I SEE HIM CLOAKED in cold mist, the Fisher King, a desolate figure in a wasteland of his own making. He hunches silently over his fishing rod in a sea of silence, catching nothing except the reflection of his own shroud in the dead water.
The Fisher King, keeper of the Holy Grail, is an enigmatic figure in literature: a rich king wounded by his own spear. The earliest sources show him suffering a moral wounding—a result not of accident but of his own ethical failings. The wound does not heal. Worse, its effects creep out, killing everything around him so the abundance and richness of life is reduced to barren waste.
There is a moment in the story when the wound—of both the king and his environment—could be healed, not by medicine or technology but by insight. When the young knight Perceval arrives, he has the opportunity (which he misses) to pose the right question to the king. The healing question, the timely question, is this: whom does the Grail serve? The Grail is the cup of the Last Supper, a precious, magical food provider, and Perceval’s question is as mysterious as the wounded king’s moral failure.
The Fisher King is emblematic of contemporary culture. For millennia the oceans have thrived with stupendous life, from fish in kinetic rainbows racing currents to coral cascading color. Yet human activity over the last thirty years has poisoned the oceans and exhausted the seas, turning this blue world into a dead sump of denied life.
Humanity has manufactured “a marine wasteland,” writes Professor of Marine Conservation Callum Roberts in his vitally important book Ocean of Life. The factors are multiple: dredgers carve graveyards in seabeds; plastic waste and chemical pollution kill marine creatures; fertilizers fuel plankton blooms resulting in oxygenless dead zones; the rising temperatures of climate change threaten much sea life—coral bleaching to skeletons—while the associated rise in acidity causes the shells of many creatures to corrode.
The sixth mass extinction, some call it. The first to be knowingly caused. Two-thirds of the species we have fished since the 1950s have collapsed. Some species are down 99 percent. The oceans, says Roberts, have changed more in the last thirty years than in all of human history before. The sea is suffering a sea change into something bleak and strange.
Most people will never see this underwater world and know it only when its meaning has been processed into money, its beauty merely a discarded bycatch. The mass of ocean writing is a heap of broken plastic words: stock, fisheries, industry, offshore, tonnage, commercial fleets, sea cages, fish farms, subsidies. Through that language it is hard to see the ocean’s true nature, whose vitality needs to be rendered as beautiful as iridescence itself, as surprising as an octopus’s garden, as mysterious as whale song, as appealing as a clownfish.
Like a collective Fisher King, modernity is wounded by its own aesthetic failure to see beauty if it can grasp profit, its ethical failure to register the value of life itself if it can register economic advantage. Technology has turned us into kings, but intelligent ethics has not kept pace, and humanity itself will suffer from this self-wounding.
Although such a devastating stupidity has been unleashed on them, the oceans themselves are associated with deep wisdom. Whales and dolphins are known to possess enormous intelligence, and the oceans have long symbolized depths of thought and immersive insight. At the dawn of Western civilization, in the Sumerian period, wisdom was said to come when messengers of the gods in the shape of fish would spend their nights in the “sweet water” below the ocean and in daytime pass on their knowledge—of the moral code and the arts—to humans. After the Great Flood the mythical fish did not return, so human scholars took on their role, dressing in fish cloaks with fins and tails.
Today, the moral code is ignored as industrial fishing fleets, owned by a wealthy minority, wipe out the fish stocks on which many subsistence fishermen rely, so that the many are impoverished for the wealth of the few. In the UK, the enclosure of common land in the sixteenth century followed exactly this pattern. But those enclosures also brought in a fundamental shift in the way environmental decisions were made. Before enclosure, discussions on land use included the interests of everyone involved. Afterward, decisions were made in isolation by individual owners. As historian E. P. Thompson put it, before enclosure there was a moral economy, based on reciprocal obligation, customary rights, and mutuality. The enclosures instituted a mere market economy in which absolute rights or property ownership prevailed.
Today, the market economy is king, and the moral economy is wounded. There is no better example than the treatment of bluefin tuna. Described by the poet Oppian in the second century as “abundant wondrous . . . rich and secret,” they were valued and worshipped, depicted on ancient Spanish coins as the pillars of a temple. Rossellini’s 1950 film Stromboli, with Ingrid Bergman, records an actual celebration of the Mattanza, an ancient Sicilian communal and spiritual ritual of fishing for bluefin tuna. But industrial fishing has meant that since 1970, their numbers have declined by two-thirds. Over the last century, it is likely that 95 percent of them have been killed, driven to the verge of extinction. So at the last world conference of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) there was a call to list the bluefin.
But bluefin tuna are a delicacy, particularly in Japan, and Japanese companies including Mitsubishi have been stockpiling them in giant freezers, shoring up their profits from the ruin of extinction. If the fish is driven to collapse, this cache will be worth a king’s ransom.
There is something unhallowed in the extinctions we cause knowingly, a devastation of the soul when the holy grail of profit is pursued at the cost of life itself.
The deadened oceans are an analogy for a wasteland of human imagination. Both mind and ocean should be generous in generation, with teeming, shoaling, spawning, frothing, helical life spiraling up from the depths, bubbling at the top and spinning back down again, that liveliness of life, the vitality of ocean and intellect on which humanity ultimately depends. This life has been shrouded, polluted, and injured, and the public mind barely notices. By contrast, the rise of profits, considered the “health” of the economy, is treated as if money were somehow more alive than life. Money, said Benjamin Franklin, “is of a prolific, generating nature. Money begets money, and its offspring can beget more . . . so that the profits rise quicker and quicker.”
The bluefin, said Oppian, “lust after the frenzy of mating in the spring.” Today, their creation of new life is what kills them: the plumes of surging sexual energy in their spawning grounds are tracked by spotter planes that then send in the fishing fleets.
Callum Roberts says bluntly that fishing needs to be curtailed to half its current level and abundant, interconnected, well-policed marine reserves established. Throughout his book, he poses the necessary questions, including: what will be the effect of acidification on phytoplankton, which produce roughly half of the oxygen we breathe? “Life itself depends on them,” writes Roberts.
What happened to the CITES listing for bluefin tuna? Japan lobbied against it. And the night before the vote, which Japan won, the Japanese embassy served delegates a grail supper, a last supper, a banquet—of bluefin tuna. There is a terrible, toxic poetry to this. When profit is the holy grail, ours has become the age of the Fisher King, waiting, self-wounded and devastating the waters, waiting, waiting for the question that modernity has so far failed to ask itself: whom does this grail serve?