety of life is overwhelming. Its location at the equator, the abundance of water, and the activity of the plants to put oxygen into the air is all part of its uniqueness.

The fact that we have investigated only about 1% of the plants and have already come up with many medicines to help with cancer and other ailments is proof of the richness and value of this area. Mankind is so addicted to more and more energy and the uses of it that we are accustomed to, that we are blind to what we are destroying. The greed for wood drives men to destroy a valued resource without even knowing fully what they are doing. The greed for money now is blinding them to more riches later. What we destroy now will not be able to be recovered later. We do not want the Amazon rainforest to go the way of the dinosaurs. I wonder what I can do. At least I can start by looking into organizations that are trying to turn the tide, and find one to give my money and/or energies to. I may be just one drop in the ocean of humanity, but each drop counts, and as I continue my education, perhaps more ideas and opportunities will come my way. I must remain mindful to recognize them when they come. I must do my part to leave a healthy legacy for my children and grandchildren.







I have written quite a bit about my life at the Community of Jesus. Check out the archived posts for all of that. For now, I am sharing some of my educational journey after I left.

This was for a course in Environmental Studies that I took in the Summer of 2014. This is the third essay for that class.


The Interdisciplinary Nature of Environmental Science

Environmental Science is considered an interdisciplinary science because it takes into account all of the different aspects of human activities and choices and how these affect the environment. “Since humans inhabit the natural world as well as the ‘built’ or technological, social, and cultural worlds, all constitute important parts of our environment.” (What is Environmental Science? Kaminski) It is the sum of our life, our physical activities and our attitudes, how our society influences our behaviors and choices, and how the earth and its creatures respond to us, that have created negative influences on our environment. It is important to combine the efforts of all the disciplines because “…we are changing Earth more rapidly than we are understanding it.” (Human Domination of Earth’s Ecosystems, Vitousek et al)

The conservation and management of our resources has become vitally important as we begin to realize that resources are not infinite, and we are coming close to using them up. Conservation stands for development and use of natural resources, and for the prevention of waste. “In all these matters of waste of natural resources, the education of the people to understand that they can stop the leakage comes before the actual stopping and after the means of stopping it have long been ready at our hands.” (Principles of Conservation, Pinchot)

Man’s tendency to blindness and ignorance is sometimes shown in the statements we make that have no connection with facts. When Sam Lee says “They’re (codfish) coming back because they have to,” (Cod, Kurlansky) he is expressing a stand that many people take. We are used to life as it is and do not want to change. We believe what we want to believe regardless of facts. Social science takes a look at this, identifies the problems, and suggests ways that education can be implemented. All of the other articles we have read and the TED talks we have watched are doing the same thing; addressing our ignorance and set ways in an attempt to educate us to the need for changes in societal patterns.

The social sciences also look at society and the patterns that have developed in business and government. After World War II, consumerism was deliberately and systematically introduced into American society in order to boost the economy. This unchecked trend is largely to blame for the state we find ourselves in today of unsustainability. By contrast, in Europe a new mindset is taking hold with sustainability in mind. “It is inclusivity that brings security – belonging, not belongings.” (The European Dream, Rifkin)

The earth sciences continue to gather and interpret data from the various biosystems. Much has been learned – enough to realize the danger we are in – and much still needs to be learned. For instance, no one knows how big a biomass is needed to regenerate the cod fish population. (Cod, pg. 192) In the case of the overfishing of cod, technological advances such as steam power and more efficient net systems were used indiscriminately to increase the catch. People were blind to the finite size of the resource.

Today technology can be used to make resource extraction and use more efficient, and can be used to find alternative sources of energy. However, “(I)t will be far easier to meet the energy needs of the world in coming years if sufficiency replaces profligacy as the ethic of the next energy paradigm. This will require a breakthrough not so much in science or technology as in values and lifestyles.” (Reinventing the Energy System, Flavin and Dunn)

In past generations it was assumed that human harvesting of resources would not deplete the seemingly unending supply. The codfish population was so overwhelmingly vast that it prompted statements like “…you could walk across the Atlantic dry-shod on the backs of cod.” (Cod, pg. 32) In 1885, the Canadian Ministry of Agriculture said, “Unless the order of nature is overthrown, for centuries to come our fisheries will continue to be fertile.” (Cod, pg. 32) Unfortunately, the interdisciplinary studies are showing that the order of nature is, indeed, being overthrown. Just in the previous generation, when I was growing up, it was still assumed that we as a country were rich enough to share our wealth with poorer nations. There was no question about that being the ethical thing to do. To be faced now with the “lifeboat ethics” dilemma is a radical change in a short number of years, and reflects the growing awareness that supply will not always meet demand unless strong measures are taken.

Political science is incorporated into environmental studies because that is the arena in which the activities of men are governed. Any steps to change our behavior will have to be implemented by governmental actions, or at least governmental support. The most rich and powerful who are doing the most damage (Amazon rainforest cutting, Alaskan oil fields, land grabbing) can only be controlled through the government. The history of governmental actions is not a good one, from European countries overfishing their own fishing grounds and moving to our coasts, to current situations where “…politicians didn’t have the courage to put people out of business” in order to save the cod fish. (Cod, pg. 192) Governments also need to be flexible, adapting laws and other measures to reflect experience of what works and what doesn’t. In New England, the catch shares program is an example of where it worked for a while in certain areas, but has not given the overall results hoped for, and new measures need to be planned and implemented for some areas. (What’s the Catch? Schrope)

In working towards sustainability, governments, including the voting citizens, will have to make some decisions that will put limits on people and industries. As we saw with Maria’s House, having an eye to the future will cause some sacrifice, financial suffering, and changed plans for the present. There is no avoiding this process, but as we move forward it is important that the rights of the poor and less represented peoples are not used and ignored. As industries invest in developing nations, it is vital that a fair share of the profits go back to the people on whose land the development has happened. Small farm holders need to be incorporated into the overall plan in order to boost local economy and create sustainability within the country. For instance, in the Amazon rainforest, “(T)he lack of coordination between agencies and resource users is a major barrier to overcoming illegal logging within smallholder systems and to the integration of smallholders into the formal timber market.” (Searching for Sustainability, Lima, et al) It is also important that industry and environmentalist work together to find the answers to sustainability coupled with global development. “…Better global governance is the key to managing both globalization and the global environment.” (Environment and Globalization, Najam, Runnalls and Halle)

Security is of vital concern for every nation, and the rising food crisis is a threat to security. “As the effects of global warming become more pronounced, the world community will have to cope with a wide range of extreme environmental perils…” (Current History, Global Warming Battlefields, Klare) The information that the earth sciences provide to governments “…should, one would hope, convince those still unaware of the magnitude of the danger.” (Current History, Global Warming Battlefields, Klare) In the Cod wars, before the depletion of the cod fish was evident, Britain and Iceland fought over fishing rights. Today the battles will be over any and all food sources.

There is much study and speculation still going on, and interdisciplinary cooperation is needed. For instance, government support of farming fish has to be coupled with environmental studies and earth sciences to address the problem of genetic selection in farmed fish and how this will impact the future gene pool of wild fish. (Cod, pg. 196) Inbred problems of the farmed fish could get passed on to the wild fish and endanger their survival ability. What is economically feasible has to be balanced with the effect it has on the ecosystem. If the codfish are allowed to be completely overfished to extinction, it will affect all the other species in the ocean, creating a new balance of power in the food chain. Another example is how the regulations were put into place in Kampung Komodo, Indonesia, regarding the Komodo Dragons, and how this upset the balance between the dragons and the human population. Well-meaning but uninformed officials created a problem because they did not factor in the human element of the existing ecosystem.

Education may be the greatest tool in the arsenal of environmentalists. As I have learned and become aware of global issues through this course, I believe the majority of citizens still need to be made aware of these issues. In my personal circle, I hear no talk about the path we are on, and the need to make a difference. I can only assume that it is because others are not aware of the issues, as I have not been. With the history of the codfish as a cautionary tale, we can learn much from those lessons if we will be willing to look forward and take the necessary steps today to ensure that we do not use up the planet’s resources for tomorrow’s generations. The groundswell has begun. It is vital to keep getting the word out to everyone so that the groundswell creates a true and lasting change.

Codfish 2

I have written quite a bit about my life at the Community of Jesus. Check out the archived posts for all of that. For now, I am sharing some of my educational journey after I left.

In the Summer of 2014, I took Environmental Studies This is the second installment of my three-part Cod essays. I hope you enjoy this look into history.

Technological Impacts on the Cod Fishing Industry

In the European waters, which had been fished much longer than in North America, it was getting harder to catch the quantities of fish that were in demand. Competition spurred innovation, and two technological advances in particular had a great impact on the Cod fishing industry worldwide.

Bottom trawling had been used for centuries to catch shrimp, using a beam to hold the nets open. They were either dragged in from shore, or dragged by sail powered boats called smacks. In Hull and Grimsby, England, steam power was first paired with bottom trawling. It started with steam-powered paddleboats dragging the smacks to and from the North Sea banks. Soon the beam trawl was attached to the paddleboat and the smacks were no longer needed. In 1881 the first steam-powered trawler was built and called the Zodiac. By 1890 there were no more wind driven boats in Hull, only the steam-powered ones, and they had become a common sight in the North Sea. There were other innovations that improved this new method. In addition to the bottom dragger, an otter trawl was developed in Scotland. The bottom trawl required a flat ocean bed, and the otter trawl had rollers under it in order to cross rocky and uneven ground. All modern bottom draggers are modeled off of the otter trawl. (Cod, pg. 130-131)

This first big change, the transition to steam-powered trawlers, allowed the fish to be pursued instead of waiting for the fish to show up. Fishermen had always watched the signs that indicate where the fish are, and now they followed these signs to chase the fish. Gulls circling and small fish thrashing were two of the indicators that the cod were beneath. The quantities of the catches soared, sometimes as much as six times what the sail ships were catching. The boats were built bigger and even more fish were caught. When the cod grounds in the North Sea started getting depleted, the ships were able to go further away to Iceland. Larger catches and further range were all enabled by using steam power.

The great jump in the quantity of the fish that were caught caused two problems. One was the escalation of the depletion of the fishing ground. As the years went by and bigger and bigger boats were built, culminating in the factory boats, the overfishing of the grounds would soon prove to be unavoidable. Instead of an endless supply that could not be depleted because of limited capacity to catch them, we had now exceeded their ability to stay ahead of our hunting. Also, the great quantities of fish caught caused the market to fluctuate. Once in a while the whole market would crash, creating havoc in the marketplace. Governments had to start regulating how many boats, and how large the catches could be. Fish would rot due to the supply exceeding the demand. There were several attempts to keep fish alive and fresh, but nothing worked successfully. Traditionally all the fish had been either salt dried, or dried without salting, or served fresh near the source. Only the rich could afford to “farm” fish by keeping them alive in closed-in tidal pools. For a while “wet wells”, watertight ship holds, were used to keep the fish alive until they reached port, but this method had many problems and the fish did not survive well. (Cod, pg. 133)

Into this need came the next huge change in the industry; the freezing of the fish. One man, Clarence Birdseye, changed the way we preserve fish, and a multitude of other foods, forever. While living in Labrador, he experimented with freezing vegetables in water for the cold hard winters and was successful. He carried out his experiments for several years. After working for a while for the U.S. Fisheries Association, he started his own company, General Seafoods Company, where he froze fish, other seafood, then meat, fruits, and vegetables. (Cod, pg. 135) In 1946 he improved his method and introduced quick-drying freezing.

It’s hard to overstate the change that this freezing process made on the market and the eating habits of the American people. Fish had become more popular and more in demand, and this new technology met that demand. It has expanded to all foods, and now is an accepted part of daily life. We can hardly imagine eating without using frozen foods.

The filleting of frozen fish into fish sticks was another big change, but it would not have been possible without the freezing process, so I consider it a follow-up innovation to the invention of the freezing method. Little did Clarence Birdseye realize how profound and lasting a change he would make on the world’s eating habits. He saved the fishing industry at a time when the supply was outweighing the demand, and provided a way to get a protein rich food to the world’s markets.


Codfish 1

I have written quite a bit about my life at the Community of Jesus. Check out the archived posts for all of that. For now, I am sharing some of my educational journey after I left.

In the Summer of 2014, I took Environmental Studies and Introduction to Philosophy. The next three posts are essays I wrote after I had read the book Cod by Mike Kurlansky. If you like history at all, I recommend the book. I found it fascinating and had no idea of the importance of the codfish.


The Role of Codfish in the Discovery of America

The Vikings, in particular Leif Eriksson, pushed ever westward from Norway. They were explorers, but they also kept getting thrown out of lands they arrived in for murdering the locals. They went as far as Newfoundland, Canada, and it was the fact that they had dried cod to eat that enabled them to make these long journeys. Their route was the same as the range of the Arlantic cod, and this was the food supply they needed to keep going. They dried the fish by hanging it in the cold air, and also traded the extra in northern Europe.

The Basques were also among the first to provide cod as a staple in peoples’ diet. When whale meat was being eaten in large quantities during the Middle Ages, they hunted the whale. Helping their success in this was the fact that they had found schools of codfish, and had salted them and used them as the food supply for their long voyages. Salting the fish before drying it made it keep longer, and enabled them to take longer trips. They had sailed far enough west to discover our shores and the abundance of codfish here, and they kept this secret for more than 500 years. No one knew where they were catching the fish, as they were not seen in the known cod fields off of Iceland and Greenland. The Basques were at the top of the market as long as they kept their American fishing grounds a secret.

Cod lasted longer than whale or herring, and also tasted better. As a high protein food source, it was an excellent food for the poor. This increased its marketability, but the real boost to the Basques’ cod trade was the Catholic Church’s institution of fasting from meat every Friday. The demand for fish rose. By the 15th century, cod was a food staple over much of Europe. Because no one knew where the Basques were getting their quantity of fish, and could not seem to follow them to their grounds, speculation began building about a source across the sea.

In 1480, after the Hanseatic League had grown too powerful and were restricting trade, two Englishmen from Bristol sailed west, seeking a new supply. Thomas Croft and John Jay did not keep records of their journeys, but they did come back with dried cod, which meant they had found another shore. Cod cannot be dried on a ship’s deck and requires a rocky shore to be dried. They were accused of buying their fish illegally, but were let go when they insisted they had found the cod way out in the Atlantic. A recently found letter “from Bristol merchants, alleged that he (Christopher Columbus) knew perfectly well that they had been to America already.” (Cod, pg. 28)

In 1497, Giovanni Caboto sailed from Bristol looking for a route to Asia. (pg. 28) Instead, he also found the Eastern coast of America, teeming with codfish, and he reported the find back to England. He is known in England as John Cabot where he was hailed as a hero. Besides finding cod off the American shore, he discovered 1,000 Basque fishing vessels there as well. (pg. 29) The Basque secret was officially out, and now others knew of the new fishing grounds.

By the 1500’s, the Portuguese and the French had also sent their ships to the new cod grounds and had a presence on the Grand Banks, off of the Massachusetts coastline. Because the fish had to be dried before being shipped back to England and Europe, the fishermen set up drying camps on shore, which had to be re-claimed anew every season. The next logical step was to leave a man or two behind over the winter to maintain their claim on the drying beaches. To this day the French own two little islands off of the Canadian coast, the last vestiges of their presence in the fishing heyday.

The cod fishing industry became a political and power element. Fishing became controlled as a political weapon. At first English fishermen could not sell to foreign powers, but after 1598 they were, and this opened up the trade even more. However, it was the Pilgrims’ migration that really made a difference in the settlement of the new land. Captain John Smith had made some successful fishing runs and was advertising for backers. The Pilgrims heard about this and made the decision to book passage with him. They requested a land grant, which required that the participants had an occupation to sustain them, and to be the reason for acquiring the land. They stated that their occupation would be the cod fishing that everyone was now aware of. As we know, they did not do well at that, and almost starved, but it was the beginning of the settlements that soon dotted the coast. Eventually they did begin fishing and sending the catch back East. As more people arrived and began fishing, the industry took off. “In 1640, barely a generation after dreaming the Smith’s 47,000 fish were a fantastic 60,000 fish, the Massachusetts Bay Colony brought 300,000 cod to the world market.” (pg. 70)

Everybody was chasing the cod. The abundance of the catch was boosting trade in Europe, and drawing people to settle in the new world. Because Massachusetts had a summer and winter fishing season, unlike the land further north, they soon became the hub for settlers and trade. Agriculture and other support trades flourished. Newfoundland and Nova Scotia sent their catches to Boston. Commerce flourished, businessmen were attracted to these new shores, and Boston’s wealth and independence grew. A country had been born.