When I embarked on my thesis project on freeganism, I envisioned myself as following the model of some of my favourite professors—Patricia Fernandez-Kelly, David Graeber, and Peter Singer come to mind—in combining genuine academic inquiry with a strong commitment to social change. Ít wasn’t enough to just be a neutral observer of a group confronting serious injustices; in my mind, even academics had to take a side, and find a way to give research political significance. I envisioned myself using my study of the freegans to dispel popular myths, recruit new participants, and help the group itself develop. As my thesis sits on my parent’s bookshelf gathering dust, though, I have to admit that I never quite figured out how exactly to spin qualitative interviews and ethnographic observation into environmental justice and economic transformation.
And, to be honest, despite the popularity of “action research” and “public sociology”, I don’t think most researchers know either. Many in the social sciences are captivated by Foucaultian idea that “knowledge equals power”, and yet few, as far as I can tell, can actually explain what this power is good for. All the “Green Revolution” tweets and blogs in the world couldn’t overthrow Iran’s government when the tanks and riot police rolled out, and, as far as I can tell, all the peer-reviewed articles about destruction of the Amazon have done little to stop it. Indeed, if global warming was being reversed in proportion to the volume of academic publications about it, we’d be heading for a new ice age.
What I’m getting at, in a roundabout way, is that I think a lot of researchers make promises they can’t keep. In our quest for data, we all too often confuse researching helping people with actually doing it. And, worse, we use our nebulous good intentions to convince people to participate in studies, without the slightest clue of how we will ever actually follow through on these intentions. In reality, most research is self-interested: it’s about getting titles and degrees and tenure, and the social benefits are an externality.
By no means do I think that the idea of “research-activism” should be abandoned. That said, this summer I am being careful about the promises I make. While it kills me to say it, I am open with myself and others about how little a master’s student can do in the face of corrupt nation-states and big-oil. What I can offer, though, is a chance for people to tell their stories—to give them a voice, if not to guarantee an audience.
– – – – –
Today I had an interview with the founder of a rather legendary environmental movement in Ecuador. It wasn’t the most successful interview in the world—I’ll blame language barriers, and my own awkwardness—but I snagged some useful data and came that much closer to believing that yes, really, I will have a thesis. As usual, though, the most informative experience I had was an unexpected one.
I flagged a cab outside the office. I started chatting with the driver, and eventually managed to steer the conversation from an incredibly important topic—whether Holland or Spain is going to win on Sunday—to a somewhat more trivial one—whether Ecuador should rape and pillage the world’s most biodiverse rainforest in pursuit of oil. While usually when I ask about Yasuní, I get a short and equivocal answer, in this case I scored a life story.
My driver was born in the highlands, but his family moved into the Amazon—a few miles from Puyo—in the 1940s, when he was six years old. Like so many of the colonos, they went east to find land; what my driver found, he said, was a place of spectacular biodiversity. He passed a few minutes describing monkeys, birds, trees, and all sorts of flora and fauna of which I’ve never heard. A few years ago, though, he returned, only to discover that the area was, in his words, a “desert.” Not only have the environment been wiped out, but his community had disintegrated. Once proud, if poor, farmers had lost their self-sufficiency and grown dependent on trinkets offered by the oil companies. Things were getting worse, though: the wells were drying up, and so too was the meager stream of resources on which his community depended.
I asked him if it all this was because of oil, and he said “No, it’s not oil. It’s people.” Oil to him was just a proxy, a medium through which callous disregard for the natural environment and greed manifested itself. He added that the people of the Amazon had never seen any of the benefits of oil money, but even if they had, it wouldn’t matter: “Oil doesn’t belong to anyone; it’s part of the earth, and it ought to be left in the ground.” He reflected a bit longer, “I would rather the government grow drugs than drill for oil. Things grow back when you grow coca.”
I paid him $3 for the ride, including an absurd tip in gratitude for his wisdom and openness. As I stepped out, he called me back: “Wait, write my name down. I’m Guillermo Escobar, and I’m sixty-eight years old. Tell everyone at your university what I said.” I promised him I would.
As I read this, I know how completely cheesy what I have written sounds, and how many people would snigger at my naivety and essentialization and valorization of the “other” and all sorts of other terms of cynicism that I don’t quite understand. But, for whatever reason, Guillermo wanted me to share what he said, and I appreciate that, for once, I can follow through.