The 90% Rule

Last night, I met someone who produces no waste. Now, you could quibble over the technicalities—in an obvious biological sense, we all make some waste—but I was still impressed. She eschewed all food that came in disposal containers, bought things in packaging only if she could reuse it, and got all of her clothes second-hand. This woman literally did not have a trash-can in her house. There were a few fudges—think, “hygiene products”—but as far as I’m concerned, she was close enough that we could round down to “zero”.

Every time I encounter someone like this—who only eats local or fair-trade food, who exclusively gets clothes and other goods from thrift stores or freecycle, who strictly adheres to veganism—I always flirt with the idea of having a go at it myself. There’s something tempting about perfection, about the moral acuteness of “all” or “none” as opposed to “a little” and “a lot”. I’m certainly inspired enough by my encounter that I’m taking another look at everyday practices that, although I’ve rarely reflected on them, produce waste unnecessarily.

I’m pretty sure, though, that I’ll stop before I get to zero. Maybe I’m just lazy. But I have another justification, which I call the “90% rule”, or perhaps, the “law of diminishing returns to ethical consumption”. With any sort of lifestyle politics, you can get 90% of the way to where you want to be relatively easily, but afterward, progress is painful. Most of us could easily cut out 90% of our clothes purchases if we learned to take better care of them and sew (I’m speaking mostly to myself here). But when all of your boxers have holes in them (again, self-referential), it’s hard to find a fix that doesn’t involve buying something new.

When I first went vegan, I studiously read labels and spurned anything that “may contain less than 1% eggs or milk”. I religiously declined non-vegan food in all circumstances. I cut myself zero slack on special occasions. And, for all my efforts, my panic only deepened as I learned about the trace amounts of cow bones in refined sugar or rodents killed in the production of vegan crops.

Eventually, I just gave up. I still consider myself a vegan, but I know many militant animal rights activists who would challenge my application of the label. I rarely read ingredient labels; I cheat shameless on holidays; when I dumpster dive, all bets are off when it comes to baked goods. Like I said, maybe I’m just lazy. But I’ve also realized that our time is limited, and time spent finding soy cheese without trace amounts of whey is time not spent protesting or educating others.

We need moral exemplars—people like the woman I met—who show us that we can push the boundaries in our lives and our ethics. But I also think we need people (I’m not actually including myself here) that show us that living as a vegan, or non-waster, or locavore is more-or-less attainable without Herculean efforts. Maybe the biosphere has space for No Impact (Wo)Man and Some Impact Man.

Outfitting My Room: Bargain Shopping for Anti-Consumerists

The story of the last two months has been one of finding places for things.  It started when I began packing to leave Oxford, attempting to cajole my worldly possessions into fitting in two duffel bags.  Looking into the closets and storage spaces of my college-owned graduate house, I realized that many international students had faced a similar challenge—and simply left their things behind.  I could have left the closets for future archaeologists to excavate, but when Jackie started cleaning them, I set about finding homes other than the waste bin for ancient printers, leftover crutches, and fifty-odd medals that were supposed to be distributed at the 2004 British University Athletics Championship.

Home presented its own set of challenges for my commitment to non-wasting.  When we moved to Oregon my junior year, my parents—perhaps hoping to lessen the trauma of leaving my childhood home—let me let me pack up my entire room, right down to the most useless of knick-knacks.  This summer, however, the day of reckoning had come, and I opened up those boxes—some of which were, literally, labeled “Random Crap I Don’t Have the Heart to Throw Out.”  What place other than the landfill, I wondered, is a good home for 4th Place Little League Trophies?  And what should happen to stuffed animals for which I can’t even remember the names anymore?

After the unfortunate revelation that I had not just two duffel bags of stuff, but actually boxes and boxes of it, I committed myself to starting my life in Berkeley on an anti-consumerist note.  To be fair, Berkeley makes it easy.  Even in the ritziest neighborhoods through which I’ve walked, every block or two there is a couch, box of books, or appliance set out on the curb for the taking.  I found my desk at Urban Ore, a waystation for furniture in transit from derelict low-income housing to the landfill.  My bed—which has actual springs from the 19th century—I acquired from a friend clearing out his cabin.  I rounded it out with a bike unearthed from a pile of rusting frames at a shop that refurbishes abandoned cycles.  All told, I set myself up for $75 and, more importantly, never stepped foot inside IKEA.

It feels good to look around my eclectically decorated but ethically consistent bedroom and realize that I have, in a small but significant way, re-engaged with the anti-wasting and anti-consuming ethics I picked up through my time with the freegans in New York.  But—since to study sociology is to live in a constant state of self-examination—I can’t help but apply a bit of theory to reality.  Particular, I am reminded of sociologist Georg Simmel, who theorized the personality types revealed by certain orientations towards money.  Superficially, he noted, “misers” and “spendthrifts” have the exact opposite attitude towards money: one throws it away flippantly, and the other hoards it.  But in the end, both wind up with a similar obsession—each makes money central to his or her life and identity, whether or not the aim is to keep it or to spend it.

There is a certain fetishism in the anti-consumerist ethos, albeit the exact opposite of the kind identified by Marx: rather than ignore where our commodities come from, we obsess about their origins.  Anti-consumerism is supposed to be about realizing that we don’t need the things that advertisers tell us we do.  Yet, not-buying is less about not-having than is simply not-spending.  By searching through flea markets and pouring over Freecycle ads, we become,in a sense, bargain shoppers with a price point of $0.

I worry because, ultimately, the time I spend worrying about what I am consuming and how to consume it is a distraction from doing something proactive, productive, and pro-social.  And so, in the future, I think the solution may occasionally have to be just to plunk down some money, push all those useable but discarded items out of my mind, and actually go and try to change something.

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

Nan

1 – 11 – 10

It was another incredibly pleasant day in Nan—even if I have little to report from it.  We woke up and went to the morning market (there are separate markets for the afternoon and evening), where we bought sticky rice in banana leaves for a whopping $.17.  How it is that we in the West are not eating sticky rice all the time is beyond me: who would have thought that a little coconut cream could turn rice from boring to delicious?

In her element.

I went with Jackie to her school in order to get a wider view of elementary school in Thailand than just sixth graders in skimpy outfits.  Jackie had decided to eschew lesson planning in favor of having her students pepper me with questions.  After an hour, I was left with new respect for elementary school teachers: given how slowly time seemed to move while I was standing in front of her kids, I cannot imagine how my teachers managed to keep us entertained for seven hours a day, five days a week.

No caption needed.

After school, we grabbed our bikes and visited a pair of Jackie’s friends along the river.  We closed the day with a feast at a local restaurant.  After just a little time in Nan, I can see the draw for ex-pats: the town is large enough to not feel completely backward, but still feels low-key and familiar.  I could certainly stay for a lot longer.

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In the abstract, I am no fan of markets.  Among my radical and freegan friends, “markets” are a frequent object for derision and resentment: we complain about how “markets” are ruining the planet and compelling us to participate in an economic system we don’t support.  Somewhat more substantively, in my studies a dogmatic faith in free markets is connected to some of the worst excesses of development policies.  “Markets” are the reason that badly needed health and education services are cut in Africa, and “markets” provide the logic for forcing poor countries to drop trade barriers so they can be flooded with subsidized food from the west.  In short, any way you look at them, markets suck.

Note the pile of coconuts in the background. Definitely the central point of this photo.

Unless, of course, you’re talking about the physical places, markets, sans quotation marks.  Actual, tangible markets I love.  In fact, there often the first place I seek out when I travel.  Sometimes, I wonder why: markets are, of course, a place where capitalism is at its finest, with small entrepreneurs selling and nearly everyone buying.  Not to mention that in the third world, visiting a market inevitably means walking by rows and rows of skinned, but still recognizable, animals.  Even when I avert my eyes, I can still smell it.

Apparently, these are compressed blood.

I suppose that I appreciate markets because, in contrast to strip malls or department stores, markets are very social places.  Jackie knows her “sticky rice ladies” and “tofu lady,” and a purchase from them is inevitably accompanied by some friendly banter.  She is loyal to them (apparently—somehow—she’s sick of sticky rice, but keeps supporting them nonetheless), and they clearly appreciate her (for more than just the 5 baht they get out of her).

While ultimately, the main reason to go to a market is to buy things, I certainly don’t feel the same overwhelming compulsion to purchase useless crap that I do when I am in a shopping mall, because there’s something else to being there.  I wouldn’t mind “capitalism” and “free markets” so much if there wasn’t such a strong sense that the business of economies is necessarily atomized and anti-social.  Market aren’t just places where we go to buy the material necessities of life, but also places where we connect with the community that makes life meaningful.  The act of walking among one’s fellow humans, I think, is half the point.

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1 – 12 – 10

As I run out of touristy activities to describe (at this point, I’m really just trying to slow down time so I don’t have to leave), I am turning to totally unsupported sociological pedantry.  One of the most wonderful elements of Nan—not to essentialize a diverse community which I’ve experienced only for three days too much—is the degree of trust people seem to have in one another.  Tired of borrowing from her roommates, Jackie and I went to a local shop to rent a bike.  Upon telling the shopkeeper (really, more motioning, given her limited English) that we wanted to rent a bike, she disappeared into the back.  She returned after 30 seconds, wheeling out a bike, and bid us adieu.  We didn’t fill out any paperwork or leave any collateral.  She didn’t say when she wanted us to return it, and didn’t say how much she wanted us to pay her when we did.

Of course, that situation was partly made possible by the fact that Jackie is a schoolteacher and, by merit of being white in a town that is 99% Thai, easy to track down.  Other things I’ve seen here, though, are less explicable.  When we went south, we left a pair of bikes—unlocked—out in the street in front of the bus station, for a week, and they were waiting for us on our return.  Jackie’s apartment is left open and unlocked all day, and her roommates leave their laptops out on the porch.  Apparently, this is not the crime season in Nan.

I suppose if I’m going to get really pedantic, I should add that this communal trust is what we as sociologists call “social capital.”  While this may very well be a textbook example, however, the label “capital” seems misleading.  “Capital” is something we uses to create something else: we spin our “human capital” into getting better jobs, and financial capital is only useful insofar as it helps you start a business.  Capital is not beneficial in and of itself.  This summer in Uganda, our project sought to try to connect social capital to economic benefits too, but often the links between those two are harder to find.

As tends to be the case, we are missing the point.  Being able to trust one’s neighbor may not be particularly helpful for increasing economic activity in an isolated poor community.  But it is a good in and of itself.  I am jealous that people in Nan can leave their doors unlocked and rest easy about their personal property.  While it may not make them wealthier, I am sure that they are left richer for it.

Indulgences

“We could live off of dumpsters if we have to
Sell our blood by the pint to make rent
This kind of dignity doesn’t come easy
But you’ll never find it for sale”
- Against Me!

One of the things that surprised me in Uganda was that there were no beggars. I expected Kampala, the capitol city of the seventeenth poorest country in the world, to have exponentially more panhandlers than New York, but it didn’t. In fact, I think I only ran into one during my entire time in Uganda, but the experience has stuck with me.

I was rushing around the busy downtown district, trying to patch one of the many leaks in the perpetually sinking ship that was our project. I practically stepped on him: a kid, no older than three or four, draped in a dirty oversized t-shirt, sitting square in the middle of the sidewalk. His hands were cupped and arms outstretched. It was such a clichéd image, except it was real: it could have been part of an appeal from a Christian Children’s Fund television commercial, except the backdrop was so incongruous. Businessmen and women wearing crisp suits and yammering into cell-phones were charging past on either side, washing around him by just enough to avoid stepping on him. The setting was Kampala at its most modern, but the kid was practically an archetype of the sort of African poverty that Western bleeding-hearts find so gut-wrenching.

Frantic and sleep-deprived as I was, I still felt like I had to do something. I reached into my wallet, pulled out a thousand shillings, plopped it into his hands, and hustled off. An hour later, I was coming back. The kid was still there. The bill was crumpled in his hands, and he was just staring at it. There were many things I could have done at that moment—taking my money back and using it to buy him some food would have been a good start—but I was in a hurry. I put him behind me and settled into the throng walking by. To this day, I can’t imagine why I thought one thousand shillings would be enough to buy myself a clear conscience.

That is not to say, though, that money cannot assuage guilt. I knew my twin flights home and to Thailand over this break were bad from an ecological point of view, but I didn’t realize how bad until I actually calculated it. With disconcerting precision—factoring in the type of ticket, layovers, and type of jet—I was able to determine the precise footprint of my trips: ten-thousand kilograms of carbon dioxide.  In forty hours of flight time, I am responsible for four times the amount reduced by an entire year of my being vegan, five times the sustainable yearly output for each person on the planet, and one-hundred times the average emissions of a sub-Sahran African.

I can do more than just quantify my guilt: I can put a price on it. I really hate the idea of carbon offsets. There is something painfully cavalier about it, the arrogance of believing we can continue to drive SUVs and build huge houses and think that, at the end, we can make our sins invisible with a credit-card transfer. But, acknowledging that I can’t undo my trips—and don’t really want to—sending some money towards reforestation in Brazil and clean energy in India seemed like the least-bad option left.  Indeed, for a few extra dollars, I could go above and beyond simply offsetting my flights, towards actually reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. I guess sometimes dignity can be bought.

I still feel bad about that kid, though.

Desert Island

For the past three years, I haven’t asked for anything for Christmas. Partly, this is just an inevitable consequence of gradually maturing beyond the age where the prospect of a gigantic Lego set is enough to keep me up on Christmas Eve. In part, though, it’s also because I’ve consciously been rejecting the idea of presents—not just because I resent that Christmas has been co-opted by consumerism (I think a lot of people do), but because I resent consumerism in general.

In a moment of Grinch-inspired eco self-congratulation, I was thinking about the possessions I would really want if I were stranded on a desert island, and figured it’s a fairly limited list. I’d be content if I could have some seitan and tempeh, a few (boring, academic) volumes of sociology, my bass guitar, and a few photos. If you add in a few pints at the pub a month, you actually have a reasonably good accounting of the things I actually still buy. My vices are (vegan) food, books, and the occasional album off of iTunes.

At least in the Al Gore, twenty-little-things-you-can-do-to-save-the-planet sense of being environmentally conscious, I think I am doing pretty well. I’ve gotten to the point where I am so plastic-bag-phobic that I will walk around Oxford with an absurd number of groceries in my hands if I left my cloth bags at home. I make loads of passive aggressive comments about the pile of disposable coffee cups my fellow students burn through during our mid-seminar breaks, and make sure to bring my re-usable mug. I’m militant about turning off the lights, taking short showers, and maintaining a low-carbon-footprint diet. And, of course, I try not to buy a lot of useless crap.

Someone in my department sent me a nice e-mail the other day, stating that she thought my commitment to living my principles was admirable. I really appreciated it, but I can’t help feel like a bit of a fraud. As with many things in life, though, I feel like winning small battles doesn’t change the outcome of the war. Author Derek Jensen crunched some numbers of the greenhouse gas reductions that would occur if every American did the little things were supposed to: changed light bulbs, cut car miles, recycled, switched to low flow showerheads, turned down the thermostat, etc. His final figure is that—even in the most optimistic scenario—it would only cut our greenhouse gases by about twenty percent.

I calculated my carbon footprint every night and—despite registering the most pro-environmental practices possible on everything from recycling to diet—we would need to have six earths to support six billion me’s. It’s disheartening because it makes me realize that my big impact comes just through my existence: the little things don’t matter so long as I live in a big house, wear clothes made in factories, and fly home for Christmas. The problem is that I’m a white, Western male, not that I’m a conscientious or unconscientious one.

In short, I realize that in reality, the only way for me to live in accordance with my principles is to go live on a desert island.

On “Happy Meat”

There are a few questions that seem to get asked at every single animal rights event I’ve ever been to, in spite of their complete inanity.  At the end of any lecture by a vegan philosopher, it’s inevitably that some carnivore with raise their hand and smugly—as if they had come up with an idea so original it would be totally debilitating to the vegan argument—ask, “How do you know plants don’t have feelings too?”  Another inevitable question that makes me feel like throttling someone is “What if we bred animals that want to be eaten?”

Image from "suicidefood.blogspot.com", which you should totally check out.

I am forced to concede, however, that apparently these idiots might actually be on to something, at least with one common query.  According to the Telegraph, Dutch scientists have managed to grow something vaguely resembling meat in a laboratory. At least some animal rights supporters are excited about this development: PETA, in fact, is offering one million dollars to anyone who can get this petri-dish pork onto shelves by 2012.

There are, of course, some obvious reasons to stay skeptical.  The meat in question was cultured using in a solution made out of, well, meat, which rather defeats the entire purpose (they are hoping to come up with a synthetic alternative).  Moreover, the erstwhile pork chop was a bit soggy: there’s a lot of development that will need to take place before it is edible, much less marketable.  Still, in principle, I like the idea: as someone who very much enjoyed the taste of meat in my sixteen years of pre-vegetarian darkness, I suppose I would be willing to eat meat that involved no animal suffering and avoided the environmental externalities of livestock production.

All that said, though, the real reason I am writing this post is, ironically, to state why I think animal rights groups talking about “test-tube” meats is, ultimately, a useless distraction.  Imagine, for a moment, that by some miracle of engineering they managed to produce laboratory meat that was no more expensive than factory farmed meat (unlikely) and tasted the same (double unlikely).  Would this change the present state of animal exploitation in the world?

I submit that it would not.  As it is, eating animal products involves humans putting their most trivial interests—taste, convenience, and habit—over the most fundamental interests of animals—life and the avoidance of suffering.  Purchasers of so-called “humane” animal products only reinforce this calculus, making purchases that, essentially, assert that even when we attempt to consider animal interests, they only merit tiny alterations, like a slight improvement in the method of slaughter, a slightly larger cage (Anyone interested in learning about such “happy meat” should check out Gary Francione’s blog).

My point is, so long as the most inconsequential of human interests are accepted as invalidating any interest of an animal (if we even accept that they have them), then no one is going to bother buying laboratory meat.  There are already a whole host of meat substitutes, but their proliferation has not managed to make the population go vegetarian.  Why would anyone risk eating a genetically engineered steak that might taste a bit funny, when they are able to purchase the real thing guilt-free?

These issues have been on my mind on multiple fronts this week.  In advance of Copenhagen, a few animal rights supporters released a report claiming that a whopping 51% of greenhouse gas equivalents come from livestock (the previous guess, from the U.N., was that animal production accounted for a still-disturbing 18%).  The study’s flaws (there are many which I may write about later) aside, I can’t imagine it will do much good.  The issue of eating meat remains an “exception” issue.  What other human practice—so grossly destructive of our planet and the things that live on it—is considered “off the table” for legislative action?

There are many ways to dance around the issue, to try to create alternatives to meat or put forth environmental or health arguments for vegetarianism.  Ultimately, though, change will only come when we—as individuals, as societies, and as a species—come to grips with the fundamental question: is it right or wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering and death on lesser—but nonetheless sentient—beings?

Everything else is a distraction.

Smile! At least you’re poor!

So, here are some research findings with interesting implications for contemporary policy debates in the U.S.:

Kenyans—despite living in a country with nine times the infant mortality rate of the United States and living twenty-two fewer years—report being as satisfied with their health care system as Americans are.

Afghanis, for their part, are part of the fourth most impoverished nationality in the world.  They also report above-average levels of happiness.  In fact, Afghanis smile significantly more frequently than do the notoriously chipper Cubans.

I haven’t posted very frequently (or at all) on the things I’m learning on the academic front.  While my brain is certainly being stuffed full of all sorts of knowledge, I generally don’t see much aim in me publicly regurgitating it if I don’t have anything to add.  That said, I’ve made it a point to attend public lectures and seminars here, and some of them—like Carol Graham’s lecture on the economics of happiness today—are too fascinating not to share.

Some of her results are straightforward and unsurprising.  Higher income countries are, on the whole, happier than lower income ones, though the benefits to increased income fall drastically after a certain point (it’s not much better to be American than Portuguese).  Married people are a lot happier than unmarried ones (though the causality might run both ways—that is, happy people get married rather than married people get happy).  Education doesn’t have much impact on happiness either way, while unemployment has massive negative effects on self-reported well-being.  Happiness declines over a person’s lifetime until they are about forty-five, after which point it starts to rise.  People over eighty are the happiest people in the world.  Centenarians are pretty much living on cloud nine 24/7.

Five times as rich as Columbians, and we're no happier.

Okay, so no mind-blowing so far.  Where it gets interesting is in the adaptability of human happiness to stress, shock, and trauma.  Reported happiness in the U.S. dropped significantly in the 2008 economic crisis; if you superimpose a graph of happiness on the stock market, they track almost perfectly, until the start of 2009.  After then, happiness rebounded much faster than shares; in fact, Americans are now as happy as they were in the good times of 2007, even though they are materially much worse off.  The same inelasticity of happiness can be seen in more extreme examples: Afghans, for example, are relatively unaffected by corruption and crime, presumably because they’re so used to it.  On an individual basis, people who are victims of horribly accident and become paralyzed eventually make their way back to their previous level of happiness, despite facing disabilities we would assume would be quite depressing.

Before I go on, I should acknowledge that there are all sorts of problems with the study of “happiness.”  What, after all, is happiness, and what do people mean when they say they are happy?  Jackie’s students in Thailand, when asked, “How are you?” respond “I am happy” in the same way an American would say “I am fine.”  How people describe their happiness is heavily dependent on how you ask the question: the response to an open-ended question about happiness is very different from one in which a person is asked to compare their current life to the best possible life they can imagine.  People are much less like to say they are happy, in response to a survey, if the question is asked after queries about their job or home life.

Methodological problems aside, though, what I learned has some interesting implications.  The indomitable adaptability of human beings becomes inconvenient and confusing, from an international development perspective, when we apply it to economic growth.  People who bump up to a higher income bracket—either because they won the lottery or got a raise—are initially quite pleased but tend to “adapt” back to their previous level of happiness, as if nothing had changed.  More broadly, countries seem to keep to their previous level of happiness in spite of economic growth.  The United States has had a four-fold increase in GDP per capita in the last half-century, but we are no happier for it.  Japan’s income per head has quintupled over that same period, but there happiness has actually declined.  The process of economic growth itself actually seems to make people unhappy: as a species, we like being rich, but we don’t much appreciate the instability and change required to get there.

This brings us back to the contented Kenyans and the cheery Afghans.  There are so many reasons why I think it’s “bad” that Kenyans have nearly non-existent healthcare and Afghans lack basic freedoms and security.  And yet, from a utilitarian point of view, it is challenging to explain, why, exactly, these deprivations need to be corrected.  What, after all, is the point of development if it doesn’t make people any happier?  People seem to want clinics, schools, roads, and factories, but if these things aren’t ultimately going to make their lives any better, what’s the point?

From another perspective, there is something hopeful about the idea that more is not necessarily better.  As I prepare to go to London tomorrow to demonstrate against inaction on global warming, it is increasingly apparent to me that the implicit assumption of international development is a sham.  We like to envision a world where everyone can attain a Western standard of living, but it’s increasingly obvious that the biosphere could never support it.  At least now I know that giving up on this illusion doesn’t mean much, since it wouldn’t make us happier anyway.

Cultural Exchange

While the anthropologist in me knows I shouldn’t say this, there are some things in foreign countries that just suck.  In Uganda, it was cardboard boxes: they were just objectively horrible, fallilng apart as soon as you put something in them (begging the question: what is the purpose of a cardboard box in which you can’t put things?).

In England, it’s washing machines.  I started a load of wash an hour and a half ago, and the thing is still going.  I’ve tinkered with the settings, pulled all the knobs, and punched all the buttons, and I have still yet to figure out a way to make doing a load of wash take less than three times as long as it does in the U.S.  Of course, it wouldn’t help if I could get the washing machine to function at an American rate of speed, since the dryer is even slower.

Just so we don’t think I’m being completely disdainful of England, they do have at least one leg up on us in terms of appliances: electric kettles.  At first, I thought that the kettle only functioned to make water for tea (which is, of course, a pretty big function).  But then I learned, through watching my English flatmates, that you can actually use an electric kettles to make hot water for, well, anything you need hot water for.  I realize that this is terribly obvious, but when you eat a lot of pasta, this is a rather life changing discovery: I can make a boiling pot of water in two minutes, while on the stove I would usually wait twenty.

While I’m on the subject of appliances, I might as well mention my new blender.  Even a cheap American blender probably has a good nine settings on it, allowing you to make a careful choice between “puree” and “liquefy.”  My blender here—and every blender here, according to my comparison shopping—has only one button: “On.”  Admittedly, that’s really all I need: when I am using a blender, I really just want it blended, and it doesn’t much matter the power level.  But I think as an American I have an intrinsic need for a multiplicity of useless choices and functions, and so my single speed blender is a bit distressing.

If you are expecting some redeeming, overarching message to this really inane post about kitchenware, you are on the fast track for disappointment.  It is interesting to me, though, that in this world of global capitalism, where you can find cell-phone wielding entrepreneurs in rural Africa, English people still have pre-modern blenders and Americans haven’t discovered the secret to boiling water.  Culture is a sticky, stubborn thing, a fact I discovered when I suggested to Nicola that English washing machines were a tad slow.

Piece of Crap

Here is a short list of things in Uganda which suck:

Bread.
Cardboard boxes.
Pens.
Ketchup.

It’s not complete. There are a lot of things here that suck, actually. The fact that children here die of easily preventable diseases, for example, sucks. The predicament of adults who planted coffee because some Mzungu researcher told them that was how they could “develop” but are now starving because the price dropped and they didn’t plant food also sucks. So does living in a sham democracy.

The items I listed above, though, don’t suck in the moral sense; they just plain suck. It appears to be literally impossible to get a cardboard box here that does not fall apart as soon as you put something heavier than a stapler inside. I wasn’t aware that a cardboard box was really capable of exploding until this morning, when 500 questionnaires in a box burst out into freedom, leaving only a few scraps of cardboard wafting down to the ground. The bread here tastes stale practically by design, and crumbles instantly when taken out of the plastic bag in which it was previously sealed. As for the ketchup, well, don’t even get me started; who knew you could mess up tomatoes and salt so much?

My parents once joked to me that the U.S. won the Cold War because – as they discovered during their travels to the Soviet Union in 1989 – the U.S.S.R. couldn’t manufacture a ballpoint pen that worked. While I think there are better explanations for the collapse of communism, they have a point (or is it “nib”?). Pen-production may not be a mark of civilization, but it does suggest something about the level of advancement in a society when such basic items are so wanting.

The situation in Uganda is different, though, because none of these crappy items actually come from Uganda. It’s not that Ugandan’s can’t make a quality cardboard box; they just don’t make them at all. Practically everything here is imported. When I first came to Kampala, I figured that the perpetual haze over the city was the result of industry, a byproduct of the rush to modernize. I now know that the haze is natural, and that Uganda could – quite frankly – use a little pollution, because it would mean someone was producing something.

I can’t help but compare what I’ve observed in Uganda with what I’ve learned about the supposed place of the Third World in narratives about the globalized world. The simplistic, popularized view, articulated most obnoxiously by Thomas Friedman, is that globalization is all about interconnectivity and information, internet and technology. Thanks to the indomitable Professor Kelly, I know that this version of globalization puts a rose tint on the very real inequalities and exploitative situations created by globalization. A more accurate (if dangerously Marxist) characterization of globalization is as the process by which the means of production move from the first to the third world. Globalization isn’t so much about South Asians on cell-phones as it is South Asians working long hours in factories producing items once manufactured in the west.

I’ve learned very quickly that Africa seems to be the exception continent, and describing production in Uganda is, well, no exception: neither narrative really fits here. Take, for example, cell phones. Cell phone coverage in Uganda, while imperfect, is better than in most parts of Arizona, and assuredly better than anywhere on the Navajo Reservation. Cell phones are incredibly prevalent here; they are such a basic commodity that on every block there is a charging station, so that people without electricity can still have a cell phone. Moreover, Ugandan’s are serviced by five or six networks locked in fierce competition. The marketing is so intense that probably every third storefront in a given village is painted orange for Mango, yellow for MTN, or pink for Zain.

Thomas Friedman et al. would likely be convinced that this shows how quickly Ugandans are integrating themselves into the global economy, using information technology to leverage their comparative advantage and market Ugandan products to the rest of the world. This can’t be true, though, since no one here produces anything, and the owners of the cell phone companies – some of whom, strangely, I’ve met – are never Ugandan nationals. Uganda doesn’t fit into the poor producer / rich consumer relationship we see between countries like China and the U.S. because, fundamentally, Uganda is a consumer society. One thing that amazes me about Uganda is the amount of effort that goes into selling things to people who have nothing; billboards arrive in Ugandan villages long before running water. Those Ugandan’s that are employed, as far as I can tell, are involved in buying and selling (and re-selling, and re-selling, and re-selling, as the people hawking phenomenally random shit at every intersection attest).

Economists generally agree that it is better for a country to be exploited for its cheap labor and exports than to be cut out of the global economy entirely. While I tend to believe that this is bullocks, being in Africa makes me think that they have a point. Countries like Thailand or Mexico, where people busily manufacture goods for a pittance, are at least involved in a two-way relationship with the rich world. Uganda, on the other hand, is in an even worse place: literally the dumping ground for unwanted and useless crap. And, as far as I can tell, there’s no way out.