On Hot Dog Buns and Capitalism

This week, Oxford’s homeless population will be eating hot dog buns.

I’ve said on this blog before that one of the high points of my week is my work with Food Justice, a non-profit in Oxford that diverts nearly-expired supermarket food from the landfill and gives it to organizations that provide meals for the needy.  In a town which is not exactly distinguished by its dynamism, Food Justice stands out for having actually changed during my time here.  When I started volunteering, the group delivered a few crates of food a day out of the back of a car (and, being Britain, it was a small car).  The operation has since expanded enormously: now we have a refrigerated van, are looking to buy a second, and provide food for—by one estimate—nearly a thousand meals a day.  It’s cool.

On an only slightly related note, I’ve been once again putting a fair amount of thought into food, waste, and freeganism.  It seems that—despite my efforts to escape being pigeon-holed as “that-sociologist-that-studies-people-who-eat-trash”, the graduate-school world would like to hear more about my favorite dumpster divers and, feeling the pressure of publish-or-perish, I am going to oblige.  I’ve also been feeling a need to reconnect with my own personal ethics once I’m back in the states, and I think that will mean at least a partial return to my freegan ways (it helps that my graduate school stipend is tiny).

The contrasts between Food Justice and freegan.info, the organization I worked with in New York City, are pretty glaring, despite their mutual concern for waste and the environment.  Freegans found food in dumpsters and gave it away in ad-hoc “freegavaganzas” in Tompkins Square Park; with Food Justice, I drive to a depot in Bicester wearing a fluorescent vest and carefully load boxes of carefully packaged produce.  Freegan.info always skirted the boundaries of legality; the corporate partners of Food Justice celebrate their participation in the recycling scheme on their websites as an example of their ethical business practices.  Freeganism claimed to be trying to overthrow society; Food Justice slots in nicely with David Cameron’s “Big Society”, providing services that really ought to be offered by the state in order to clean up the mess of austerity.  I suppose read in one way, this could all be a metaphor for my own steady de-radicalization, though given how many people Food Justice feeds on a weekly basis, I’m genuinely ambivalent about which model is more effective.

This week, I’ve been thinking about another difference between Food Justice and freeganism: the window that each offers into the actual causes of food waste.  To put it in context, a recent UN Food and Agricultural Organization report found that nearly one-third of the world’s food production—around 1.3 billion tons—is wasted each year.*  From the vantage point of freeganism, it was always assumed that food waste was just another manifestation of the malice of capitalism.  Food waste happened because everyone—ranging from store owners to corporate farms—were soulless, crass, greedy bastards who didn’t give a toss about the environment, animals, and workers.  It isn’t a view that’s likely to endear one to many people, but it is certainly appealing in its simplicity.

The picture I get from Food Justice is a bit more nuanced.  With Food Justice, we tend to get food in waves: for a while, we were overflowing with mushrooms, then it was cabbage.  The warehouse still has 20 tons of rice sitting in the back, a by-product of a period during which world coconut milk stores were depleted, with led a ready-meal manufacturer to sell it’s stock—which it used to make curry—to France, leaving it with a bunch of rice and nothing to do with it (…actually).  This week, it was hot dog buns.  Thousands and thousands of hot dog buns.

As the guy at the depot explained, the weather had been good, so supermarkets assumed in anticipation of last weekend that people would be having a lot of barbeques and, as a consequence, desperately would need some buns.  Unsurprisingly, the weather was not good—in fact, even for England, it was shitty—and so no one had barbeques.  In turn, no one wanted hot dog buns: ergo, there was a huge overstock.  Hot dog buns cost nothing to produce; if they sell, it’s pure profit.  If they don’t, it’s cheaper to throw them out and take the tax write off than to store them in the hopes that next weekend the sun will be shining.

As stupid as it may seem for stores to bank on the tiny chance that there will be good weather in the U.K., as far as I can tell, the logic of the suppliers was impeccable, even though it led to a massive amount of waste.  And that’s just the thing—viewed through a Food Justice lens, it’s not that capitalists are evil: it’s just that what is ‘logical’ under capitalism is actually incredibly stupid.  If we actually thought about it, most people would realize that the prospect of stores without hot dog buns on a sunny weekend is not actually that catastrophic.  Perhaps, rather than demonizing those that play the capitalist game, we’d be better off pointing out that the rules of the game itself are not so much malicious as they are really, really dumb.

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* Lest you find yourself tempted to blame those corrupt and inefficient morons of the undeveloped world for this, the report pretty squarely fingers Western retailers—which throw out food because it looks unappealing—and Western consumers—who consistently purchase more than they need.

Immortality

Finally, I can leave Oxford knowing that, although I may leave England in body, I will live on in spirit.  Yes, the great deeds of Worcester College Boat Club have been immortalized in the Oxford Student newspaper.

I'm in the idiot in the front of the second boat, celebrating.

And I thought the Daily Princetonian printed some pointless stuff.

From Yasuní to a PDF Near You

Behold!  I have created a thesis!  Minor existential angst aside, I’m proud of how it turned out, and hope to write about some of my findings some time soon.  In an early attempt to get some of it out there, I’m sending my thesis out into the wilds of the internet.  Those interested to see if they made the acknowledgments section can check here.

Poor Writing and Ethical Hangovers

To my surprise, even after a year of sporadic posting (and nearly nine months without a picture of a monkey), there are still people reading this blog.  While, in general, I find this flattering (if a little confusing), it’s a bit unfortunate to have a readership anytime my writing is terrible and I say deeply problematic things.  The last post about my own experiences with social class in England—which earned me an e-mail from a troubled friend, for which I am extremely grateful—is a case in point.

The slightly pedantic and poorly articulated goal of my last post was to muse about the English class system.  In the United States, we seem to be reluctant to suggest that anyone belongs to a class other than “middle”, a resistance that leads to the absurd outcome of Princeton students with parents worth millions who nonetheless claim to be “only” upper-middle.  Here, though, I’ve been assured that class very much “matters”.  While most of my conversations are with the unequivocal “winners” of that system, there seems to be a general sense that, in post-Thatcher, post-Socialist Britain, class is a fact of life that should be accepted.  That doesn’t mean, however, that I’ve heard a good explanation of what the class system in England actually is; most people seem reticent to admit that class has anything to do with economic opportunity, and instead talk about culture, education, or work ethic.

While I think social classes are (unfortunately) very real, though, that doesn’t mean that real people can be reduced to social class.  There are no such things as “chavs” or “white trash”; there are only people that we label as such, and people who eventually relent and begin to take those labels as their own.  My description of “chavs” was filled with horrible stereotypes, but I failed utterly to make the terrible absurdity of those stereotypes evident.  My portrait was a bit too specific to be made defensible by claiming that I was only repeating what others had told me.  (At the end of the day, even if there are people who can be defined by drinking cheap beer and living of welfare, who cares—they’re not the ones who took us to War in Afghanistan or making huge profits at the expense of the world’s poor, after all.)

Ultimately, that last post was intended to be a vehicle for the purpose to which this blog, inevitably, seems to return, which is publically flagellating myself for my own political and ethical shortcomings.  This time, though, it took a trusted friend to make those weaknesses clear to me.  The scary thing is that, being at Oxford, concepts like “chav”—which would have just drawn blank stares from me two years ago—have become meaningful, because even if there are no real “chavs” out there, I’m still using that category every day to make sense of the world around me.  This is not to blame my social and academic milieu for personal flaws.  It’s been my choice that, in the name of being a “cultural observer”, I’ve largely stopped challenging my own assumptions and biases and those of the people around me.

I love Oxford.  But—in contrast to how I felt just a month or two ago—I now know that it is time for me to leave.  In the last month, I’ve attended lavish parties and even watched the Royal Wedding.  I’ve avoided passing judgment on them—despite that I would have abhorred them as an undergraduate—under the name of neutrality and relativism.  I’m ready, though, to stop being a tourist and an observer, and to get back to being an activist and an ethical being.  Those labels are real and they do matter.