Haitian Proverb: Neg di san fe. People talk and don't act.
I didn’t sleep as well as I have been last night. I kept having weird dreams.
My eyes pop open as my body jolts back to waking consciousness. Everything is okay, go back to sleep. Two people were outside in the courtyard speaking in Kreyol. I walk over to my window, but I cannot see anything. “Ventwa (23), Vensis (26), Venwit (28)…” the smooth male voice spoke. What is this counting? A female voice appeared asking a question really fast. The male voice responded, then started to read out numbers again, “Karantun (41), karantde (42), karantsenk (45)…” This must be a radio show, but what kind. I remembered my professor telling us something about a book of numbers that Haitians use sort of as a fortune telling divination sort of thing, kind of like the I-Ching in Chinese culture. Something inside of me was a little freaked out. Flashback to watching Hotel Rwanda and the radio as a means of communication that it was time to kill… I put in my headphones and listened to some Haitian music to try to get back to sleep. It must’ve been the security guard listening to something on the radio, but I have no clue what it was. I’ll have to ask my professor back in the States.
This morning I was a little nervous about my interview. From my experience, and from what my Haitian professor has told me, Haitian people like to talk so I shouldn’t be as nervous that I didn’t really prepare. A knock at the door as I button up my shirt. Its James, my John Legend loving lobby attendant. “I just wanted to wake you up. Ms. Vivianne (the owner) said your driver will arrive at 8:30,” he said. In haste, I grabbed my shoes and told him I’d be ready and thanks. I struggled for a moment about whether to tuck my shirt in or not. Tucked in. Its more professional, right?
The driver got a little bit lost on the way. Shit! I’m glad I didn’t decide to walk like I originally planned. Very few of the streets have signs, there are people everywhere. He calls Ms.Vivianne and tells her to that we cannot find it. She tells him to ask someone, so he pulls over and gestures for me to roll down the window. No one knows where it is either. I’m not worried about being late. It must happen often here.
We finally figure it out. Its a small, but modern building with the foundation’s logo on the door. Before getting out, the driver writes his name on the back of a blue post-it note and says to call him when I finish. “Koman ou rele (What is your name)?” “Celestine,” he replies. “Mesi bokou,” as I leave is small white Toyota (with transmission problems).
When I walk into the Foundation, there is a small black woman sitting in the waiting area. She looks around my age. I walk past her to the a woman who appears to be the receptionist. “Mwen gen yon [pause as I search for the word for meeting…instead I go with interview] entevyou,” I ask. It seems that many people in business settings have been speaking French to me. Though I know a tiny bit, and can understand a tiny bit, it throws me off because I’m expecting Kreyol. “What is your name?” she asks after a failed attempt in another language. She stands up gesturing to the black woman sitting in the waiting area and leads us both into a room with the Co-Founder of the organization.
He is an “average” sized, white, male. “Ce va?” he asks. “I’m well.” Both the young woman and I take a seat across from him at his desk. He is bald and wears a gold cross around his neck. His red, white, and black plaid shirt is unbuttoned enough to reveal some chest hair and the gold chain he is donning. “I don’t speak French,” I proclaim. “Okay. I will have to struggle with English then,” he replies turning towards the woman “Do you speak English?” “I can understand it, but I don’t speak it well,” she says. The other co-founder walks in at that moment extending his hand for both of us to shake. “Shall we go into the conference room?”
We are joined by another woman who is called the Operations Manager. She has an American accent, but speaks to both of the men in Kreyol too. We go around the table and introduce ourselves and say what we do. I’m a graduate student in the U.S. interested in development and environment blah blah blah. The young black woman seems to work for an organization called Biotechnology Development in Africa (or BDA). The foundation has been trying to initiate a project with BDA for the past year, but its not moving ahead. [Because I am making these notes public I’ve decided not to use the real names of the directors at this point to protect them. They will be called L and C.] L does most of the talking, with C chiming in from time to time.
They keep getting interrupted with phone calls. “Sorry. Its crisis mode,” says the Operations manager. They explain to me that they are in the middle of receiving some money.
Money and politics are the main themes of our discussions. Though they’ve managed to survive, money and politics continues to be an issue. In Haiti, they explain, no one wants to do anything unless they see how it will benefit them. This explains why I’ve had such bad luck getting in touch with people here. For example, this project with BDA, which at this point is awaiting a signature just for a $250,00 feasibility study is being delayed because there is no money for people in the government to gain from it.
They detail how they have had many successful programs in the past but that they cannot be maintained because of funding. They had an “Ecole Verte” or green school which sough to education youth from Port au Prince about the environment and would take them up to La Visite Park, where they do all of there work. La Visite is one of two national parks in Haiti and is vital to the socio-ecological system here. “If the park goes, then so does all of Port au Prince’s water,” said the operations manager. Many people are migrating to the lands that are within the park out of necessity. It is probably better than living in “Site Soley” says C. They can grow food and have space up in the mountains where the park is located, but growing food means cleaning of trees for land.
I ask them if they are the only environmentally focused in NGO in Haiti and they say no. There are others but they have more of a philosophical approach at times, whereas there organization seeks to be more hands on and pragmatic. They work directly with the farmers (universally referred to as Peasants here). There organization is more interested in the people and the environment and not simply in conservation. They want to create jobs for people, and realize that addressing the environment in Haiti must also address the other issues like poverty. Value must also be placed in the environment for Haitian people to care. “If you had to cut down the last tree to save your family, you would, and so would I,” says C. I nod my head that I would. They need something that combines environmental concern and protection with the livelihoods of people, so they are interested in developing something like eco-tourism or or trees and foliage that can be useful in skin and healthcare products.
“Environment and development doesn’t exist here in Haiti,” says the operations manager. She is the most outspoken and skeptical about what can be done. Most people are only concerned with profit. Wealth is concentrated among the elite here and they will keep hold of it at any cost. Money first. “People are concerned with profit, and the government is concerned with power, but you already know that as a sociologist,” L says. International aid is an issues too. L claims that 80% of what Aid the international community gives to Haiti goes back to the donor country in some way. Think about the personnel and the materials. Most of that money doesn’t benefit Haiti. He tells me to think back historically. Its been 50 or 60 years of this international aid for development and where is the development? Haiti is in the same place as it was. On top of that, when it comes to aid trickling down to NGOs like their own, it is SLOW and INEFFICIENT. In fact, most NGOs here don’t make it past 10 years, though they have managed to survive for this long. “If you depend on international aid, without self-sufficiency, nothing happens,” says C. The woman from BDA asks about the private sector to which they reply is of no help. They are all for profit. They also have their own problems, as most of the businesses here are small and not thriving.
Given all of this I ask how they keep going. They strive to stay positive and they have commitments to the people. If they quit, then people will suffer. He makes sure to tell me that they do not sustain themselves from the Foundation, and that their own salaries come from other ventures. We talked for an hour and a half before saying our goodbyes. They handed me a flyer and a DVD about their organization. I asked if I could call the driver on their phone. As I waited for him, I sat in the main lobby area. The operations manager came over and asked if I needed anything. I told her I was fine, but had a question. “Are these large supermarkets owned by Haitians?” I ask. She says that most of them are owned by Arabs, and a lot of the management positions are occupied by Filipinos.
On the ride back to the hotel, the driver and I speak in Kreyol. He points to mountainsides, which is covered in colorful square structures, “I live up there.” “Se bel (Its beautiful)” I say. He nods yes with a smile. In english he asks, “Are you American black.” “Wi.” “Ou se Ayisyen (Are you Haitian)?” “No. M’ap etidye kilti ak lang Ayisyen nan inivisite (No. I’m styling Haitian culture and language at University),” I respond. I ask him about the supermarkets. He says there are many big supermarkets here. I ask him if he buys his food there and he said yes. I told him that at the supermarket I saw “anpil moun blan (many white people).” He explained to me that Petionville is a kominite (community) with a lot of white people. I asked fi it was because of all of the NGOs and embassy and he said no its because of the money. There are many people in Petionville with money. Looking up at the top of the mountains attests to this fact. They are speckled with very large houses. I hand him 50 gourdes as he pulls onto the sidewalk to drop me off. I tell him thanks and head inside.
In the lobby, James sits at his small desk listening to John Legend. In fact, as I write this he has listened to that one song, All of Me, 6 times, covers, instrumentals, and all. I NOW KNOW THE SONG BY HEART. I’m not mad though. Yesterday he told me that is how he learned English apart from school.
I've spent the rest of the day chilling in my room, except for my daily walk to the grocery store. Tomorrow I might go be a tourist and go to the National Museum. Its a must given my intrigue with, and love of, Haitian history.
My conversation with the local environmentally based NGO has left me a little bit puzzled. On the one, hand they suggested that all of this foreign involvement in Haiti has not been of much help, on the other they cannot imagine life without MINUSTAH, a UN peace-keeping force presence. They said that MINUSTAH has made it so that they feel safe, and that their families feel safe. The situation is further complicated by a government that has little financial stability, nor willingness to address problems that aren't of immediate benefit to those occupying places of power. If the Park that the organization seeks to protect, while enhancing the lives of people living there, gets overrun there could be dire consequences for the broader community. The people that I talked to today called it short-sightedness.
After hearing all of this I don't know exactly how to feel. I'm very inspired by the organizations efforts, especially given the constraints that they operate under. I felt a sense of pride for whatever reason. Here is an organization that is trying the best it can. Its scrambling for money all of the time, picking up crumbs here and there. This makes me a little sad. The people that care and that are actively doing something for the Haitian people, are the same people that have it hardest. Haiti needs to be self sufficient, as those slaves that rebelled against their colonial masters envisioned. Gen twop men an Ayiti e moun li (There are too many hands on Haiti and its people). I've lost track of all of the foreign NGOs, UN people, foreign embassies I've seen here. Yet as my friend from the Foundation pointed out not much has changed with all of this foreign assistance. Haiti remains at the bottom, one of the poorest in the world. It is historically outrageous that the first nation in the world to declare "Tout noun se noun (All people are people)" would in up in the situation that it is in today!
I’m reminded of what the sociologist Howard Winant writes, “In a socially just and historically conscious world the West would not only forgive the debt of the world’s “others”; it would seek forgiveness; it would seek to make good on their losses, to make them whole in the legal sense. Such an event—difficult even to imagine today, but pressing world-historical requirement—would go a long way toward destroying the racial hierarchy built into the contemporary global political economy” (16).
August 5 2014: Madi: Day three
I was able to order my breakfast in Kreyol. I’m happy. I sat alone thinking about questions for my interview tomorrow.
I was back in my room working on preliminary exam stuff, when I heard a knock on the door. It was a thin elderly Haitian woman, in a full out french maid outfit, except she wore no shoes. She said something really quick in Kreyol, and I grabbed my stuff and said, “Mwen pral ale mache a (I will go to the Market),” pointing in its direction.
Today, I noticed a lot more children were out and about. Some of them with parents, others not. Education in Haiti is an expense that most people cannot afford. Many children sat working with parents selling mangoes, bananas and such.
The market was packed this morning with people of many shades. The asian man from yesterday was there, except he brought along his young son and wife.
This market is clean. I mean extremely clean. The contrast with the rest of Petionville is stunning. Everything is neatly placed on the shelf, bin, rack, just like you would see in the US.
In a moment of reflexivity, I notice that I feel all too comfortable in the market. They’ve got just about everything that’d I would buy at home. I instinctively head to the bagged greens and pick up my greens, with the choice between regular and organic. I was even able to find some “eco-friendly” bottled water by deciphering what I could on the French label. “La bouteille Volvic utilize use resource renouvelable” it read. I then almost automatically seek out the non-dairy milks, of which they have every kind, from soy to almond. As if guilt crept up behind me, I put down the almond milk and go for the soy (even though I don’t normally drink soy milk and always go for the almond). I feel as though I need to be less comfortable. I feel as though I have it too easy. I get to shop in this neat, clean, safe, patrolled by shotgun carrying guards SUPER market while the majority of Haitian people buy their food from the side of the road.
This market really is for people of a certain socio-economic status. There are black Haitians shopping, but they are clearly the privileged ones. Two young black Haitian boys played on tablets as their parents journeyed through the aisles. A police officer with a Canadian flag pin placed on his shoulder, wearing a grey shirt and dark blue pants, browsed the bread aisle for just the right one. Two latina women speaking spanish grab a bag of dried chickpeas off of the shelf next to me. With everything I need for the day in my blue hand-basket I head to checkout with a cloud of guilt following close behind. Two men, one black and one Latin, stand behind the woman cashier, fiddling with a credit card reader. I glance around as I place my groceries on the belt. Every one of the cashiers is a black Haitian woman, while all of the baggers are black Haitian men. Perched like Judges overlooking the cashiers, were three customer service reps, all Latino. I’m beginning to think that this supermarket, in Haiti, is owned by Dominicans.
Back at the hotel, I wave to the guard to let me in. He comes to the door. “Koman ou rele (What is your name)?” he asks. Straining a little bit, I respond, “Mwen rele Michael.” He extends his hand and says his name too quickly for me to understand. He then says in Haitain, “You speak a little bit of Kreyol.” “Wi,” I respond laconically. I try hard to push out words that mean, “Very pleased to meet you.” I knew I didn’t get it right, but he understands. I was thankful that he decided to speak to me because it turned out to be a warmup, as I felt encouraged to speak to the young black Male sitting in the lobby that checked me in a couple of days ago. I had been rehearsing just what to say to him in Kreyol for the past day or so.
He is somewhat short, and slim, like most of the men that I’ve seen. It reminds me of what Charles Tilly says about stature as a sign of inequality. Less nutrition, smaller body/stature. “Ou renmen tande mizik Ameriken (You like to listen to American music)?” I ask. He responds in English, “I do. Very much.” “ M’ te tande ou tande John Legend (I heard you listening to John Legend),” I respond. “I love it very much. His music is so soft. I am downloading all of these songs to my phone right now,” he says with a smile. It is true. He really does love that song, All of me, I’ve heard it about 10 times since I’ve been here at this B and B. Even cover artist renditions! We talk for a bit about where we are respectively from, what we both study, our age (both 23), etc. Then after a pause, he asks me about meditation, and if they teach us meditation in sociology. I was a bit confused as to why he would ask that, but I said no they don’t. But he went on to talk about how he was reading about meditation on the internet from some French teachers I’d never heard of. He said it made him calm when he tried it. I told him that I was a meditator and that I started when I was 17. I said it was good for the mind, body, and spirit. It keeps you calm, and able to respond to your anger in a better way (of course if you practice regularly). He said he wants to learn more. I grabbed a blue post-it note from the counter and wrote down the name of one of my first (distant) Buddhist teachers, Thich Nhat Hanh, and told him to check out some of his videos on youtube.
We truly do live in a connected world. I’m amazed by the way that culture diffuses around the globe. I’ve been learning about his culture from afar. He’s been learning my language and culture from afar too, by listening to John Legend, Whitney Houston and others, while I’ve been listening to Haitian artists like Emeline Michel, Bethova Obas, and Boukman Eksperyans. We’ve both found a way to connect with an ancient buddhist meditation practice that could be thought of as foreign to us both. We were able to bond over this. “Thanks for talking with me,” I said and headed up to my room to write my notes for the morning, and study for my prelim exams.
I’ve spent most of the day lounging about, thinking about my interview tomorrow with one of the Co-Presidents of a locally-based NGO focused on the Haitian environment. According to their website, it is a local 501 c NGO created by “young local professionals, and Haitians businessmen who want to get involved in development and future of our country. We want to live in a better country, a greener and better Haiti tomorrow.” Their website is very nice, and they seem to have a well organized organization. Objectives: “Protect the environment. Revitalize the regional economy. Educate the population about the need to preserve these vital natural resources. Ensure the preservation of Seguin Park and other natural areas within Haiti. Develop ecotourism initiatives that sustain Haiti’s parks without further damage.” Tomorrow, I should have a very interesting conversation with the Co-President of the NGO. Their objectives are multi-faceted, which is extremely important when environmental deterioration is directly linked to poverty like it is in Haiti, unlike other places around the world, where industry has taken a toll on the environs. They seek to protect the environment, but also ensure the regional economy. They’ve also placed focus on education. Surprising, no where on the website, do they address issues of climate change, so this is something that I’ll have to ask about. Generally speaking, as evidenced by the lack of presence at the last global climate change negotiations (COP 19) in Poland, it seems that Haitian officials have little interest in climate change. I’m also interested in asking about the specific challenges that might be unique to Haiti when it comes to socio-ecological issues, as well as whether or not there is a strong presence of local Haiti-based groups working on environmental issues (human health as related to environment, biodiversity loss, climate change, deforestation, pollution, etc.).
I woke up earlier than usual, seven am, to catch breakfast at the Inn I’m staying at. My room door opens up straight into the lobby, so I was able to hear them setting up. I awkwardly tried to order breakfast in broken Kreyol-Spanish-English sitting next to a tall, blond, white woman. “My Kreyol is pretty bad. I speak too slow, and they speak too fast,” I said. She laughed and said that she didn’t speak Kreyol either, instead she knows a couple of kreyol words that you uses alongside her broken French, though I noticed that she had an Australian accent (or so I though). This naturally led into a conversation about why we were both here. I told her I was a PhD student from the U.S. interested in Haiti’s environment, climate change, and development efforts. She told me that she worked for Save the Children and that this wasn’t her first time in Haiti. Her job is set up in a way that she stays for two or three weeks in different places around the world. Suddenly her driver came in signaling to her that he was waiting outside, and she went back to her room before leaving the lobby. She looked back and waved and I waved back. A large brown man had walked into the lobby and was waiting for someone before he sat at the communal table. He was wearing a shirt that said “Earth Networks” so I of course had to ask him if that was the company he worked for. This was a talkative man. Upon asking simply, “Is Earth Networks the company you work for?” he replied, “Indeed it is…” and went on to talk about how they were installing some weather monitoring equipment…. to gauge lightening strikes… all in one breath. He didn’t dumb any of it down either. He seemed really into what he does. I asked him where he was based, and he told me Florida, along with other details about his life. He was born in Brooklyn and wondered why his Caribbean Island parents would ever move to a place so cold. I wondered where his parents must have been from, until he finally along the way said that he was Puerto Rican. We talked, though mostly him, about a bunch of different things in a short time window. He doesn’t like taxes, for the only fair taxes to him are sales tax. This is why he loves Florida. He hates the North because they give criminals too many rights…which made me wonder how he might have felt about Trayvon Martin and stand your ground law, but I chose not to ask. One must be careful not to show all of there progressive-radical cards at once. Before leaving, I asked the man and his translator, who had been quiet the whole time on his cell phone, for help getting to the grocery store. The translator directed me to the BIGGEST supermarket in Haiti and off I went.
On the way out, I passed a black couple, from the United States. She had a southern accent and her partner didn’t seem to have any accent, but he spoke Kreyol fluently. I was confused about how to get back in when I came back given the large cement walls and barbed wire enclosing our compound. That is when the security guard appeared out of nowhere and I noticed his small post through a tiny barred window on the other side of the large metal door.
I wanted to cross the street, but I didn’t really know how. An endless stream of cars and motorcycles with passengers kept incessantly up the hill. It is a terribly hard thing to do here. See back in Providence people mostly just step out in the middle of the road and expect the right-of-way. I didn’t get the feeling that that would work here. Everyone waited at length before crossing the road. There aren’t really any street rules here. The intersection just outside of my B and B has lights, but no one pays any attention to them, which leads to three or four cars merging at any given time on an intersection, and people speeding by who don’t want to turn, and the loud honking of horns. I decide to take my chances walking up the road without crossing in hopes that it would calm down up ahead.
I’m self-conscious. I wonder what people see when they look at me. Do they see a foreigner, or just another black man walking down the street. I intentionally packed plain clothes and black shoes, as to not draw attention to myself. People immediately speak Kreyol to me, but that is mostly because that is all that they know.
On the walk up to the grocery store, its around 8:30am, I notice people beginning to set up shop. There are men with red aprons on selling cellphone minutes, women selling fruit, men selling something made from sugar cane… I passed a man that was selling men’s dress shoes. There was a large group of men selling car tires, so I crossed the road, somehow safely. To my left, there was the Spanish embassy. I noticed UN vehicles and other embassy vehicles, noted because of the flag in the windshield window. On my right I passed a bank with men in uniform holding shotguns. I thought to myself, “Where the hell is the biggest supermarket in Haiti, because I don’t know where I’m going.” Reaching the top of the hill, I decided to turn back, and go to the bank with the armed guards. I walked up the hill into the parking lot only to find that this was the supermarket!! A supermarket guarded by men with shotguns. It was a large structure, though far smaller than a Stop and Shop in the United States. I got in line to use the ATM behind a white man wearing a grey shirt, shorts, and sandals. He took a while, which gave me time to look around. A security guard holding a shot gun walked by. That is when I noticed that the gun didn’t have ammunition; the clip was missing. Maybe they keep them unloaded on purpose and load them if they have to, or perhaps they never have ammo and the guns serve there purpose without ever needing to be used. Are the guns to keep people out, or to make those who shop there to feel safe?
As you walk into market, there is a pharmacy to your left, and there are all of the checkout aisles to the right. I immediately notice that all of the workers are black, except for a customer service representative who looks to me to be Latina, or at lease lighter skinned. Everything is priced in Haitian Gourdes. There are security guards speckled throughout the store, only this time without the guns. I immediately head towards the produce, and find a bunch of imported goods from the United States, at least when it came to green leafy vegetables. The same brands that I would find in the United States were present in the market, except they had more. They had stuff from France too. The majority of the stuff in the market was catering to “Westerners,” or “white people,” or people from “the Global North.” There were some Haitians shopping, but there were also people that were clearly not Haitian there too. What I found a little bizarre was that the market only had about 6 people shopping, but only at least triple that working. Perhaps this had to do with the time of day? I grabbed what I needed, some salad, a couple of bags of Kirkland (Costco brand?) almonds, Athenos Hummus, Prestige (Haiti’s only local beer), a couple of bags of chips, a carlton of Silk soy milk, toothpaste and headed to checkout. The woman cashier and her male bagger, weren’t too nice, but I don’t blame them. I’m sure they get sick of some of the people who frequent the shop. I wonder to myself if these working people can even afford to buy groceries from here, Carribean Supermarket. A small carton of soy milk cost $4.70, and my toothpaste cost $4.00, which happened to be the cheapest one. The Crest toothpaste was $10.00, or 470 Haitian Gourdes. This trip to the grocery store cost me more than what it usually cost me at Whole Foods! Damn. There is no way the average Haitian could shop here. Haiti has the lowest per capita income of any nation in the Western hemisphere, at $1,300 a year (by some estimates even lower). I just spent $35 on six items that will last only a day, two at most… Crazy. On the way out, I noticed what appeared to be managers. One of them was a lighter skinned, possibly latino man, and the other an Asian man. Race and ethnicity matters.
On the walk home I tried to pay attention to the physical environment. The side walks were nice and smooth in some places and cracked and uneven in others, dare I say even worse than Providence, ha. More street vendors were out selling food, food I as someone born and raised in the US wouldn’t dare eat. When I got closer to the intersection with my hotel I noticed an empty lot, where a building must have stood at some point, with trash thrown throughout. I still haven’t seen any birds other than the one, I saw yesterday at the airport. There are trees though, despite what I thought before coming to Haiti. The official statistic is that there is about 2% of tree cover left from Haiti’s originally forested landscape. In Petionville, the “suburb” that I’m staying in there are trees though. There are also above ground power lines. This to me indicates that people living in Petionville, which is about 300,000 have another means of energy generation. The typical story of deforestation in Haiti is that trees are cut down for charcoal for energy use, like cooking. Petionville has plenty of power, at least from my experience as a person staying in a bed and breakfast thus far, though an hour ago the power did shut off, but I heard a back up generator kick in. Still I’m trying to conserve…
After taking a lunch break and hanging out for a little while in my room, I decided it was time to go exploring on my own. I’d been hesitant because the man at breakfast was telling me about how he met a guy who hadn’t left the lodge other than to go to work, but since they were both here alone, they could go for a walk together safely. I’d also read things on the internet about abductions and robbery. I’ll admit I feel a bit first worldy. I’ve lived in some places that others in the United States fear for one reason or another, like Richmond, California, or even Central Falls, Rhode Island. Yet, here I am in Haiti with a little trepidation to go outside and walk around. After drinking one of the Haitian beers I bought to mellow my nerves, I decided it was time to face my ignorant American fears and go for a walk around Petionville. Maybe living in those places in the United States provided me with just enough courage to face that which others deem dangerous.
As I headed downstairs, I ran into the owner of the lodge for the first time, she asked where I was going, and I told her to the park. She followed by asking me if I was hungry, because she had a driver going to pick up some food for a customer soon. I told that I wasn't hungry, but she insisted that I take the ride down to the park. I have issues saying no. As I waited for the driver, I thought over and over, formulating my sentence in Haitian as properly as I could, “Mesi bokou, men m’ vle mache deyo a (Thank you very much, but I want to walk outside).” Just then she came out with the driver and told him to take me down on his way to Quarter Latin, the restaurant. In the car, it was much hotter than outside, because his air conditioner was blowing hot air! The trip took a bit longer than expected because he went the wrong way at first, but I eventually found some relief as I exited his old toyota (the kind you see in movies about places like Haiti or Africa). As I got out, I handed him some money, which he didn’t accept readily. As I went to cross the street, he signaled that the restaurant was the other direction. “Mwen pa vle manje (I don’t want to eat),” I said as I walked over to the park Boyer.
Plas Boyè, or Place Boyer was named after the ex-president and founder of Petionville. It is surrounded by people. All of them adults. Walking around the perimeter I passed through a group of younger adults selling some drink out of old hard alcohol containers, as they chatted and listened to Bob Marley blaring out of one of their cars. I’m struck by the amount of people that are just hanging out in the middle of the day, but to my surprise there were no children. Then I realized that what looked to be children’s play equipment, was actually exercise equipment, that NO ONE was interested in using. For a brief moment, I thought about it, but decided to keep on walking. The park had trees, which everyone sat or stood underneath. Haiti has an unbelievably high unemployment rate, some estimates as high as 90%, so its not sooooo surprising that the park was packed with adults midday. In terms of the landscape, this is a park with little to no grass. That is something I’ve noticed elsewhere: there isn’t really any grass in Haiti, for better or for worse.
I didn’t stay at the park long and decided to wander off, while still maintaining a sense of where I was. On this afternoon, as with any I’d imagine, the streets were packed with people selling things. I previously noted seeing people selling cell phone minutes, sugarcane stuff, shoes, belts, but on this walk I saw much more. Every so often you find the same sort of products being sold but by a different person. I walked by street vendors selling electronics, while blasting music out of the speakers they were selling, over and over again. Old books and magazines were being sold on the side of the road too. I spotted some in English and in French, with different titles. One thing stuck out though, the amount of old readers digests, probably from the 1990s and 2000s. There is a gendered element to the street vending phenomenon too. Women were mostly selling food, which there was a lot of, and men were the ones selling electronics and books and shoes. Everything the average Haitian needs on a daily basis, they seem to be getting from these street vendors, hell I even spotted several shoe repairmen working on broken sandals. No jobs means that they must create there own as entrepreneurs.
I was walking underneath this huge tree, when I heard a bizarre sound coming from above. Looking up, I spotted a huge blackbird resembling a crow, but the sound it was making certainly did not. Along the way I spotted a couple of smaller sparrow looking birds, but it still surprises me how little there really are. No doubt, biodiversity is an issue here.
Trekking further around a corner back towards my lodge, I spotted a bridge ahead on a one way street. As I got closer the side walk disappeared. I hesitated, but decided to just go ahead thinking maybe there’d be a river or stream, but there wasn’t. Just a huge river of trash and old debris, encased by concrete walls. Several men were sorting through the trash. Why was there no water here all though there clearly had to be at some point? I have no clue. I decided to go back around to another bridge crossing for another look down the waterless urban gorge. As I got closer I spelled something burning. Something that smelled of carcinogens. Plastic perhaps? That’s when I realized how overworked my lungs felt. I’d been exploring for a little over an hour and my lungs had a bit of burning that I’ve never felt in the polluted urban settings of the U.S. No doubt, air pollution is a problem here.
From the bridge I first spotted three huge pink and black speckled pigs eating something on top of a mound of trash and burnt wood. On the other side, there were goats tied to a couple of old rusty polls. These were urban domesticated animals wading through a stream of trash. A bit further down the road, and on my way back to the lodge, I noticed a stream of water rushing down the street. Petionville sits on the side of a large hill/mountain. Men were washing in it, while others used it to wash cars. The river was in the wrong place. Water, like the Haitian people I’ve observed so far, will always find a way.
Side note: I thought I’d have plenty do some prelim prep while here, but I’m exhausted.
Dye Mon, Gen Mon (Mountains beyond mountains)
It is good practice to write down your field notes immediately upon getting to a place where you can do so.
I started jotting notes in my notebook as soon as I got on the plane from Miami to PAP. At the gate, I noticed an array of black people, most of which speaking Kreyol. The gate workers spoke Kreyol too. Most people thought that I was of Haitian descent and spoke Kreyol to me before english. Though I’ve been studying for the past year, the speed and intensity by which the language is spoken make it hard for me to understand. I tried my best though. I speak too slowly, so much so that people don’t understand me. I’m far from conducting any in depth interviews in Haitian.
On the plane, and in the airport baggage area, there were many white people that as far as I could tell were coming to Haiti on a mission of the religious sort. One group had bright orange tee shirts on, and looked frankly like a brigade of soldiers for Christ, that said in Kreyol, “Believe that Jesus is your saviour and you will be saved”. While waiting for my luggage I overheard a conversation that reveals the skepticism and fear for safety that these missionaries come to the country with. “We must have caught them on there midday siesta [because the bags are taking too long to get out], or they are just going through our stuff,” an elder man said. “I know. People have been eyeing our bags even when they don’t look like anyone else’s,” a younger man responded. One boy, an asian-decsent teenager, had a certain look of fear in his eye. These people were preparing for war, the war for Christ and the savior of souls.
My bags got lost along the way, and I had to wait for them to get into PAP on the next flight. Thankfully, my driver was very patient and waited for me diligently. Finally, with my bag in hand, we headed outside where we were met with the fierce warm winds of PAP. A sea of people, mostly black, waited behind a gate for their family members to walk out through the small door. I’m immediately struck by the large, seemingly endless hills and mountains.
In the car, I ask Nick-Olson, my driver, simple questions in English and Kreyol, while taking in the overwhelming scenery. This isn’t my first time in the so-called developing world, but what I saw was something very different than I’ve ever seen: A nude black glistening as he washed himself on the side of a main road, street vendors selling shoes, belts, sugar cane mangoes, scattered everywhere along the side walks, people walking in the middle of the streets as cars weave around them. From the air, I noted how much it reminded me of San Diego, yet on the ground it couldn’t have felt anymore foreign. There were trees but no birds, and the landscape is dominated by concrete structures, most of them dilapidated. I wondered to myself, how is it that there are no birds, and no wildlife, here? I saw one tiny sparrow-looking creature at the airport, and nothing else. Even New York City has wildlife. PAP has sad dogs.
I’ve got to pay close attention to the environment which is mostly, a built and destroyed environment. Perhaps I’ll take a walk to one of the parks next week.
The real difference between (a) theory in the social sciences (or more broadly human sciences if we are to include history, philosophy, and so on) as opposed to the biogeophysical sciences is that our theories in social science always re-enter the world in some way, shape, or form as picked up by our human communicants.. Darwin's finches never adopted the theory of natural selection and to speed up the process for better survival or to justify why one species was better than another, whereas humans did. Herbert Spencer coined the term "the survival of the fittest" and Francis Galton launched the eugenics movement, both with social and political implications for human beings. Inequalities in the human realm became naturalized using theories that originated in the biological non-human realm. Theories about ecosystem dynamics aren't adopted and acted upon by any species other than our own. So when we in the social sciences offer our positive/objective theory of the social, or socio-environmental, without due reflection on the social and political implications of our thought, we are committing act of recklessness.. The theories that come out of social science are arguably the most important of all because of the way they are picked up by human actors.
Over the course of the 2014 semester, I have read ethnographic texts that have differed from each other on a variety of fronts. The texts differed in style, methodology, theoretical orientation, and aim. We read ethnographic texts that spanned disciplinary boundaries from journalism to history to sociology. Likewise, in discussing these texts, we cover a broad range of themes and questions, one of which I would like to elaborate on and further explore in this essay. That is, can we draw a distinction between ethnographic texts that are more humanistic than social scientific (and vice versa), and if so, how?
Using examples from my ethnography course, I will argue that this distinction can be made, and that the sole way to distinguish between humanistic and social scientific ethnographic accounts is by examining the questions asked and how they are answered. First, I explore the general distinguishing factors that exist between the humanities and social sciences to provide a baseline understanding for what it might mean for an ethnography to be more humanistic that social scientific. I then move to an explanation and framework for how I will then evaluate three texts from our class as more or less humanistic or social scientific. To conclude, I consider why this distinction matters for young ethnographers.
What distinguishes the humanities and social sciences?
In investigating how people conceive of the difference between the humanities and the social sciences, I started where most of us in the 21st century would: Google. Not too surprisingly I found a wide array of definitions for both social science and humanities, and where the typical academic disciplines fell within each. For example, Stanford Humanities Center defines humanities as “the study of how people process and document the human experience,” which includes the disciplines of history, English, religious studies, philosophy, etc. The website goes on to state:
Since humans have been able, we have used philosophy, literature, religion, art, music, history and language to understand and record our world. These modes of expression have become some of the subjects that traditionally fall under the humanities umbrella. Knowledge of these records of human experience gives us the opportunity to feel a sense of connection to those who have come before us, as well as to our contemporaries.
This definition and explanation of what the humanities are, and what they do, seems to be the standard way to think about them as a field of practice and knowledge production. Focus is placed on developing an understanding of the human experience using various means spanning from the study of ancient texts to the composition of orchestral masterpieces. In contributing to our knowledge of the human experience, the humanities, performance to religious studies, “preserve the great accomplishments of the past, help us understand the world we live in, and give us tools to imagine the future.”
Another major distinguishing factor of the humanities is the widespread reliance on interpretative methods. If the humanities are defined as the study of human experience, then study of that experience must include the interpretation of the products of that experience, such as the cultural and physical artifacts. Interpretation is not limited to objects and texts, but ideas that people have about their own lives and the world in which they live. It is for this reason that I’ve seen Anthropology listed as one of the key disciplines in the humanities in various places. That is of course if we are talking about the fields of anthropology that utilize interpretative methods such as archaeology and social and cultural anthropology.
According to the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the UK’s largest funder of economic and social research, defines social science as “the study of society and the manner in which people behave and influence the world around us.” In elaborating on this definition, the ESRC states:
It tells us about the world beyond our immediate experience, and can help explain how our own society works - from the causes of unemployment or what helps economic growth, to how and why people vote, or what makes people happy. It provides vital information for governments and policymakers, local authorities, non-governmental organisations and others.
Here we see social science as defined as the study of society. It is science because it is objective and seeks to go beyond our immediate experiences as individuals. Focus is placed on explaining patterns of causality, that is, what causes some social phenomenon, or individual action. Social science relies on a host of methods that are deemed empirical, in the sense that they are viewed as objective, even if this notion can be challenged. In the quantitative social sciences, such as economics, and segments of political science and sociology, positivism represents the normative aspect of knowledge production. Often, the aim of social science is to generate and test hypotheses in an effort to construct theories that explain causal mechanisms of social significance.
I would be remiss in neglecting to point out the interpretive turn in social science, at least in sociology, and the loosening grip of the positivist paradigm of knowledge production. However, I would still argue that in general terms the major distinguishing factors between the social sciences and the humanities is lies in their aims of understanding the human experience and the meaning attached to it, and the explanation causal sequences that lead to given outcomes of interest. To be concise, the aim of the humanities is interpretive understanding, whereas, the aim of social sciences is causal explanation. Given this difference, the best way to think about humanities versus the social sciences is to look at the questions that are raised by each. When it comes to ethnography, I would argue the same is true, and I will attempt to demonstrate this in the next section.
Ethnography: Humanities or social science?
Ethnographic accounts can be categorized as more humanistic, or social scientific, depending on the orientation and aim of the scholar producing these texts. If the question is geared more towards understanding how people create meaning in their lives and what is meaningful to them, and the scholar must use interpretive methods to address the question, then I would argue that the ethnography is more humanistic. On the other hand, if the research question is geared towards explaining a given outcome with emphasis placed on causation, then I would argue that the ethnography is more social scientific. Of course, more often than not, ethnographies complicate this model by falling somewhere in between. Some ethnographic accounts rely on interpretive methods to explain a given outcome, and have an explanation of causation built into them that are not always explicitly the focus of the study.
It should be noted that these different orientations within ethnographic accounts fall quite neatly along disciplinary boundaries, at least in terms of thinking about the social sciences. Political science ethnographies are the most scientific in its orientation preferring to focus on testing hypotheses and explaining causal mechanisms of various political outcomes. Sociological and anthropological ethnographies tend to fall either on one side of the divide or the other, with sociology tending towards the social scientific. However, again, it is a lot messier than what I might present here, but the general differences are interesting and worth exploring. In order to do this, I have selected three texts that we’ve read over the course of the semester, which I think can be used to examine the typology that I’ve presented. To make things interesting, I’ve chosen texts from three different disciplines: anthropology, history, and sociology. To mix it up a bit, I’ve chosen an anthropological text as an example of a social scientific ethnography because more often that not anthropology tends towards being humanistic, whereas sociology might be viewed more often than not as social scientific. The history case was chosen because it so clearly represents a humanistic orientation towards ethnography, if we can even call it that, which I will come back to.
Humanistic Ethnography: Natalie Zemon Davis (1983)
Before I can analyze Natalie Zemon Davis’ The Return of Martin Guerre, I need to establish the historical text as ethnographic. Ethnography, as is usually conceived, always first and foremost involves participant observation, which is something a historian certainly cannot do with the court documents, objects, diaries, and other historical evidence that they work with. However, ethnography never is only about direct observation, but the examination of what people say. For ethnographers in sociology, political science, or anthropology, this means interviewing, or simply having conversations, with living people, which becomes data as transcribed speech. Historians have access to a similar kind of data though, in the use of diary entries and recorded testimony. In this case, Natalie Zemon Davis works with court testimonies and the account of someone that witnessed the trial, so she arguably has access to some of the same sorts of data that an ethnographer might have. What is more is what she does with this data. Finally, what does an ethnographic account do in the first place? Etymologically speaking, ethnography is the combination of two words ancient Greek words: εθνος (ethnos) and γραψια (graphia). Ethnos means people and graphia entails a description of something. Therefore, in its simplest and broadest form, ethnography entails the description of a people, including but not limited to, their believes, values, and practices. The Return of Martin Guerre certainly attempts to do this.
Having, hopefully convincingly, established the historical text as ethnographic, I can now discuss why I view it as a more humanistic ethnography. More than anything, this ethnographic text seeks to provide an understanding of 16th Century peasant life in France. History, as a discipline, usually falls into the category of the humanities because of its reliance of interpretation and recreation of the past to provide better understanding of the human experience at a given time. In telling the story of Martin Guerre, his disappearance, the emergence of an imposter, and the return of Guerre, Davis is able to provide us with her best attempt at showing us what life was like for peasants at France at the time.
At the same time, Davis provides us with a reinterpretation of the story of Martin Guerre, not placing the imposter Arnaud Du Tilh as the protagonist, but rather Guerre’s wife Bertande de Rols. In this way, Davis offers us a feminist reinterpretation of the past, which gives women more agency than otherwise presumed. Instead of painting Bertande de Rols as a victim of deceit by Du Tilh, Davis presents her as a willing accomplice in deceiving their families and community, and by doing so she provides us with an understanding of what it might have been like to not only be a peasant in 16th century France, but a woman. Davis writes, “What I offer you here is in part my invention, but held tightly in check by the voices of the past” (5). She makes no claims of presenting the ultimate truth of what happened and what might have caused it and often intuits what the actors in her story might have been thinking. For example, in discussing the false return of Martin Guerre, Davis writes of Bertrande, “Beyond a young womanhood with only a brief period of sexuality, beyond a marriage in which her husband understood her little, may have feared her, and surely abandoned her, Betrande dreamed of a husband and lover who would come back, and be different” (34). In writing, Davis uses language like “might,” “may have,” and “perhaps” signifying again the extent to which her telling of the story makes no claims to absolute truth, but rather a reinterpretation of the standard way the story is told. As a (re)interpretive text, The Return of Martin Guerre is a humanistic ethnographic account that provides an enlightening, and thought provoking, depiction of what the human experience might have been like in 16th Century France.
Social Scientific Ethnography: Nancy Scheper-Hughes (2001)
Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics: Mental Illness in Rural Ireland, written by esteemed anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes, has been both celebrated and condemned. Putting the controversies aside, I would suggest the fact that the book won the Margaret Mead Award is telling. This honor is “is presented to a younger scholar for a particular accomplishment, such as a book, film, monograph, or service, which interprets anthropological data and principles in ways that make them meaningful to a broadly concerned public.” Given that the accolade is awarded in conjunction with the Society for Applied Anthropology, suggests already that the text and its subject matter is more social scientific, in the sense that social science more often than not seeks to be politically, or and policy, related. If you can understand the causes of some social outcome, in this case mental illness, you can do something about it. Further exemplifying this point is the overall tone of the book, which is woeful of the demise of Irish rural life. “I only lament that in another decade there will be so many the less of these beautiful children born into Ballybran—a loss not so much for this little community as for the world at large […]” she writes at the end of introductory chapter (75).
Scheper-Hughes is concerned with the prevalence of mental illness in rural Ireland. In her words:
I attempt a broad cultural diagnosis of those pathogenic stresses that surround the coming of age in rural Ireland today. I explore the particularly high vulnerability of young and middle-aged bachelor farmers to schizophrenic episodes in light of such social and cultural problems as the current disintegration of village social life and institutions; the remarkable separation and alienation of the sexes; a guilt-and shame-oriented socialization process that guarantees the loyalty of at least one male child to parents, home and village through the systematic scapegoating of this (usually the youngest son; and, finally, cultural attitudes toward the resolution of stress outside of family life and though patterns of dependency upon “total” institutions. (Scheper-Hughes 2001:60)
In this explanation, we find the use of language that implies causation. Her concern is with the high rate of mental illness amongst the rural Irish and her aim is a cultural diagnosis. In other words, she wishes to explain why there is a prevalence of high mental illness in her region of interest by pinpointing the cultural causes of such an outcome. Though Scheper-Hughes writes that she is “not so much interested in the phenomenon of schizophrenia, the disease, as I am in schizophrenics, the social outcasts or social critics (as the case may be), and in the rituals of definition, inclusion, and exclusion that surround them,” much of the rest of what she rights suggests that she is more interested in identifying causes of a social outcome (72).
The methods used in this ethnography allow me to further conclude that this more a work of social science than humanism. In addition to traditional ethnographic methods of semi-structured, and formal interviews, and participant observation, she utilizes psychological tests as well as data gathered from essays written by local school children. Relying also on demographic data and history, her “orientation is both psychological and social structural, insofar as [she] examine[s] the interplay of historical circumstance and economic determinants with the largely symbolic spheres of beliefs, values, and behavior” (61). She also shows a concern for objectivity and truth, “Beyond crosschecking information, the only safeguard the fieldworker has against ‘converting the lies of peasants into scientific data’ (as one critic of participant-observation method commented) is simply getting to know the villagers well enough to read the nonverbal cues that signal evasiveness or lying” (71).
Overall, given the evidence I’ve provided, it seems fair to classify Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics as a superb, though controversial, work of ethnographic social science. Yet in some ways, it seems that it could also be considered a blurred ethnography in the sense that a good deal of interpreting was (and probably always is) involved, especially when it comes to the psychological testing. Though, in the end, she seeks to make causal claims about the cultural origins of the high rates of schizophrenia found amongst the rural Irish. This, for me, is what makes it a clear case of social scientific ethnography.
Blurring the line: Javier Auyero and Debora Swistun (2009)
Javier Auyero and Debora Swistun produce a fascinating account of environmental suffering in a heavily polluted Argentine Shantytown, in their book Flammable: Environmental Suffering in an Argentine Shantytown, which blurs the line between humanistic and social scientific ethnography. Their main motivating question is “how do people make sense of (and cope with) toxic danger” (4)? The text is humanistic in that it “describes the life-threatening effects of environmental contamination in Flammable and explains the (sometimes puzzling and contradictory) meanings its residents ascribe to it” (4). Focus on human experience makes the text humanistic, but the fact that it also seeks to explain why the residents of Flammable are subject to toxic experience and environmental suffering makes it social scientific at the same time. For Auyero and Swistun, “Experience of the polluted reality is […] socially and politically produced; the meanins of contamination are the outcome of power relations between residents and outside actors” (5).
This ethnography breaks the model of one ethnographer and one field site by way of its “cubist” orientation, which captures the essence of an object, only by showing it simultaneously through multiple points of view” (16). Auyero is a sociologist who lives most of the time in the United States and Swistun, trained in anthropology, was a resident of Flammable during the period of fieldwork. In addition, the analysts move between observation and discussion with residents of Flammable to that of officials working for the companies responsible for the pollution of the community, making this a multi-sited ethnography. In Flammable, the two authors worked using a division of labor as well. Swistun, as the local, did most of the interviews and participant observation of residents within the villa, while Auyero spoke with most of the experts and officials.
This cubist orientation to ethnography is both humanistic and social scientific in that it allows for Auyero and Swistun to capture not only the experience of residents of Flammable, but the structural constraints that obfuscate knowledge about their environments and health, thereby stifling any action. Auyero and Swistun write:
Rather than being a determined, cohesive crowd up in arms against the assault, Flammable is dominated by doubts, lack of knowledge, and errors. Flammable’s toxic experience is also characterized by divisions (“they,” the shantytown dwellers are the ones who are really polluted) and a seemingly endless waiting time […]. (Auyero and Swistun 2009: 66)
Submission works through the reliance of Flammable residents on the power of lawyers, doctors, judges, and state officials. Submission is experienced as “waiting for others to make decisions over their lives; surrendering themselves, in effect, to the authority of others” (128). Auyero and Swistun further argue that “residents in Flammable are condemned to live in a time oriented to and by others” (129). This statement is made even more powerful given the fact that waiting in Flammable is a matter of live and death, health and disease. The authors consider this sort of work tempography, or the “thick description of sociotemporal order” (111).
Blurring the line between humanistic and social scientific ethnography, Auyero and Swistun provide us with an understanding of the human experience of environmental suffering, the causes of that experience, and how social and political forces mediate our human understandings of our environments.
I have argued that we can indeed make the distinction between more humanistically inclined ethnographies and those that fall more on the side of social science, by examining what questions are asked and how evidence comes to bear in addressing them. I have also argued that the line separating these two orientations can at times be very porous. I would like to conclude with a discussion of why it all matters.
As young burgeoning academics, interested in ethnography, we have to be cognizant of how our own ethnographic work will be perceived and received by our peers. Within the social sciences, there is a definite hierarchy of value when it comes to knowledge production. At their emergence, the social scientific disciplines sought to resemble the biological and physical sciences. In trying to establish themselves as nomothetic, the social sciences have placed value in objectivity. At least within the context of the United States, there is still a culture of scientism, which to me overvalues the principles of positivism.
That said, we have to be aware of how our ethnographic work might be read by our peers within the social sciences. If our work is read as being too humanistic it could be pushed aside and devalued, depending on what discipline one belongs to. In sociology, when ethnographic work is too descriptive and interpretive it might be viewed as not contributing much. Sociologists tend to be interested in more than documenting and understanding the human experience. They want to say something about the larger picture, whether that be making theoretical claims, or identifying causal mechanisms. Whereas it seems that anthropology is more lenient in this regard, being satisfied with grasping a better understanding of experience and the meaning of that experience to the human being. I personally see value in both. For me the most compelling of ethnographic work is able to straddle the line between the humanistic and social scientific, contributing not to one or the other, but both.
 The website can be found at this address: http://shc.stanford.edu/what-are-the-humanities
 The website can be found here: http://www.esrc.ac.uk/about-esrc/what-is-social-science/index.
 I acknowledge the fact that in conversing, and interviewing, with people the ethnographer has access to data that cannot easily be transcribed like gestures, facial expressions, and the like, and this certainly further distinguishes ethnography from history.
 I do not view all historical work as ethnographic! Much of the historical work that I do is not ethnographic because of its focus on structural conditions, and not the reconstruction of the human experience in the past. Historical work should only be viewed as ethnographic when it attempts to provide a picture of the human experience in the past, using rich detail and description.
 Margaret Mead Award Website: http://www.aaanet.org/about/prizes-awards/aaa-margaret-mead-award.cfm
Auyero, J. (2009). Flammable: Environmental Suffering in an Argentine Shantytown. Oxford ;
New York: Oxford University Press.
Davis, N. Z. (1983). The Return of Martin Guerre. United States of America: Harvard
Scheper-Hughes, N. (2001). Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics: Mental Illness in Rural
Ireland (20th anniversary ed., rev. and expanded.). Berkeley: University of
It is my last day at the UNFCCC COP 19 Global Climate Change Negotiations., and it is time to reflect. I should first say that I definitely set the bar low for what to expect from the COP. Arriving in Warsaw, I knew that no serious solutions to any of our serious problems would be resolved in these two weeks. Call me a cynic, or maybe even a pessimist, but I don't really have faith in the UN, or these climate negotiations that have gone on for the past twenty years. And while no one likes a downer, I feel justified in feeling down. Bottom line: climate change disrupts the world's populations disproportionately, and the downtrodden, mostly people of color, are hit first and worst by ever intensifying climate-related chaos. The very recent and devastating Super Typhoon Haiyan left over 4000 lifeless brown bodies tangled in the rubble of their neighbors houses. And in case you didn't realize, 1000 children from around the world died today as a consequence of climate change. Within the next 50 years, climate change will force 15-37% of species to extinction. So when I heard, "This is a marathon, not a sprint," during the intergenerational panel organized for Youth organizations to interact with high level officials (like Christiana Figueres herself) here at the COP, I have to be honest I was pissed! And when Chritiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, sat on that panel and talked about how as a mother she feels our frustration, only to end up talking about her dreams of a future green world (with reference to the most environmentally sustainable technologies we have yet to fully develop), and not once mentioned the young men and women who cannot imagine their future because it has been so clearly compromised, I was pissed.
We do not have time to run a marathon, especially when the one doing the running (the UNFCCC) is severely crippled from the start. I acknowledge that this is a complex issue requiring an overwhelming amount of effort to pull this world together (194 Countries) and get things done. Yet this alone is not responsible for the lack of significant progress on addressing climate change.
First, there is a general lack of urgency. Most delegations seem to talk the talk, without walking the walk. Urgency requires action. The fact that today alone 1000 children will have died should provide urgency enough. Instead of trying to get things done NOW, the general mission of the COPs is to get something done in the future (i.e. everyone speaks of the big deal in 2015).
Not only is there a lack of general urgency in the COP, but there is also the lack of a sense of injustice/justice among the people that are making the decisions. While delegations from the Global South belabor the idea of historical responsibility, those they deem historically responsible refuse to bear that burden. Meanwhile, entire cultures drown under rising sea and people struggle to grow food on already thirsty lands. Those who suffer most are the least responsible. This is an issue of justice., and until it is seen as such by all parties involved in the global negotiations, not much progress will be made.
As frustrated as I am with the UNFCCC process, I find that I'm also inspired. The whole idea of bringing together the entire to world to solve a global issue like climate change is in itself audacious. It was such a beautiful experience to be surrounded by the extreme melange of faces, bodies, shades, gestures, mannerisms, and languages.. I have left Poland with a feeling of openness to the world that I've always had in theory, but never quite held so viscerally. It plagues me to know that with each day that passes without taking significant action on climate change, we edge ever nearer to the erasure of this world's brilliant diversity.
I know more than ever that I must play my part in preserving this global diversity of people and place, animals and plants, and I urge the leaders of the world to do the same.
Melting arctic ice, sea level rise, increased severity of inclement weather events and ascending global temperatures are all signs of global climate change. The current climatic trends are most likely anthropogenic and are proceeding at an unprecedented rate (Pachauri 2007). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of 1,300 independent scientific experts from countries all over the world under the auspices of the United Nations, concluded in its Fourth Assessment Report that there is a more than 90 percent probability that human activities have warmed our planet over the past 20 years (Pachauri 2007). The burning of fossil fuels, along with the clearing of land for agriculture (deforestation), increased carbon intensive industry, rampant material consumption, and other human activities have contributed to the earth’s atmospheric trapping of solar energy (known as the greenhouse effect).
Climate change is undoubtedly a human rights issue. Everyday 1,000 children die due to climate change, and if left unchecked, the estimated total death toll will rise to 700,000 per year by 2030. Despite the many dangers and risks that climate change poses to humanity, especially for the world’s most vulnerable, there has been little to no action on the part of the United States government or any other advanced western nation to combat this human rights issue. The sociology of W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the most important but overlooked scholars of the 20th Century, can help us understand why.
Climate Change and the Color Line
Prior to the mega-storm event “Hurricane Sandy”, most climate change-related disasters had only affected the Third World. In A Climate of Injustice: Global Inequality, North-South Politics, and Climate Policy, J. Timmons Roberts and Bradley Parks point out that “although industrialized countries are responsible for 60 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change, developing countries suffer the ‘worst and first’ effects of climate-related disasters, including droughts, floods, and storms, because of their geographical locations” (Roberts and Parks 2007). Climate change is estimated to be responsible for 400,000 deaths per year, most of which are “due to hunger and communicable diseases that affect above all children in developing countries” (DARA 2012).
If the people of developing nations are most vulnerable to climate change, as Roberts and Parks (2007) assert, then this necessarily means that globally people of color are the most vulnerable to climate change related disasters as well as the economic and political instability that climate change entails. For example when agricultural productivity is negatively influenced by climate related events such as drought, there are always dire consequences for people of the Third World. When the price of a loaf of bread goes from fifty cents to seventy-five cents and you live on less than a dollar a day, the real impact of climate change is felt. If bread prices rose by that same margin in the United States, it would not have the same serious consequences for most us. Without external support, many Third World nations will suffer from the inability to provide food domestically, for economic and/or environmental reasons.
In The African Roots of War, Du Bois (1915) argues that with increasing social, political, and economic democracy in the United States and Europe, capitalists had to look abroad for people to exploit. Du Bois (1915) writes, “Thus, the world began to invest in color prejudice. The ‘Color Line’ began to pay dividends.” Here Du Bois is pointing out the material underpinnings of the color line. He goes on to write, “Whence comes this new wealth and on what does its accumulation depend? It comes primarily from the darker nations of the world – Asia and Africa, South and Central America, the West Indies and the islands of the South Seas”(Du Bois 1915). Thinking about global climate change today and its related effect on certain human beings over others, it is no stretch to extend Du Bois’ materialist basis for thinking about the color line to thinking about the profitability of climate change. Naomi Klein points out in her book The Shock Doctrine that neo-liberal capitalists seek to take advantage of disasters for the accumulation of profit. She gives the example of New Orleans and the various neo-liberal policies that were enacted post Hurricane Katrina making reconstruction efforts profitable for a very select few. For example, instead of reinstituting traditional public schools and funding them accordingly, new charters schools that were publically funded but privately operated were opened, thereby leaving room for profit. There is no reason for us to believe that climate related natural disasters would not be used as an opportunity to further the neo-liberal political-economic agenda of creating free markets in which private property and profit are not regulated.
When it comes to climate change, the color line still belts the world. It comes as little surprise then that there is little governmental and political action in the United States when it comes to climate change. On one hand, the majority of people in the United States do not feel the impact of climate change, but on the other there is potential profit along the color line.
W. E. B. Du Bois was not just a scholar of race, capitalism, and society; he was also an early leader in the civil rights movement, which was at its core a struggle for human rights as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Du Bois understood that America was not living up to its full potential by symbolically and structurally oppressing and neglecting people of color domestically and abroad. Today, we must ask ourselves if climate change is a human rights issue just like the issues of racial inequality before, as they are inextricably linked. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person” (United Nations 1948). Anthropogenic climate change violates this article of the declaration and many others, because despite the globalized nature of climate change and environmental degradation, the social, political, and economic effects that both have created are starkly uneven. Additionally, while we in the Global North are historically most responsible for these global environmental changes, developing countries suffer the “worst and first” effects of climate-related disasters because of their geographical locations and their differential levels of socio-economic development and status in the world economy. Therefore, inequality is deeply embedded within these global environmental changes, and also in how they manifest within local contexts.
Any action on the part of the government to address climate change is going to have to overcome our penchant for protecting private property, profit, and individual liberty at all costs. This entails a fundamental rethinking of what is most important. It is always possible that we might one day hold our commons as sacred instead of our personal belongings. We might come to value public affluence over private wealth. Moreover, for climate change to become a politicized issue that needs immediate action, I believe that effects are going to have to be felt by more Americans. Already, we have seen this manifest after the effect that Hurricane Sandy had on the people living on the Atlantic coast. Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, formally endorsed Obama stating, “Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that might be – given this week’s devastation – should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action” (Bloomberg 2012). Furthermore, we must start to think of climate change as fundamentally a human rights issue, which requires us to acknowledge that there is a link between our actions here in the United States and Global North at large and the detrimental effects of climate change abroad. Framing climate change as a human rights issue has the potential to establish accountability in the global picture by focusing on the causes and perpetrators of violations, as well as the sense of justice necessary to correct the ills of climate change. One thing is certain: if the governments of nations in the Global North, like the United States, do not take immediate action to address climate change, the world’s black, brown and yellow people will have to deal with the consequences of inaction the most.
Bloomberg, Michael. 2012. “A Vote for a President to Lead on Climate Change.”
DARA, Climate Vulnerable Forum. 2012. Climate Vulnerability Monitor: A Guide to the
Cold Calculus of a Hot Planet. Madrid: DARA. Retrieved (http://daraint.org/wp-
Du Bois, W.E.B. 1915. “The African Roots of War.” The Atlantic Monthly, May.
Klein, Naomi. 2008. The Shock Doctrine. New York: Picador.
Pachuari, Rajendra. 2007. Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report. Intergovernmental Panel
on Climate Change.
United Nations. 1948. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Retrieved
***Originally published in the Brown Human Rights Report.
Zoos have always made me uneasy. As a kid, I remember feeling so saddened that these animals had been captured in the wild and placed inside cages to live out their lives. The animals never really looked happy to me. If you are like me, Blackfish will evoke the same sad and enraging feelings that animal exploitation has always summoned.
Emotionally evocative-inducing anger, frustration, and sadness-and psychologically thrilling, the film beautifully sheds light on the dark world of orca captivity. Centered on the death of an experienced trainer by one of Sea World's whales, Dawn Brancheau, Blackfish points out the dangerous consequences of raising and training whales in captivity, for both humans and whales alike.
As a scholar in a mostly anthropocentric field, the film struck me by first pointing out that orca whales exist within their own social contexts in their natural marine habitats. Each pod has its own distinct behaviors, cultural norms, and language (though as an orca expert in the film points out, "scientists are reluctant to recognize this fact"). When these animals are stripped from their families and transported to distant pools to live and perform for our benefit, it no doubt causes a sort of "psychosis" and emotional trauma in the whales (at least there isn't any doubt in my mind). One expert featured in Blackfish, a neuroscientist, stated that MRIs of whale brains showed that they have a more highly developed region of the brain that is responsible for emotive processes than do human beings.. This, she says, tells us minimally that orcas have emotions just like human beings, We can only assume that just like us when we are stripped from our families with no warning or forethought, whales grieve when they suffer the loss of loved ones.
Yet is it any surprise that people don't really care about this so much when it is time for their semi-annual trip to Sea World? It is only in recent human history that we've come to the point of POSSIBLY claiming that everyone at least knows that they should have compassion for their fellow human beings whether black, brown, yellow, or green. Before the movie premiered at my local independent movie theater/coffee shop, I overheard some a conversation between two individuals working that caused me to shutter a bit.. The male interlocutor commented that he "hated the poster for the movie" and that he also "hated the title." His female conversation partner thought it a bit silly too. He went on to add that he also "hated how people were going to come out of the movie all enraged, like look at what they are doing to those fish!" He thought the movie to be highly sensationalist. It just goes to show how little many people actually give a damn about anything outside of themselves. At the same time it shows something of interest to me and my work: The social, political, and cultural system in which you live matters in how you relate to those beings and things in your non-human environment. Blackfish, is what the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest called these majestic beings and they had much respect and admiration for them. They would never thing to speak of them with such triviality as the man I overheard. This isn't to say that they didn't hunt them for food because they certainly did, but the way that they related to whales was completely different, and I can only hypothesize that it is because of a completely different cultural system. (Disclaimer: I know that people get highly upset when people make cross species ethical assertions and analogies, but I am going to do it anyway. I think it is warranted.) Curiously enough, I'm sure that the supporters of slavery made similar comments, and shared similar sentiments to the male conversant in my story, when people left the talks of the abolitionists over a hundred and fifty years ago.
There are many definitions of sustainable development, but the most commonly utilized comes from the Bruntland Report of 1987 (also known as Our Common Future), which defines sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Though it has been over twenty years since this term was first popularized, it is arguably the case that sustainable development has yet to be realized. Much like ARAMIS, and many other projects, sustainable development has shifted between the worlds of ideas to being manifest in a multitude of projects, never really coming into full life. It has managed to enroll many actors, and has lost many more along the way. Being coopted by many, it has been shaped and reformed profusely.