The Project, Part II: Yasuní

In my last post, I explained why I think the local politics of climate change are an underconsidered factor in the success or failure of efforts to limite greenhouse gas emissions.  Finding an appropriate site to study this topic, though, is not straightforward.  Climate change remains an issue of marginal importance for many, especially in the developing world where poverty alleviation and more proximate concernsof environmental quality—like clean water—take precedence.  And some communities really are just victims of climate change, with low emissions and little capacity to influence them.  As I’ll try to argue in this post, though, I see Yasuní National Park in the Ecuadorian Amazon – the site I have chosen for my fieldwork – as just the kind of place where a diverse array of forces have converged to make climate change a potentially salient issue at the local level.  (I should add that most of the information in this post is identical to that in a recent article from Pamela Martin and Matt Finer, which is probably much better written.)

Global polling data has shown an inverse relationship between vulnerability to and awareness of climate change.  There are reasons to believe, though, that Ecuador might buck this trend.  Andean countries like Ecuador and Bolivia are extremely vulnerable to climate change, because many cities depend on glaciers for their water supply.  These same countries have been some of the most vocal advocates for “climate justice” internationally, with Bolivia even hosting a “People’s Alternative” to Copenhagen in Cochabamba.  The rhetorical environmental commitments of Ecuador’s leftist President Rafael Correa are given some added weight by the new Ecuadorian constitution, which—in a first for any country—grants formal rights to “nature” as part of a national policy of “buen vivir” (“the good life”).

All this exists rather uncomfortably, however, with Ecuador’s heavy reliance on petroleum.  Crude makes up 15% of Ecuador’s GDP and provides 33% of government revenue.  Ecuador’s panoply of regimes over the last four decades – democratic and authoritarian, military and civilian, leftist and conservative – have all shared in a common commitment to maximizing production.   Correa’s government depends on rising oil revenues to fund promised social services and poverty alleviation.  At the same time, though, it’s safe to say, though, that oil exploration in Ecuador has been an unmitigated social and environmental disaster, exemplified by an ongoing $27 billion lawsuit against Chevron on behalf of 30,000 indigenous people for damages from accumulated oil spills substantially larger than Exxon-Valdez.

These two contradictory imperatives of exploitation and preservation come into direct conflict at Yasuní National Park.  Yasuní is undisputedly one of the most biodiverse places in the world: they found a single hectare in the park with more species of trees than exist in all of Canada and the U.S. combined.  Moreover, it is one of the least deforested and unfragmented tracts of Amazonia left.  While many Amazonian ecosystems are expected to collapse due to changing rainfall patterns from climate change, Yasuní will remain wet.  Yasuní’s diversity is not just biological, but also cultural: the park is home to bands of Tagaeri indigenous peoples that have resisted any contact with the outside world, occasionally violently.

As in any good Disney movie about the jungle, paradise is never safe.  Despite its nominally protected status, Yasuní’s borders have been continuously shifted and the park’s protections fudged to allow for oil exploration.  The “ITT Bloc” on the eastern edge of the park holds the country’s second-largest remaining reserve, some 1.4 billion barrels.  By 2007, all the signs suggested that drilling in ITT was going to go forward, with all the ecological and cultural catasrophes that would entail.

Then—in a rather amazing reversal of institutional and political momentum—the Ecuadorian government offered an alternative.  They would leave the oil in the ground indefinitely, but only if international donors contributed half the value of the oil to a UN trust fund to be used for sustainable developed.  In essence, Ecuador was offering to give up $3.5 billion in oil revenue in order to keep the park intact.  Perhaps most exciting for many commentators is the proposal’s impact on climate change: leaving the oil underground hypothetically averts 407 million tons of CO(2) from entering the atmosphere.

Despite the general support of the international conservation community, countries like Germany and Spain, the Ecuadorian government, and—it appears—much of the Ecuadorian population, though, three years later, the outcome in Yasuní is unknown (recently, it seems likely to move forward—must be Angelina Jolie’s support).  Indeed, the government has continued to prepare a “Plan B” for Yasuní, that would involve drilling.  With Yasuní-ITT already being talked about as the new post-Kyoto model for combining the fight against climate change with social justice, the situation leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

Next up, Part III: some hard details on what I’m actually trying to do.

Three Cheers: A World-Cup-Patriotism Post-Mortem

Sometime around age sixteen, I pretty much gave up on patriotism.  The accumulated weight of bearing witness to a senseless “pre-emptive” war, the travesty that was the Bush Administration, and listening to one-too-many Anti-Flag records combined to squash much appreciation for the country where I was born out of me.  I wouldn’t say I was “anti-American”, but I certainly had lost faith in the myths of American exceptionalism drilled into me by public schooling and Boy Scouts.  Not even my hopes of a future political career could keep me saying the Pledge of Allegiance or make me lip-synch to the National Anthem.

There were few things about the student body at Princeton that annoyed me more than some of my peers’ complacent, uncritical patriotism.  A yearly confrontation with jingoism came every spring at Tower houseparties when, at some point during dinner, a group self-labelled “the assholes” would stand up and start chanting “USA!  USA!  USA!”  Emboldened by my Mohawk and a half-bottle of wine, I would join my friends Devon and Jordan in some sort of inane counter-cheer (“Anarchy!  Anarchy!” was a highly intellectual favorite).

I left for England safe and secure that I was a “different” sort of Yankee, the kind that avoided the brash nationalism for which Americans were, in my mind, known.  I had all sorts of aspirations to show people that we weren’t all small minded, gun-toting, flag-waving yokels.  What I discovered very quickly, though, is that—like it or not—I am very American.  When I first arrived and people asked me where I was from, I would respond “The U.S.”, which would usually prompt, “Yes, I know.  But what part?”  Either through accent, or volume, or sheer gregariousness, people just seem to know that I am American.

Over time, I’ve learned to simply accept and appreciate it, and be unabashedly loud and friendly.   Of course, my journey of changing national self-identification has been a bit more complex than just realizing that my lack of volume-control.  In such an international climate as Oxford, many of our conversations revolve around simply describing where we come from.  It’s in these moments that I realize my enthusiasm for the U.S.: I light up when I have a chance to describe the vast expanses of the Southwest, or have an opportunity to explain American marching bands, or even unwind the complexities of our system of government.  While I always shy away from claiming that the U.S. is better than country X, I’m increasingly unafraid to offer up differences and say “Where I come from, we do it this way.”

I got a bit of a shock a few weeks ago at Boat Club Dinner, though.  Towards the end of the night, it was announced that I was Worcester’s new Health and Safety Rep (a largely ceremonial position—I’m just hoping to get in on some undergraduate drama).  On my way up, my English friends started chanting “USA!  USA!  USA!”  For once, I didn’t feel any compunction to reply, but just took it as being appreciated for who I am and where I come from.

The World Cup is, of course, a time for all the nationalities of the world to join together in irrationally exuberant patriotism.  My housemate Christoph told me the other day that the World Cup is the only occasion when Germans will display flags without fear of any connection to Nazism.  Juxtaposed against Pride Week, I’ve been reminded that—pretensions to a universal humanity aside—we are creatures that appreciate being part of groups and communities.  And, within the understanding that these groups reflect differences not hierarchies, I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that.

Nonetheless, when I sat down to watch the England-U.S. match, I wasn’t expecting it to be a great patriotic moment.  The English grad students in the Worcester common room were clad head-to-toe in red and white, while I was wearing the only thing I own with an American flag on it—a Propagandhi t-shirt with a tattered flag below which was written, “Today’s Empires, Tomorrow’s Ashes.”  English people know that Americans don’t care about football, but don’t quite believe it: they peppered me with questions about the American team which I, not knowing the name of a single player, was ill-equipped to answer.  The game was, for me, a chance to watch people getting excited—but not an opportunity to get excited myself.

Ninety minutes later, though, my heart was pounding.  The U.S. was close to pulling England into a humiliating draw which, despite being likely to put my personal safety in jeopardy, would give me weeks of bragging rights.  When the whistle was finally blown, the other Americans in the room and I lept to our feet in celebration.  I couldn’t believe the words coming out of my mouth:

“USA!  USA!  USA!”

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Jukebox: Bob Dylan – Things Have Changed

The Project, Part I: Theory

Here goes, a quick pre-cap of my summer in Ecuador.  It’d be foolish to say that what I’m writing actually reflects what is going to happen: I have no doubt that research questions will change, contacts will fall through, and plans will go awry.  If anything, I think this will serve as a monument to naivety, to be laughed at when I return from the Oriente with an entirely new project in hand.

My first post will be a bit of theory and background; I’ll follow up with a description of the place I’m going and what I’m intending to do there.

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In the late 80s and 90s, when climate change was just beginning to attract some attention, it was framed as a scientific and technical issue.  The debate was dominated by questions like, is global warming real?  Is is human caused?  Can we do anything about it?  A decade later, for anyone who is really paying attention, these questions have all are answered.  In the wake of the failures of Kyoto and Copenhagen, the key question is not whether we can do anything about climate change, but how to create the political ill to do it.  This new focus on the politics of climate change is reflected in a burgeoning literature on UN conferences, international negotiations, and national policy.

Alongside this new focus on climate politics, academics and policymakers are paying increasing attention to the developing world.  In historical terms, the emissions of developing countries have been minimal.  Particularly among the “BRICs” (Brazil, Russia, India, China), though, emissions are rising rapidly, and it is hard to see any climate mitigation regime succeeding without their participation.  As Oxford economist Dieter Helm argues, any amount of legislation and treaties and CFL lightbulbs will be completely irrelevant if China decides to keep building coal fired power plants and hundreds of millions of Chinese take to the roads in cars for the first time.

Trying to rope developing countries into the international climate regime, however, presents some unique problems.  Many developing countries feel entitled to the same energy-intensive development that worked in the West, and see attempts to limit their emissions as a subtle form of renewed colonialism.  Some countries—particularly, leftist Latin American countries like Bolivia—have publicized the idea of “climate debt” and demanded billions in compensation.  In short, climate policy is inseparable from broader dysfunctions in North-South relations on topics like trade, energy, and security.

Everything I’ve said in the previous three paragraphs, of course, is kind of obvious, which makes it all the more amazing how much has been written saying it.  I’m hoping to approach climate change from a slightly different perspective, grounded in anthropology, rather than the political science typically applied.

My starting point is that we have been too uncritical in accepting the idea that global warming is, well, global. Of course, on a scientific level, climate change’s global credentials are impeccable, since climate systems are interlinked worldwide.  At the same time though, climate change means very different things in different places: in Russia, it will increase agricultural productivity; in Ecuador, it may melt glaciers that entire cities depend on for water.  As such, what we experience as climate change is inevitably a local and positional phenomena.  What can be said for climate change’s impacts can also be said for attempts to mitigate emissions.  While climate policy might be set on a national level, every emission comes from a specific place—be it a car tailpipe, a slash-and-burned rainforest, or a powerpant smokestack.  It follows, then, that individual agency and choices—exercised at a local level by everyday people—are ultimately a key part of any solution to “global” warming.

Theoretically, my goal is to advance our understanding of the local politics of climate change.  What makes climate change into a compelling issue in some places and not others?  How does climate change filter into preexisting local debates and conflicts?  Why do some municipalities, organizations, and individuals feel the agency to do something about climate change, while others throw up their hands and concede that the problem is global?  While it’s hard to ascribe too much value to a master’s thesis, I do believe that answering these questions is at least part of the climate mitigation puzzle.

A brief teaser: next up, a less abstract introduction to Yasuní National Park.

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Jukebox: Thought Riot – Save the Humans

Adventures Under the Midnight(ish) Sun

For all intents and purposes, I finished my term on Thursday—the day before my final exam—when I gave up on studying, unable to convince myself anymore that learning to do ANOVA statistical tests by hand or to ramble about epistemological approaches to ethnography had anything to do with, well, anything. Paul Willis, a Professor at Keele University, had invited me to lunch in Stoke-on-Trent, so I braved the English rail system for the first time.  It was a pleasant afternoon: Professor Willis is moving to the Princeton sociology department, and wanted to grill me on such mystical things as the Woodrow Wilson School, JPs, and departmental gossip.  These moments in which I feel like a part of the academic club—more colleague than student—are part of what keep me optimistic about the future.

A high point came when I tried to explain the eating club system.  I expected Willis’ first reaction to the street to be that of any good sociologist: indignation at its role in perpetuating racial / class / gender stratification.  His reaction, though, was quintisentially British: “So, do professors drink at these places too?”  Before I got on the train to go home, I asked him whether I should drink with the boat club or study for my exam that evening.  Under the advice of someone whose book has been cited 8,000 times, I passed the rest of the hours until sunset on the Thames, bidding fond farewell to my undergraduate friends before they disappeared into the summer.

Friday was examination time, which meant sub-fusc and red carnation.  I can’t say much about the actual examination, because as tends to be the case, I basically blacked out for three hours and came to having written 24 pages of keyword-laden theoretical non-sense (the graders will probably love it).  Before my first year of graduate school could be officially laid to rest, however, there was one last Oxford tradition: trashing.  While finalists have been known to be doused in baked-beans and hit by rotten fish upon emerging for exams, I got away with a bit of glitter thrown by my wonderful housemate, Nicola.  She, I, and another friend, Evan, retired to a pub, as a good chunk of stress rapidly fell off my shoulders.

Early Saturday morning, I was off to go narrow boating with a fellow PUBandie, Josephine, and her family.  Narrow-boating strikes me as perhaps the quintessentially quaint English activity, in that nothing really happens.  We puttered along at two miles-per-hour and stopped every couple hundred meters to go through a lock.  Apparently, this was sufficiently exciting, though, to bring lots of locals out to watch us, and despite the fact that my house in Arizona was further from the airport than Oxford is from Manchester, the regional variation in accents is ridiculous. I basically couldn’t understand anything the passer-byes said, until Josephine pointed out that they were probably always talking about football and I started focusing on catching a few critical words (in this sense, it was good practice for being in Ecuador).  The relaxed pace gave me lots of opportunities to take in a new city, eat some amazing vegan food, and catch up—it was, all-in-all, a pretty fantastic weekend.

Back in Oxford, I’ve been trying to adapt to the idea of being here and not being stressed out of my mind.  Sticking with the boating theme of my week, I watched the drawn-out solstice nea-midnight sunset from a ferry in the Thames.  Today, I completed the circle, watching the sun rise at three-thirty a.m., having spent all night around a bonfire in Port Meadows, roasting pita bread and drinking cheap wine among good company.

I try not to treat experiences like these as belt notches.  The fact that I have done X and seen Y reflects little on the richness of my life or my appreciation for it.  Even as I sit at my desk—reading about political ecology, writing questionnaires, and stuying Spanish, como siempre—though, I can feel a different sort of optimism and appreciation for life that’s been missing for too long.  Despite the redundancy, I don’t think I can ever remind myself too much of what a ridiculously privileged life I lead.

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Jukebox: Against Me! – Wagon Wheel

Not (Quite) Buying It

At the start of June, the New York Times published a piece by Jake Halpern called “The Freegan Establishment” on a group of radicals near-and-dear to my heart.   While some might be less-than-enthusiastic about being the person that comes to mind when the issue of eating trash comes up, I was quite flatterd to have the article e-mailed to me all of a dozen times.  This, of course, presented a historically unprecedented opportunity: a chance to write on a topic about which I actually know something. Feeling the high expectations of putative expertise, though, I’ve been sitting on my thoughts on this article for two weeks now.  Distilling an 80,000-word thesis/personal obsession into a blog post is, I have discovered, impossible.  Excuses out of the way, here goes:

Actually, before I offer my thoughts on Halpern’s depiction of freeganism, I should—like any honest, but insufferable, social scientist—offer a few methodological caveats.  While I’d like to think that my training as a sociologist gives my evaluation some intellectual gravitas (hah!), I didn’t deliver a nationwide survey or run any fancy statistical tests.  My own study of freeganism was qualitative and took place exclusively in New York City. I hung out and asked questions: something anyone with the patience and lack of concern for hygiene could do.

If there was any fact that became clear from eighteen months of ethnographic observation and interviews, it was that freeganism is a contested and variable term and its practitioners are a highly diverse group.  Self-identified ‘freegans’ I’ve met include hardcore anti-capitalists, middle-class business people with anti-waste sensibilities, religious fundamentalists committed to a life of poverty, and cheapskates enthusiastic about anything that saves them money.  Halpern’s description of freeganism, then, could be very different from my own—and that wouldn’t make either of our accounts any more or less valid, just reflective of the fact that we are capturing two very facets of the same phenomena.

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My first thought on this most recent New York Times piece is—I’m afraid to report, for anyone expecting controvery—that it is really quite good.  Compared to practically every other mass-media report on freeganism I’ve ever encountered, Halpern’s portrain is rich, nuanced, and balanced.  A few points, in particular, shone through quite well:

1.  Freeganism ≠ Dumpster Diving – The New York Times’ one previous piece on freeganism—2007’s “Not Buying It”—brought the ideas of freeganism to a wide audience for the first time, and, ultimately, led to my thesis.*  It also, however, did the freegan movement a great disservice, by convincing most people that “freeganism” is coterminous with “eating trash.”  It’s a popular association that the freegan group I worked with which has only reinforced, by leveraging the public’s fascination with white, non-poor dumpster divers to attract media attention and draw people into the movement.

In reality, though, freeganism is a much wider set of practices, unified by goals of reducing dependence on the mainstream economy and minimizing environmental degradation.  Halpern does a great job showing this diversity: the Buffalo freegans don’t just engage in dumpster diving, but also squatting, bicycling, voluntary unemployment, wild food foraging, and communal living.  Whille all of these activities have political significance, they are, for many freegans, quite simply fun.

2.  Freeganism starts early – The most attention-grabbing accounts of who freegans are focus on those who have undergone dramatic conversion experiences: a favourite narrative is that of one New York freegan who, after seeing a demonstration on a “Buy Nothing Day,” quit her six-figure corporate job, left her apartment, and became a full-time activist.  While slightly less sexy, sociological theory tends to portray recruitment in a similar way, by explaining involvement in social movements as based on an individual’s network connections to activist groups and individuals as they exist at a single moment in time.

In my own research, though, nearly everyone I spoke to emphasized that the roots of their radicalism ran deep.  The experiences varied from experiencing racism at school to noting the indifference of family members to the suffering of homeless people to early dissolusion with mainstream activism.  That corporate-executive-turned-radical, for example, had been arrested during anarchist-theatre performances in her twenties; in many ways, becoming freegan was an act of personal rediscovery—“like coming up for air after being underwater for twenty years”—rather than a complete volte-face.  Describing Tim—the leader of the Buffalo freegan house—as a kid who was always trying to “stick the fork in the electrical outlet”, the article at least hints at these sorts of complex life histories.

3. ‘Anarchist organization’ may not be an oxymoron, but it is hard to achieve – This final comment reflects as much my experience as a freegan activist as my research.  One morning, the freegans in Buffalo woke up to discover all their forks had been turned into a wind chime.  The example highlights a general point: the creativity, inspiration, and free-spiritedness of many freegans often come alongside—and are, perhaps, inseparable from—behaviour that most people might label ‘dysfunctional.’  The Buffalo house may be a space of phenomenal liberty, but this comes at a price: without leaders, written rules, or means of coercion, the experiment is perpetually on the verge of falling apart.  While most freegans portray themselves as opting into their lifestyle by choice, clearly, some are pushed into it by their struggles to adapt to the expectations and norms of mainstream society.  These factors make creating movements and organizations that avoid hierarchy but are simultaneously able to get things done a frustrating and often unsuccessful process.

* The backstory here is pretty excellent.  Jackie forwarded me the article, stating, “Please don’t become one of these people.”  Naturally, I couldn’t resist, and the rest is history.

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All this said, though, there were some contradictory points I wanted to make in response to the article:

1.  Not all of freeganism is self-defeating – One paragraph from the article sounds exactly like a comment I’ve heard more times than I can count: “[There is] a quandary inherent in the freegan movement. Freegans maintain that by salvaging waste, they diminish their need for money, which allows them to live a more thoughtful, responsible and deliberate existence. But if they succeed in their overriding goal, and society ends up becoming less wasteful, the freegan lifestyle will no longer be possible.”  This is, of course, the cynic’s inevitable trump card, the argument that allows anyone to dismiss freeganism and retreat back into complacency.  And, with some freegan practices, it is indeed a valid piece of criticism: most obvioualy, you can’t dumpster dive food if you don’t have wasteful supermarkets.  This contradiction is already in view in New York, where the naming-and-shaming of some particularly wasteful stores—like Trader Joe’s—have led them to better guard their dumpsters (if not actually reduce their output of garbage!).

Most freegans admit that if capitalism collapsed tomorrow, knowing how to live off of dumpstered-food would not be particularly helpful.  Skills like repairing a roof, fixing a flat tire on a bike, or finding edible snails in the forest, however, would.  I’m somewhat surprised, given the varied portrait of freeganism found in the article, that the author eventually decided to repeat this trope that all of freeganism is self-defeating parasitism.

2.  Freeganism as engagement – There is an implicit, tongue-and-cheek critique that runs through the article.  The oxymoronic title—the Freegan Establishment—captures it, suggesting a disconnection between freegan rhetoric and reality.  Quotes like “They worked their butts off and paid the back taxes and the utilities. They are more conformist than they want you to think they are” only further suggest that maybe these “freegans” aren’t quite as radical as they claim to be.

The gap between ideology and practice is one of the central themes of my research, so I will belabour the point a bit here.  As in any social movement, one doesn’t have to search very hard to find contradictions that smack of hypocrisy: I know freegans that own second homes, use cell phones, eat store-bought meat on special occasions and with family, and continue to work in for-profit companies.  Of course, nearly all of us could admit to some gap between our beliefs and our lifestyles.  The significance of these foibles, of course, depends on the standard we are using to judge.

The NYT journalist traces the roots of freeganism to pre-modern Digger colonies, which sought to create a world existing entirely shut off from the outside world.  Freegan rhetoric does often emphasize the group’s attempts to create a “world outside of capitalism.”  Judged as an urban analog to a rural commune which provides for all its members’ needs, though, freeganism is a total failure.  This is, at least in part, the point the article is making, by showing how the freegans inevitably had to rely on the system of private property to give their social experiment stability.

One of the points I argued in my work, though, is that freeganism is—in reality—less about ‘dropping out’ of society than it is engaging with and criticizing it.  ‘Dropping out’ of capitalism isn’t just impossible, it’s also an ineffective strategy for building a movement, since it means cutting oneself off from 99.99% of the population.  In reality, much of freeganism centers on taking things intrinsic to modern society—like the production of waste—and turning it into a tool for critique.

Consider, for example, how the article describes the squatters moving into the house in Buffalo: “Majewski’s strategy was to be as brazen as possible. ‘The facade of legitimacy was our main goal,’ he told me. ‘We pried the boards off and did it all in broad daylight. That’s what ownership comes down to — everyone believing that you actually own it.’ When he introduced himself to the neighbors, Majewski told them that he had the heir’s permission to move in. This wasn’t true, but the neighbors took Majewski at his word.”  From the start, the freegans were intent on projecting themselves as engaged in a worthwhile social project.  Similarly, the group dumpster dives I intended in New York were less an attempt to achieve individual moral purity as they were attempts to use waste to rope passerbyes into the movement.

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Of course, a key question that the article doesn’t address, and with which I have been grappling for almost three years now, is whether any of this actually matters.  Global warming, peak oil, and the recent economic crisis notwithstanding, modern society is not, as far as I can tell, on the verge of collapse.  In fact, time and time again, liberal democracy and capitalism have proven themselves to be incredibly flexible and adaptable.  So why should we care what some apocalyptic “weirdos with garbage” (as one interviewee put it) think?  This is the point at which, I should warn, I will abandon all pretentions to speaking as an academic, and speak from the point of view of a higher calling: that of social justice activism.

I was, at least initially, surprised to read that, according to the New York Times, “freegans are not revolutionaries.”  After all, many freegans identify as anarchists, which—for most—is synonymous with nihilism and revolution.  On reflection, though, I realize where the author is coming from.  Freegans have no political party, no plan for seizing state power; no Marxist view of history that declares revolution inevitable.  In the 20th century, ‘revolutionary’ conjured up visions of Bolshevik comissars or Cuban guerillas; it’s a bit hard to see a group of people eating dandelions and learning to weave sandals out of yucca fiber as their 21st century progeny.

I’ll admit that arguing about who is and who isn’t ‘revolutionary’ is an exercise in mental masturbation.  But the question of from where radical ideas are going to come in the post-Soviet world—in which we have acknowledged that centralized government planning by ‘revolutionary’ governments simply doesn’t work—is an important one.  And I would argue that, in this sense, the freegans are fascinating.  As I see it, freeganism is a (highly flawed) experiment in alternative ways of providing for individual needs, organizing communities, and approaching activities like labour and consumption.  Freegans do not so much offer us concrete practices that we can all adopt (you can’t feed the whole world dumpster diving) as they offer ideas and possibilities.

After this rather philosophical turn, though, I’ll close this overly-long essay with a lighter observation.  Rather sagely, Halpern wrtes, “The freegans were making a statement and having a hell of a good time doing it.”  While we should take freeganism seriously, we shoudn’t take the freegans themselves too seriously—I don’t think they would much like it.

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Jukebox: Audioslave – Be Yourself

So, this is learning

As far as I can tell, about three weeks before exams, most Oxford students cease to be human beings.  No, really: having an exam within the next month is a universally accepted excuse for abandoning all commitments and getting out of anything, ranging from rowing practice to doing the dishes.  Somehow, though, I seem to lack the focus and dedication for extended, single-minded exam preparation and so, despite a looming test that will determine whether I qualify for a second year in my program, I continue to search out meetings and activities between which to over-strech my time.

Last night, my procrastination-through-activism took me to the annual meeting of the Oxford Animal Ethics Society.  As secretary of the Oxford Student Vegetarian Society, I’ve know for a while that the two groups should probably be coordinating our efforts.  I haven’t been particularly proactive, though, because as far as I can tell, like most political groups at Oxford, the Animal Ethics Society doesn’t really do anything.

The meeting was held in the small, very English townhouse of Professor Andrew Linzey—a jovial and quitisentially Oxford tutor of philosophy and theology.  When I arrived, I was led into a dimly lit back room, crammed with teetering piles of books, Persian rugs, and antique furniture, with a pair of contentedly rotund cats to round out the scene.  The meeting was attended by a half-dozen graduates, post-docs, and professors, four of whom studied classics and had the eccentric personalities to match.

As “Annual General Meetings” go, the event was a bit of a bust.  We heard a report on the group’s funds (it has none), its activities (few), and chose new officers (elected in abstentia—they had exams).  Having dealt with this procedural nonsense for ten minutes, Professor Linzey then declared the meeting adjourned, and announced to me, the only newcomer, that “We in the Animal Ethics Society smoke and drink, a lot.”

For the next four hours, I hobnobbed with the other attendees about, well, everything.  We talked about our pipe-dreams for a vegetarian campus and debated this year’s candidates for the infamous Oxford Professor of Poetry position.  A classicist from Northern Ireland told me about her absurdly ivory-tower academic interests (she studies references to poetry made within Greek poetry), and I learned how to swear in Ancient Greek.  I was grilled about my religious beliefs, research interests, and about academic life at Princeton.  All the while, Professor Linzey—who must be nearing seventy—poured endless quantities of vegan wine and aggressively offered cigars, pipes, and cigarettes to the rest of us, as we gradually sunk deeper and deeper into the overstuffed armchairs around the room.

For all our stress, our terror about tenure and funding and professorships and placements and peer review, nights like this remind me that academia remains the greatest gig in the world.  The only experience I can describe as being quite comparable came my senior year at Princeton, when Professor Fernandez-Kelly invited me to her Christmas “Pig Fest.” Those familiar with my rather storied history with PFK would probably not be surprised to hear that she insisted I stay at the departmental bacchanalia long past when most of the other guests had left.  By midnight, Paul DiMaggio—the most cited sociologist of all time—was drunkenly hammering away at a piano, while the rest of the department seemed to have collectively discovered that they would appear more intellectual if they suddenly took up smoking.  As the night ended, Alejandro Portes, the department chair, stood up and declared, “Since we are sociologists, we are therefore also socialists. So please join me in the singing of the Communist International in your native language.”  While I’m still slightly in disbelief that this actually happend, I then listened as the song was sung—in unison—in Yiddish, Russian, Spanish, Italian, and English.

Returning to Oxford, though; at the end of the night, the topic of conversation briefly shifted to my own future plans.  When I mentioned that I thought I wanted to return back to the United States to do a PhD, Professor Linzey asked why, if that was the case, was I bothering to do a tangential master’s degree in Oxford?  Why not just go straight through, get my schooling over with, and move on?

He had, of course, been answering his own question all night.

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Jukebox: Good Clean Fun – Beat the Meat

Vegetarian Mumbo Jumbo

This is, most definitely, not the blog post I was hoping to write on this topic.

A few weeks ago, the Worcester College MCR—the graduate student government—debated a “Meatless Mondays” resolution, which would urge our dining hall to go vegetarian for one day a week.  Initially, the people who drafted our motion couched it in terms of ‘choice’: hall’s main option is always meat, so meat-free Mondays would improve vegetarian options and add more variety (=choice) to the weekly offerings.  Some astute MCR members quickly cried foul, though: how can taking away meat possibly create more options ?  If we want better vegetarian food, why not leave meat alone and just have a “Better Vegetarian Options” motion?

It was pretty clear, at this point in the debate, that things were not looking good.  While I don’t want to insert myself into the narrative as the hero, I did, at this point, jump in.  I said, more or less, that of course Meatless Mondays isn’t about increasing choices—in fact, it’s about the exact opposite.   Our goal is to make the college collectively acknowledge the serious environmental and ethical implications of meat eating and impose a limited restriction on this behaviour (just as we do with any number of other activities in which students might otherwise engage).  Ultimately, the motion passed pretty overwhelming.  I cherished the thought that—for once—offering an honest and rational argument actually led to the outcome for which I was hoping.

Our resolution had one more hurdle, though, before we could take it to the college administration: the undergraduate “JCR.”  Technically, all graduates are members are also part of the JCR, so this evening I dragged my flexitarian housemate into this mysterious den of iniquity to offer my voice and vote on the motion’s behalf.  As soon as debate started, though, a painfully familiar stream of bullshit that would make a BP executive proud started flowing: “Can we have an all-meat option day?”  “Can you prove that going meatless will reduce demand by the same amount we don’t eat?” “If we do this, the college will lose money from student boycotting!”  The vote was closer than I thought it would be, but my faith in the power of logic and debate went down in flames.

I don’t so much mind my concern for animals being perpetually thrown back in my face as I mind the pathetically shoddy justifications that usually accompany these rejections.  I would be so much more content if people just said, “I know I should do something, but I just don’t care.”   Let’s be honest.  When you’re at a place like Oxford, you can’t even pretend to be stupid: you’re just selfish.

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Jukebox: Propagandhi – Apparently I’m a “P.C. Fascist” (Because I Care About Both Humans and Non-Humans)

Blast from the Past

Back for one weekend only, by popular demand:

If this was immature when I was 19, what is it now?

Feeling a tad aged on my birthday, and consumed with fear of becoming a bit too predictable (or maybe it was just how temptingly long I had let my hair grow out?), I decided to re-shave a mohawk last weekend.  It was a lovely 48 hours of hair-spray fueled ‘rebellion’: I awed a lot of MBA students with my ‘alternativeness’ at our house party, made Graduate group-photo history (forever to be immortalized on the walls of the Middle Common Room), and, as the picture above reflects, scared my housemate to no end.  And I was quickly reminded of how nice it can be to be the center of attention, and how confident I feel when I know everyone has already written me off as a lunatic.

But, alas, as I knew last year when I put Princeton’s ‘mohawk guy’ to rest, it’s a phase of my life whose time has come and gone.  I’ve committed myself that any accolades and recognition I earn from this point forward will belong to me alone, and not be shared with my hair.  Monday, mohawk guy version 2.0 met a grisly end at the hands of a set of 5.99 Boots’ clippers.

It did seem somewhat fitting, though, to finally bring my dear mohawk full circle, from self-conscious rejection of the status quo to, well, self-referential joke.

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Jukebox: A.F.I. – I Wanna Get A Mohawk, But My Mom Won’t Let Me

Broken Bones and Open Borders

Here’s an exciting life update: I broke my wrist.  I’m not going to go into how it happened, except to state that it did not involve alcohol and that my cover story is that it involved a fight with zombie ninja pirates.  Not a huge deal, but definitely a frustrating and unneeded at a stressful time of the year.  At least I could get a jet black cast that matched my wardrobe.

Immediately after the “incident,” I pushed myself through five hours of statistics in the library before heading off to a review session, at which point some of the more reasonable students in my program convinced me to go to the hospital to get my now comically swollen arm x-rayed.  They bid me adieu with the standard but ominous NHS send-off: “I hope you don’t have to wait too long.”

I’ve approached every experience I’ve had with the NHS so far as if it is the ultimate show-down between private and socialized medicine, with me as scorekeeper.  I’m ready to concede now, though, that – as enthusiastic as I am about participant-observation as a mode of research – the experiences of an accident-prone twenty-three-year-old are probably not sufficient for making a conclusive declaration about either system’s relative merits.  Sure, I didn’t have to wait more a few hours, and I definitely appreciate the $0 bill—but then again, I don’t have cancer and am not waiting for elective surgery.  Thus, I’m abandoning wholesale evaluation in favour of something a bit more obscure: metaphor and symbolism.

One thing that hit me during this most recent visit to an NHS “Accident and Emergency” Room was how little information they wanted about me.  Of course, they wanted to know my date of birth, medical history, and all about my injury.  But certain things we in the U.S. are accustomed to putting into endless forms – occupation, address, nationality, insurance – just don’t matter that much.  The NHS’s goal is to serve the person in front of them, not track them down with a bill or pick a fight with an insurance company.

The brilliance of it is that the NHS is, at least in some ways, impossible to exploit: I can lie or misrepresent myself to no end, and it doesn’t much matter, because the system doesn’t much care who I am so long as I need medical treatment.  We live in a world where government’s exist to categorize and classify and monitor—and yet the NHS is, in a weird way, surprisingly anonymous.  Somewhat counterintuitively, this makes me feel much more like a human being and less like a statistic.

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This week in class, we’re discussing “statelessness.”  By “stateless,” we don’t mean refugees who have been ejected from their nations; instead, the term refers to people who literally have no nationality at all and thus—in a world where there is practically no designation more important than citizenship—do not really exist.  It’s a form of non-status that affects fifteen million people worldwide, non-persons ranging from Turkish Cypriots to the children of undocumented immigrants in countries that do not grant birthright citizenship.

All of the literature we’ve read on statelessness focuses on the stateless people as the problem: how, in the modern world, does anyone manage to have no birth certificate or passport?  And how do we fit these square pegs into the round holes of the nation-state system?  How do you legislate for people that are, just by merit of their persisting physical presence, lawless?  I think these are all stupid questions, to be honest.  For most stateless people, having no nationality is a horrible thing—but for some (I’m thinking, for example, of Roma, some indigenous groups, communards), perhaps it reflects their realization of how absurd our modern ideas of citizenship are.

The recent crackdown in Arizona has thrust immigration back into my brain in a big way again for the first time since I stopped taking classes with Professor Fernandez-Kelly at Princeton.  Freshman year, I spent dozens of hours collecting statistics and studies about undocumented immigration, in the hopes that the accumulation of piles of data would convince people that immigration is actually good for all concerned.  With the benefit of a few years of experience—and having watched comprehensive immigration fail over and over—I’m convinced that advocates for sane immigration policy need to go beyond reason.  We need to ask why it is that so much hinges on the lotteries of birth, and why categories and boundaries are so important.

When I think about problems like “statelessness”, I can’t help but think that the problem isn’t with the people, but with the states that throw up barriers between them.  My utopian imagination is once again drawn to a vision of a borderless world, in which we find a better way to sort ourselves than by pre-natal dice-rolls and invisible lines scrawled across the map.  I imagine states that exist to support whomever knocks on the door—acknowledging that we are, after all, in this together—rather than bringing one group in and leaving another outside.

It’s a weird time to live in Europe.  With politicians across the continent talking about gut-wrenching cuts to public services, I can’t help but think that I’m witness to the demise of one of the world’s great political experiments: social democracy.  Of course, I’m pretty sure the creators of the NHS didn’t have such lofty goals as universal citizenship in mind, but—metaphorically at least—I think they’ve created something that reaches towards them.  I’ll be sad if I have to see that go.

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Jukebox: Gaslight Anthem – The Boxer

A Brief Sociology of Social Lubrication

It seems almost ridiculous that I’ve lived in England for eight months now and haven’t yet blogged about the one thing more British than bangers and mash: alcohol.  Having just barely survived “my” birthday garden party and finally recovered from last week’s Boat Club Dinner, I suppose now is as good a time as any to share a few thoughts on the U.K.’s “drinking culture” (or, as I’m going to argue, lack thereof—in multiple senses).

It's cultural.

There is a certain mystique about European drinking among Americans (or, at least, among left-leaning Americans who think Europe is populated by more than just namby-pamby effeminate socialists and would like to be able to drink before twenty-one).  The logic goes something like this: in Europe, the drinking age is lower, and kids are introduced to alcohol at a young age.  As a consequence, they learn how to approach alcohol responsibly, under the watchful eyes of their parents.  Ergo, Europeans don’t have the same problems with binge drinking and alcoholism as Americans, who live in a sheltered state of denial until they arrive at college and go absolutely ape-shit.

The standard narrative about the U.K., though, is almost the exact opposite (which maybe proves England is its own continent, after all).  My first concrete sign of the different way the British approached alcohol came while I was still in the U.S., when I filled out a National Health Service medical form.  In addition to standard questions about height and weight, the form askedme how often I drank alcohol.  While a similar form in the U.S. might have categories like “Never” and “One per month,” the British equivalent offered “one to five per week” as its minimum category.  My first week here, a Scottish friend asked me how I was finding the national sport.  I wasn’t sure what he meant, until he explained, “You know, alcoholism.”

We convince our econ professors to have some champagne... at 11 a.m.

Without a doubt, the “lower drinking age = more responsibility” equation doesn’t seem to hold, at least in the academic bubble in which I live.  Particularly at this time of year—with exams finishing—Oxford is a pretty messy shit-show.  It’s not just students, though: running along the Thames today, I was amazed at the number of people knocking back beers before noon. The English really do manage to incorporate alcohol into everything: encounters with academic advisers, open seminars, and club meetings all somehow seem to involve drinking.  I went to church with my housemate Nicola today, and on the way out, the vicar was dispensing champagne.

The other kind of "boat race."

I think, though, that all these differences are of quantity, not type.  While the statistics suggest that the English are, as a nation, a bit drunker than most (barring Australia and Eastern Europe), I’m not sure how much this can really be declared adistinctive drinking “culture.”  As far as I can tell (and my perception is definitely skewed by being in a university environment) the basic rules and functions of drinking here are pretty familiar.  People drink to celebrate holidays and to mark achievements; the one’s who are getting really drunk are the late teens and twenty-somethings; older people drinking heavily is frowned upon.  Sometimes, in fact, the parallels between drinking at Oxford and at Princeton become almost too weird: at Boat Club Dinner last week, it hit me that “fines” (“I’ll fine anyone who fell into the river this term”) was pretty much the exact same as the “chugs” we do at Band Bandquet (“Everyone from the West Coast: drink!”).

Many of my American friends here seem constantly aghast at how English students drink—blind to how similar their behavior was to our own when we were undergraduates.  Perhaps the differences are more generational than cultural: when I really reflect on it, in my travels, drinking has often been more a universal than a source of difference.*  Amidst the non-stop culture shock that was my trip to Uganda, drinking a beer at the end of the day with my research team members felt natural and familiar.  As for mainland Europe, I can say with quite a bit of confidence that our assumptions about their generally responsible attitude to alcohol is bunk.  After all, at my party, it was a bunch of Eastern Europeans who raged until the porters shut us down, and last month, it was Christoph’s German friends who managed to break our dining room table—while playing a game taught to them by an American.

Just a few Europeans behaving responsibly.

I suppose this is all an instance of how, if we look for difference, we can find it—to the extent that we might even miss some blatant similarities.  While my time here has made me a bit more skeptical about a lower drinking age as a panacea for America’s frat-party woes, I do like the idea that alcohol can bring the world together, bound by our shared irresponsibility and immaturity.

* Of course, I’ve never been to a Muslim country.

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Jukebox: Dropkick Murphys – Kiss Me I’m Shitfaced