Bren Smith, founder of GreenWave and Ashoka Fellow, just released Eat Like A Fish: My Adventures as a Fisherman turned Restorative Ocean Farmer, his first book and one that chronicles his journey from fisherman to social entrepreneur. He manages to strike a perfect balance between personal storytelling and blueprint for a new way to harvest our seas that can create meaningful jobs while simultaneously combatting climate change.
Bren is our protagonist but in many respects the book’s main character is kelp: the magical sea greens that grow like weeds, suck carbon and nitrogen out of our waters, and (as you learn) have a wide variety of uses, from our dinner plates to fertilizers, animal feeds, beauty products and more.
In the era of climate change, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the size and complexity of the problem, or by a sense of loss and hopelessness. And make no mistake: Bren has lived the loss, and witnessed firsthand how declining fish stocks can wreck livelihoods and shutter coastal communities. But this book is fundamentally uplifting: acknowledging the bigness and urgency of this moment but also unveiling an elegant path forward that cuts rights through the false choice of jobs vs. the environment. “We can do this!” you end up thinking by the end.
You also get the sense that we are just at the birth of something with vast potential, not just to change how we grow food and what we eat, but to reinvent the very DNA of our economy. And that the choices we make right now will either send us on our own journey to ecological redemption, or … well, someplace we don’t want to be.
Bren and I spoke about this and about his book earlier this week.
Michael Zakaras (Ashoka): Did you ever imagine growing up on the cliffs of Newfoundland or crab fishing off the coast of Alaska that someday you’d write a memoir and be going on a book tour?
Bren: Absolutely not. The only goal of my life has been to claw my way back onto the water continually. Life is odd. I never thought I’d be here. It’s a great honor but it was never part of the plan.
Ashoka: One of the major themes of the book is redemption – your own, but also ours collectively. Was this obvious to you before you even wrote the first words?
Bren: Yes, it was. I often tell my story as one of ecological redemption from pillager of the seas to climate farmer, but we’re all having to come to terms with the same reality now. And it’s not about assigning blame – for example to the coal workers or fishermen that supported the extractive economy we’ve all depended on – or about feeling ashamed even. For me, and for all of us, it should be about stepping into an exciting opportunity to remake ourselves. This is an opportunity to create millions of jobs – ones that we can write and sing songs about – and revamp our economy in fundamental ways.
Ashoka: This sense of optimism and possibilities is also palpable throughout the book. Are you hopeful about the future?
Bren: My Irish roots always give me some helpful skepticism, but this is a story of hope. And we’ve seen it before: it’s often when human beings have theirs backs against the wall when our most creative moments emerge. We have a chance to build a food system and an economy from scratch, to learn our lessons from the last 60-70 years and not make the same mistakes. But we still have a huge blind spot when it comes to our oceans – the Green New Deal for example doesn’t even mention the ocean. Part of why I’m hopeful is because it’s not just about me: there are millions of us out there with blue collar innovations who are accepting the challenges of climate change and inequality and building a web of solutions across the globe.
Ashoka: You often say that with $20,000 and a boat you can become a climate farmer. Is part of what makes your work so magnetic that ordinary people can see themselves in the solution?
Bren: We haven’t yet tapped into the everyday brilliance of people to solve our biggest challenges. This disempowerment in our economy is one of the underreported dynamics. Too often we think it’s only the billionaires with plans to go to the moon who can lead us forward, but the reality is that people can participate in solving the biggest challenge of our time while making a living – ocean farming is just one avenue for doing so. And things get really exciting when you look at bundles of solutions – hundreds and thousands that are part of a movement of mass experimentation. That’s what we should be funding and celebrating.
Ashoka: Does the success of ocean farming depend on the masses falling in love with kelp for dinner?
Bren: No, it doesn’t, but that’s not as crazy as it sounds! There are literally thousands of sea greens in the ocean we still don’t know about, and we’re living in an age of food curiosity and experimentation like we’ve never seen. We have an army of chefs across the U.S. who are hellbent on creating a new climate cuisine that’s sustainable, delicious, and affordable – that’s key. But don’t forget the other dynamics going on: as water prices go up, fertilizer goes up, climate is more extreme, our zero-input food will be the most affordable on the planet. That will push sea greens and shellfish to the center of the plate.
And in addition, just as the soy industry did 50+ years ago, we can find almost endless uses for kelp, from animal feed to pharmaceuticals, that will help industries of all kind migrate to sustainable inputs. People often ask what our business model is and I say: we soak up all the nitrogen, carbon and other nutrients that land-based industries dump into our waterways and then sell it back to them!
Ashoka: Is there enough good capital out there to grow this new economy in the way you want?
Bren: That’s a key question. I ran into the typical sharks – some were bitcoin people, we even had Saudi arms dealers trying to get their hands on leases. They all want to do background checks on us but as I wrote in my book, we should be doing background checks on the investors! Most wanted to privatize and vertically integrate and basically they saw dollar signs only. But I was more surprised by the impact investors. Many are still in climate denial – they think they can keep the same 6-year 15-30% return model, and that’s just not possible if you want to do it right. The good news is that are some fascinating finance models out there, like loans that are repaid only after farms become profitable, or corporate perpetual trust models where the vision is baked into the DNA and the company can never be sold.
When you hear a Wall Street titan like Jeremy Grantham say that the American economy is not built to address climate change, that’s a stunning statement. So let’s build the economy that can do it!
Ashoka: Just last week I heard another Ashoka Fellow talk about the importance of “scaling with integrity.” What does that mean to you?
Bren: That’s so important, and it’s what I’m thinking about most at the moment. How do we lay the right foundation so we grow in the right way? That includes, for examples, sea trusts so that we’re not privatizing ocean property but rather it’s owned by an intermediary that is rooted in values. Or as tech companies express interest in collecting underwater data in our farms, how do we guarantee that farmers are paid for that data? The whomatters in all of this: who will benefit from this new economy? Success is not getting the same big companies to move from fish to seaweed. Success is making sure the people who have been most left behind – including people of color – are at the front of the line.
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