Promises I Can Keep

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.

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4 thoughts on “Promises I Can Keep

  1. I like this story, a lot. But:

    “In reality, most research is self-interested: it’s about getting titles and degrees and tenure, and the social benefits are an externality.”

    I think there’s another thing that research is for, and that’s knowledge for its own sake. It is worth knowing things about our world and the way it works and has worked and the ways in which people interact with it purely because knowledge is a greater good. I think some researchers might not research either for political ends or for cynically self-serving ends, but rather for commitment to the idea that knowing things is A Good Thing. If your research does not help people in Ecuador (which is not to say that it won’t; it might very well, and every thesis you write has the potential for broader and broader impact), it might help people back in Oxford, or back in the U.S., to put Ecuador on their radars as a place that needs help. I knew nothing about Ecuador before you started blogging about it; now I do, and I’ve really been reminded what a big scary deal the destruction of the Amazon is. Spreading awareness like this is A Good Thing too.

  2. I totally agree, Alex, but I think that the promises we make are less to society and more to funding bodies. It is nearly impossible to get funding for a project (at least in science) unless you can get the words ‘cancer’, ‘sustainable’, ‘eco’, ‘nano’, and ‘efficient’ into the abstract and, preferably, the title. Nobody likes to be told that, realistically, you will make about as much progress in your field as an asthmatic ant with some heavy shopping*, but that it is still interesting and who knows, you may be paving the way for something super in years to come. The old maxim ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’ is not what funders want to hear.

    On the other hand, talking and talking about something does help- when I was a kid I gave a big speech in a public speaking competition about global warming, CFCs and nuclear fuel. Back then (oh goodness, I’m so old!!), people thought this was scientific nonsense and no one knew what a CFC was except that maybe it was that new place on the corner of the high street where you could buy cheap and nasty fried chicken. A room full of people in Cornwall won’t have changed much but, slowly, more important people read the sort of things I read, made a bit of a fuss and now everywhere buzzes to the tune of catchy phrases like ‘carbon footprints’ and ‘going green’- getting into the public conscience may not mean that the Amazon is saved from logging and agricultural development but it may mean that we lower use of landfill sites, buy fewer petrol cars and increase pressure to channel public funds into newer energy technology.

    At the end of the day the public is sceptical. We need researchers to give us ideas and provide a few facts and figures to convince us that we should do something that will require a fair amount of faffage to sort out. Research discovers things, but it requires many other people to figure out how, why and when we can tackle issues.

    Also I love the taxi driver but would suggest that many things ought to be left in the ground, including but not limited to broad beans and brussel sprouts.

  3. Couldn’t you just give up on changing the world and use your time in the developing world to date cute brown girls?

  4. Aw, I like that story Alex. I agree with Emily. If you had a thesis of random, pat answers, then it would be harder to provide anecdotes in a social scene that more easily interest people and make them aware of the problems in Ecuador.

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