Fish, Pies, the Commons and Economic Development

Ed Whitfield explores how we think and talk about sharing at the Fund 4 Democratic Communities blog I’m going to talk a little about fish. Not real fish....

Ed Whitfield explores how we think and talk about sharing at the Fund 4 Democratic Communities blog

I’m going to talk a little about fish. Not real fish. I’m not a fisherman, although I have cleaned my share from an uncle who loved to fish and eat them, but didn’t want to scale them and remove the guts. But I’m going to talk about metaphorical fish, the kinds that keep showing up in discussions of self reliance and education.  But first a brief digression: I want to mention pies. Another important metaphor.

Why do we talk so much about pies? Slice of the pie, bigger pie, make our own pies, pie chart, etc. Why do we talk about pies and not talk about fish when it comes to sharing?


Pies are not natural. They are simple, easy to divide, relatively uniform whether in a circle or a box, and they make good charts and graphs. Some of the discussion about the economy and economic justice is about pies and dividing things equally. Some folks propose that the current social division of goods and services or even income and wealth, should be redone so everyone gets the same or a fair amount. This redistribution discussion quickly brings up the challenge of some people who don’t want to give up something so that other people can get something that often the folks who have to give up something think they don’t deserve. It is called a zero-sum-game where getting something means someone else losing the same amount. Those who do fairly well with the status quo are afraid of those who are disadvantaged taking something away from them. Pies get us in trouble.


Economic participation is more like fish than pies. It is complex and hard to divide fairly—who gets the head, who gets the fins, who gets the filets and who consistently gets only the fish guts?


We are much better off talking about folks catching their own fish for themselves rather than trying to divide something so complex. But, that brings me to the “great fish lie”. You have all heard it: “Give a person a fish, they eat for a day, teach a person to fish, they eat for a lifetime.” It’s vicious lie. I used to tell it myself, until I thought long and hard about it and did some research. It became clear to me that just knowing how to fish was insufficient. Knowing how to fish will not feed you at all. You have to also have access to a water hole – lake, ocean, river or stream — someplace where fish can be found – and even then, you needed access to some fishing stuff. We can hardly catch fish with our bare hands. We need a pole and line, hook, bait, sinker, float, or some such maybe even less, but still some tools and equipment suited to the fish we want to catch. The idea that knowing how to fish would feed you rang hollow and useless when we live in a world where knowing stuff is relatively easy, but gaining access to the things we need to be productive can be quite difficult. It is another way of blaming people for being poor and hungry because they won’t learn about fishing.


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