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A journalist’s investigation of the high-stakes trade in extremely rare tropical fish causes broader meditations on the ways humans have commodified the natural world.

Image: Vincent Hu, Flickr (CC BY-NC-2.0)

Image: Vincent Hu, Flickr (CC BY-NC-2.0)

It begins with a murder. One morning in May 2004 in Taiping, Malaysia, Chan Ah Chai finds the body of his son Chan Kok Kuan on the floor of his fish shop, stabbed ten times. The motive for his execution lay in the store’s empty tanks where twenty Asian arowana, otherwise known as the Dragon Fish, had previously swum. By the time you can ask who would brutally murder someone for a few aquarium fish, you’re already hooked.

Prompted by a Craigslist advertisement of an alligator for sale, journalist Emily Voigt joins a raid with the State Department of Environmental Conservation investigating ‘exotic’ pets being kept in New York City. While the alligator is never found, Voigt comes to learn of the arowana, the Asian variety of which cannot be legally imported into the United States. Hearing stories of fortunes and obsession surrounding the fish, Voigt gradually becomes more and more obsessed with uncovering the true story of the arowana: those who trade in it, those who seek to transform it, and those desperate to attach their names to it.

The Dragon Behind the Glass (Simon & Schuster, 2016) is a triumph of investigative journalism and popular science writing, with Voigt a subtle but central presence in its narrative arc as she embarks on a desperate search for a glimpse of the arowana in the wild. Voigt introduces us to a remarkable cast of characters whose lives are defined by the fish. One of the more outrageous is the mercurial Kenny the Fish, a major fish trader in Singapore, with a penchant for posing half-nude while clutching bags of koi. He is joined by Heiko Bleher, whose constant catalogue of expeditions makes the term ‘intrepid’ appear too mild an adjective. Drawing on the expertise of such figures Voigt explores how the arowana are bred, sold, and traded, as well as stolen and smuggled. But it is Voigt’s own quest to find one particular species of the arowana – the legendary ‘Super Red’ – that propels this tale.

Voigt’s journey has such power because it is also a meditation on decline. The arowana comes to represent for Voigt and her readers (or this one at least) the complexities and contradictions of human interaction with the ‘natural’ world, set against the subliminal catastrophes of mass extinction. In a way reminiscent of many other horrors the processes of extinction have accelerated to such an extreme extent, driven by mechanisms seemingly so powerful and out of our control, that they have almost faded into the background – a jeremiad of species that used to walk or crawl or slither before we selfish humans had our way. It is just too much to comprehend, and so instead Voigt frames her investigation around a single possible extinction.

The arowana comes to represent…the complexities and contradictions of human interaction with the ‘natural’ world, set against the subliminal catastrophes of mass extinction.

Here, both the strengths and weaknesses of her investigative journalism come to the fore. Voigt tells us how the arowana is threatened and  transformed for trade, without ever satisfactorily pulling apart why. What drives the urge to own an arowana, and what might this tell us about our destructive relationship with the natural world, and what can be done about it?

The arowana, Voigt explains, is an example of the ‘modern paradox’ of the ‘mass-produced endangered species’. That is, a species that increases in value due to its precarious existence in the wild. This derives in part from its placement on the first appendix of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, in 1964. Appendix I bans listed species from international trade, but the arowana was not being traded internationally at the time.

Trade in the fish didn’t take off until the 1980s, with booms in Taiwan and Japan spurring fish farms to switch too or start up with the arowana across South-East Asia. CITES then shifted the Asian arowana to Appendix II, legalising the trade in an attempt to curb the illegal market with a legal one in sanctioned farmed fish. This measure failed, and poaching continued alongside the growing destruction of habitat that accompanied the region’s economic development in that period. The steady spread of palm-oil plantations is a constant background in the book, like an oil spill spreading just out of sight.

So, now that the trade has taken off, and the fish is a product that is exchanged like other commodities, has the damage been done? Voigt deftly engages the range of opinions of experts on the value of environmental treaties and agreements, and the very nature of animals cultivated outside of their natural environments. One expert, working for an arowana farm, argues the market for the fish provides a financial incentive to keep them in existence. Another export, working for TRAFFIC International, drawls that ‘A captive fish is the same as a dead fish from a conservation point of view,’ arguing that selective breeding would make it impossible to return the fish to its habitat – an act that would be, to borrow Voigt’s wonderful turn of phrase, ‘like plunking a dachshund in the tundra.’ But humans have domesticated and changed animals before, engineering the creation of new breeds and subspecies. The issue is determining if this is a continuum – part of a single unbroken chain of human interference – or a rupture, a new and unprecedented break in humanity’s relationship to the ‘natural’ world.

‘A captive fish is the same as a dead fish from a conservation point of view.’

The distinction is important – and it is one that Voigt does not seem to have a firm position on. If it is the former, then the arowana’s plight can only really be met with a degree of fatalism. This is the problem that some of the more extreme environmentalists face – if human interaction with nature is deemed as innately negative as we plunder and change the ‘wild’ or ‘natural world’ (often  uncritically assigned positive virtues), then nothing less than a total reprogramming of fundamental human nature will arrest the decline. If this is the case, it might be best simply to wait for Elon Musk to complete his space program so we can start again on a different planet.

The arowana trade of the 1980s boomed alongside the shift in economic and political organisation to neoliberalism, a belief that restrictions on the operation of the market should be scaled back as much as possible. The market would provide, and decide. The imperative for profitability came to dominate policy-making around the globe. It also dominates environmental consciousness. Use the market, it suggests. Use your ‘ethical’ choice to save the world.

But the market, by its nature, commodifies. It seeks out potential products and transforms them, makes them desirable, sellable. It changes their very nature. It breeds out unattractive features. It dries up the rivers. It replaces rainforest with oil palm plantations. It makes some people, in some places, very wealthy. It changes the way we conceive of ourselves in relation to nature.

Under twenty-first century capitalism, we have increasingly scaled back restraints on the operation of the market, and entrusted it to deliver all forms of social good we previously expected the government to provide. To an unprecedented degree, the environment itself has become commodified. The so-called natural world, when it’s not standing in the way of ‘progress’, has become a mythical place to be bought and sold. The experience of nature can be purchased in expensive holiday packages, or replicated in miniature in zoos and safari parks. You can even attempt to capture a little part of it in a tank in your living room.

Here, the trade in exotic pets begins to make more sense. As Voigt explains, for many, buying an arowana costing hundreds of thousands of dollars is less a way of connecting with the natural world than it is a ‘means of conquest.’ It can be seen as a form of control, a screen upon which desires and fantasies can be projected, as well as a crude display of wealth. Voigt recounts one collector whose expensive and rare arowana live alongside a pile of luxury goods, none worth much of the owner’s time. The key is in the accumulation of the things, and what this represents, not the things themselves. Voigt recalls her own disdain when she mishears a particular albino arowana as being worth only $50,000.

The natural world has been ‘thingified’, made to function as a projection of our own alienated wants.

In effect, the market has operated to commoditise the natural world. It has been ‘thingified’, made to function as a projection of our own alienated wants. This process has reshaped the animals themselves – a scientist at one arowana farm told Voigt of their project to isolate genes responsible for certain characteristics with the aim of creating ‘a tailor-made arowana’. The most marketable traits are the rarest. Even within the luxury fish market, a super-luxury purchaser has emerged. One young tycoon who purchased an albino arowana explains that he likes things that ‘are rare and precious’, things ‘that no one else can own.’ It is not the fish, or the rarity, but the status derived from ownership, that is important. The arowana has become a product under construction, an object for exchange. The market has created a new type of fish. Not only does this lead to extinction in the wild as farming the fish makes preserving its natural habitat less economically attractive, it also fundamentally alters the nature of the creature itself.

Humans have always interacted with and changed nature, but never on the current scale. There remains no part of the world that we have not touched and shaped, except perhaps the deepest depths of the sea. Climate change means that even places we have agreed not to plunder for their resources are undergoing transformation. Just witness the cracking ice shelves of the Antarctic. As Voigt makes clear, what we risk losing, we will not get back.

Is there nothing that can be done? It seems inevitable that the arowana will join the long list of creatures that we have driven out of existence. Voigt concludes with a passionate argument for preserving habitats to preserve endangered species. And she is right – we should. But to understand why we are not we have to comprehend both the forces that shape our relationships to nature, and also our relationships amongst ourselves.

This is the problem with environmentalism that seeks to better facilitate the market – such as shuffling the arowana’s CITES classification. It does not address the central problem that the way we see the natural world has changed because neoliberalism has changed the way we conceive of our relationship to society and the market. Instead of being the facilitator of goods, we have allowed the market to become the determinant of needs. Voigt immerses us in this world of the arowana. We see the market in the fish at work, and how the drive for ‘discovery’ can destroy that which it ostensibly seeks to preserve. But it is the deeper causes for all this that goes unexplored. The market that exists for the arowana, the urge to own and display, these derive from the broader transition in the relationship between the economy, society, and individuals. Neoliberalism has taken the commodification inherent in capitalism – a system self-consciously based on the exchange of products – and turbocharged it. It is this that needs to be addressed. To save the environment requires a reimagining of ourselves as a species, and finding a way to elevate the fundamentals of our existence – such as the planet we walk on – beyond a simple exchange value.

Otherwise the spiral will continue, and we will have gone too far to turn back. We will merely be consumers on a planet made of things. And that really would be murder.

The Dragon Behind The Glass is available now at Readings.