Posted by: Geoffrey Meadows | June 9, 2007

An Early Resource Depletion

As you can probably tell from my earlier posts, I am reading the Old Testament and the early church fathers. The going is slow, but I run into stuff.

In Clement of Alexandria’s The Paedagogus or The Instructor, Clement talks about food to new disciples of Christianity. He tells them to eat simply. And he lambasts luxurious foods with the following:

For my part, I am sorry for this disease, while they are not ashamed to sing the praises of their delicacies, giving themselves great trouble to get lampreys in the Straits of Sicily, the eels of the Maeander, and the kids found in Melos, and the mullets in Sciathus, and the mussels of Pelorus, the oysters of Abydos, not omitting the sprats found in Lipara, and the Mantinican turnip; and furthermore, the beetroot that grows among the Ascraeans: they seek out the cockles of Methymna, the turbots of Attica, and the thrushes of Daphnis, and the reddish-brown dried figs, on account of which the ill-starred Persian marched into Greece with five hundred thousand men. Besides these, they purchase birds from Phasis, the Egyptian snipes, and the Median peafowl. Altering these by means of condiments, the gluttons gape for the sauces. “Whatever earth and the depths of the sea, and the unmeasured space of the air produce,” they cater for their gluttony. In their greed and solicitude, the glutons seem absolutely to sweep the world with a drag-net to gratify their luxurious tastes. (1)

Quite literally, that’s what the current practice is, too – i.e., bottom trawling.

I like this passage (though), because of its mention of all these different food-related resources. I would very much like to follow up on each one and find out if these resources still exist and to what extent. For instance, I tried following up on “the mussels of Pelorus.” It turns out Pelorus was a place legendary for its edible bivalves – so much so that centuries later, a place in New Zealand, a fiord, was named Pelorus also because of its abundant mussels. I don’t want this post to be too long, but I found that, and I also found a cape in the Straits of Messina, between the toe of Italy and the island of Sicily called Pelorus (or Peloro), which must have been the place Clement’s mussels had come from. Nearby, there are two lakes which are salt lakes and apparently connected on occassion with the Mediterranean Sea which are still harvested for mussels. The lakes are called Lake Faro and Lake Ganzirri in Sicily. They can be found in the online travel guides but without detailed information on the mussels. Anyhow, what a miracle that the mussels might still be found there – after all this time and human appropriation. It can be done.

Which brings us to another case. In the Bible, when King Solomon is building the temple in Jerusalem in which the people will worship, and the ark of the covenant will reside, and the animal offerings will be offered, he writes King Hiram of Tyre (modern Lebanon) to send him cedar wood and cypress wood. (Lebanon was known for its great trees, almost like the sequoias of California, today.) These materials are then used in the making of the temple. Another species of wood, the almug, is used for the pillars of the temple. The passage reads as follows:

Also the ships of Hiram, which brought gold from Ophir, brought in from Ophir a very great number of almug trees and precious stones. The king made of the almug trees supports for the house of the Lord and for the king’s house, also lyres and harps for the singers; such almug trees have not come in again nor have they been seen to this day. (2)

This may mean that the almug trees were harvested to extinction, but more likely, that comparable quantities were not to be found again. Recorded in the Bible – this may be one of the first resource depletions ever recorded in writing.

Sadly, no one is sure which tree species is actually the almug tree, today. According to one author, it may have been red sandalwood, or Pterocarpus santalinus. “Its wood is hard and very heavy, of a red or garnet color, takes on a fine polish, and would be very well suited to the purposes for which Solomon required it. It is still used today for the manufacture of lyres and other musical instruments.” (3)

So, what do these old sources tell us? They tell us that resource depletion is real. We have to admit to ourselves that it is possible to harvest to extinction. But these sources also hold out the promise that we can harvest a resource for very long periods of time without totally depleting it. I’d really like to know more about the mussels harvested from Lake Faro and Lake Ganzirri in Sicily, and all the other things mentioned in Clement’s passage.

What they also tell us is that we have to be activists and fight for our forests and our oceans, etc. A good bill in Congress right now is the Oceans 21, or H.R. 21. It’s a comprehensive law that will give essential powers to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to study, protect, and administer our oceans, and to preserve them for the future. It takes into account the recommendations of the Pew Oceans Commission and the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy. It will also commence the use of ecosystem-based management of the oceans, which, in short, means government will be able to look at the big picture, not just a little corner of an area in their local jurisdiction. I really encourage anyone to write their Congressmen about this bill.

Lastly, what these old passages tell us is that we have to be a little more modest in our consumption. Solomon wasn’t modest about building God’s temple. Maybe that’s as it should have been. I don’t know.  But a costly resource was depleted. That should at least get our attention. How many resources are we depleting throughout our whole lives as we live in this consumer culture? We don’t even know. And that’s why we need to inform ourselves and do the right thing when we have the opportunity. We can harvest so that one hundred or one thousand years down the line, someone else can harvest, too. Or we can just harvest until resources are gone. That’s our choice. God help us.


(1) “Paedagogus” or “The Instructor” by Clement of Alexandria, taken from the early church fathers set, from Hendrickson, 35 vols. – vol. 2, p. 237.
(2) I Kings, chapter 10, verses 11 & 12. Quoted from the New American Standard Bible, or NASB.
(3) Plants of the Bible, by Harold N. Moldenke and Alma L. Moldenke. — New York: Dover Publications, Inc., c1952. (pp. 188-89)

See these links:
Marine Stewardship Council

Forest Stewardship Council

NOTE: (2/5/11) – Found a reference today that oysterbeds worldwide on the decline due to overfishing.  Not what I wanted to hear.  — .


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