Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Home for the Holidays

     I am sitting at 30,000 feet, somewhere over the Bolivian salt flats, in a plane heading for Miami International airport. Just this morning, I was sipping coffee in downtown Asuncion after having spent several days trouncing around the city from Peace Corps function to meetings to breakfast appointments and the like. Before that, I had spent the past few weeks straight living in my small home in an isolated, rural part of the Paraguayan countryside. My life out there, my life at home as I now like to say, consists of visiting neighbors, working in fields, teaching in the crumbling school house, and sharing any any every part of my knowledge, my culture, my corny jokes, and in general, every pat of myself that I can. When I am there, at home in my community, I know in some very profound part of myself that I am doing exactly what I am supposed to be doing. The world seems aligned, my soul feels full and bright and ready for anything, my mind is at ease and I am more comfortable, more at home than I have felt in a long, long time. It has been a long and difficult road to reach this point in Peace Corps, it wasn’t always this way, and I certainly have my off-days where things are just hard and lonely. But in general, I feel as though I have finally finished the process of landing in Paraguay, a process that took almost a year or more.
    So what would be more fitting than throwing myself back on a plane to transcend, in a matter of 13 hours mind you, an almost incalculable, incomparable number of cultural, social, political, and economic strata to arrive home in the states for a holiday visit with the family. And why the fuck not? I love my family and friends, I am so incredibly happy to be seeing them, to spend Christmas in the cold (instead of the 45 degrees Celsius--112 Farenhight, and without air conditioning--that bathed me in sweat last year). I am so psyched for a brief respite, a nice few weeks to relax and enjoy the company of familiarity and my own culture. Since arriving in Paraguay 15 months ago, I had only visited home for a few short days after my trip to Cuba last May, but was so overwhelmed with the emotional, cultural, general shock of being on the island and then coming back stateside (really no places on earth could be be more different than Cuba and Allentown, Pennsylvania) that returning to Paraguay was, in many ways, such an incredible relief.
    I guess what I am trying to say is that I am kind of freaking out a little bit right now. Having a sort of personal, existential crisis at a cruising speed of several hundred miles an hour, 6-miles up in the atmosphere. I really should stop pounding these cups of coffee, and should stop thinking about smoking a cigar. Those things only remind me of home, quite and traquillo home in the Paraguayan campo, where life goes on at a pace strictly dictated by the weather, and the winds, the moon cycles and the change of seasons. Right now, I am heading toward a frenzied, holiday shopping season in the Northeast. I’ll be sipping Starbucks and quibbling over aggressive drivers and bad traffic before I know it.
    When you step outside of your native culture long enough--for me, having stepped outside of America for over a year so far--all aspects that one would otherwise accept unquestioningly as foundational or assumed elements of his/her culture are immediately questioned and laid bare. The extent of this process depends on the extremity of the change. Traveling from the States to Europe would likely not have as intense of an effect as, lets say, living in impoverished, rural Africa, Asia or Latin America. Still, it is an inevitable, essential and liberating challenge all the same.
    I haven’t landed in the States yet, right now it looks like we are just passing over what might be some of the Peruvian or Brazilian Amazon, but I am not sure. But what is occupying my mind is one curious element of US culture: individuality. I am planning on writing a long post about this concept in the future, one with a much heavier political/social slant to it, but for now I am framing it more in regards of my own cultural experience. It seems to me that the American obsession with individuality in every single corner of life is ultimately debilitating and harmful. Not in any economic sense (necessarily), and our continual dominance as the major economic power on the world stage will attest to that, but in a much more personal sense. It is a subtle thing, and it would be hard to draw any  quantifiable data to support this claim, but it seems to me that ultimately, such hard-fought, relentless individuality fragments social ties and spreads unhappiness. What is left is the terribly pervasive idea that material things, commodities can replace strong social bonds, although this notion often appears in so many strange and cleverly-disguised forms.
    The people I live with in Paraguay are poor farmers. The entire community of several hundred people are all either related, through blood or marriage, and/or know each other well as neighbors and friends. The fabric of life is social, it is the greatest single asset that these people have and without it, their poverty would be impossible, unbearable.
    So as I hurdle forward towards an All-American Christmas, I am thinking about the notion of presents and gifts, of the hypocrisy between Christian ideals and holiday shopping sprees (Black Friday), the oddness of a culture that has had to economically codify and legitimize interpersonal reciprocity on a national scale as opposed to allowing such social elements to develop naturally. I am thinking about children opening presents under a Christmas tree, in slippers and warm pajamas, in front of a fire, under the guise of the family video camera. And I am also thinking about little shoe-less children, a million worlds away, helping the family to butcher a pig and distribute it to the neighbors to celebrate a Paraguayan-ized version of the same holiday in boiling hot South America. I think I need to stop thinking before my head explodes. I should have packed warmer clothing.

from the skies, Happy Holidays,
little hupo

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Its a Good Time to be Alive

*My attempt at a sort of slam-poetry, free-form whatever. Better (in my opinion) if read aloud. Saul Williams, Michel Foucault, Blackalicious, Pablo Neruda and Zapatista inspired. Enjoy...?:
    
Why are there never tanks on Pennsylvania avenue?
    No tectonic quakes to stain the White House with our dissident hues.
No words to greet dead soldiers, freeze dried and plastic wrapped,
    travel-safe in their banner-draped sarcophagi of plexiglas.
Why are there never any question marks tagged
    on fluttering, Made-in-China American flags?
No petitions signed, then resigned, then underlined,
    then dropped from the skies--oh! populist decries--
to carpet bomb the hypocrites and metaphorically kill
    the entrenched conservative bourgeoisie on capital hill?
Is the silence of our voices an act of democratic will,
    silent citizens in what they tell us is the most free nation...still?
Or have they simply found better ways of oppressing me,
    of dislocating and frightening, of quieting and deafening me?
Force feeding me what I have been conditioned to crave,
    then withholding the fix just to pull on my chain...
this brave new world, puppeted by bible-preaching, capitalist Cains
    with prices at the pump to mirror third-world pain.

But it’s all part of the mathematics, the forgotten calculations
    of Archamedes on midnight, bathtub acid trips.
The inevitable progression of a conquering class unable to grasp
    the inescapable reality of its own heinous past.
The cycle of ignorance bred, and inbred, 
    from a history tilled with the fertilizer with uncountable, unnamed dead,
a story that cannot be acknowledged or whispered
    without tearing and ripping at the salted, gaping blisters,
or without dismantling the fables of imperialist glories--
    those we offer for the fiction of All-Amerian bedtime stories--
constructed of the bodies and the skulls and bones
    of those once-proud then persecuted indigenous foes
those very ones who, in irony’s greatest twist,
    we denied the basic dignity to even exist,
but who preserved a communal disposition within spiritual resolve
    that our industrialized world has since sought to belittle and dissolve.
The plastic separation of a man from his soul,
    the great artificial gods that we now ingest to fill the hole.
The blindness of open eyes in a pitch dark emptiness,
    illuminated only by the sterile guise of petty fluorescence.

We are proletariat taxidermy lining the walls,
    filling the streets, decorating the halls
But for elite dinner parties is our persecution recalled
     a washed-up, sold-out version of all
that our forefathers were too idealistic or naive to sense:
    that human greed consumed faster than love could repent.
That a racist, splintering ideology sold more papers.
    That just stereotyping and labeling our enemies makes us feel safer.
That bombs in far away lands help us sleep at night.
    And that, in the interests of national security, any amount of violence fits
    the established paradigm.

Its sickening, at times, but consuming at others,
    as the optimist inside me continues to struggle and stutter.
I type words for the sheer sake of hearing a simple sound
    of the thoughts and ideas of resistance drumming aloud.
I am not numb, I am living, all seeing, all knowing
    because I choose instead the path shrouded in forests,
    the river still flowing.
Have we forgotten the sun and the yellow tinted dawn?
    the redness of the sunset as it surrenders it’s pawn
to the queen of the night with its full white moon
    and the fact that that morning is always soon.
Its a great time to be alive and a better time to be living,
    lest we overlook and ignore those subtle changes of the seasons.
Lest we sit when we should stand or walk without asking questions
    or ever become complacent or of a submissive complexion.

I find hope in the simplest of respites from the world.
    Within myself, within the tossing, tangled love of this girl.
The rise and fall of her breast, the touch of her skin,
    the beauty and blessing of falling in love with a friend.
There is a fire, for sure, and it stokes my coals
    and drive me mad as it consumes my soul
with a passion for being at the front of the fight
    and to love and be loved hasta los plenos de la night.
My friends, my friends, it’s a good time to be alive.


from Paraguay,
little hupo

Friday, November 30, 2012

Poverty and Population (Part 2)

In a previous blog (Poverty and Population, Part 1) I began to outline a general approach that I believe helps to confront, or at least frame, the issue of population in the context of environmental degradation and endemic global poverty. Part of this discussion included a brief (in absolutely no ways comprehensive or complete) overview of human history and the various distinct phases of the human species, specifically in regards to the increase of human populations across the globe. I ended that piece with a purposeful lack of resolution and an intentionally controversial claim that the key to achieving even a modicum of environmental stability and harmony lies not in the reigning-in of uncontrollable population growth (a proximate factor), but instead in treating the ailments of poverty and disenfranchisement (in my opinion, a few of the various ultimate factors responsible for environmental decline).
    I will once again make a necessary, if not also slightly conciliatory, caveat about these ‘ultimate factors’: poverty and disenfranchisement, in all their manifestations, do not exist in a vacuum. Instead they are imbedded properties of political and economic systems that, in many cases, require the general deprivation of human rights at a certain level in order to substantiate the very hierarchical structures that perpetuate the same cycle. The ability for an elite economic minority (bourgeoisie) to control, dislocate and oppress a large majority of working class people’s (proletariat) is a feat of intricate and momentous proportions that typifies capitalist systems (with the variably effective buffer of the middle class) and socialist systems alike (as they almost invariably schism into a ruling bureaucracy and a non-governmental citizenry).
    Therefore, the truly ultimate genesis of poverty and disenfranchisement, and by extension environmental degradation, lies within economic and political systems themselves. It is not my intention to ignore these systems (these ultimate-ultimate causes, if you will) it is simply that their full analysis and evaluation is outside of the scope of this blog. I will likely delve further into these issues in future writings. For now, however, I hope that by understanding the nature in which poverty fits into the scheme of environmentalism, I might posit a treatment for a symptom that will transitively serve as an entry point to further challenge the prevailing ideologies of faulty economics. Of course, I am also assuming far to much of myself. Still, I am sipping a cup of African coffee while sitting in the middle of rural Paraguay and listening to the birds, that’s gotta give me some sort of clout at least, right?



What we can say about Poverty and its effects on the Environment:
   
    Not much. Or at least not much definitively. Theory and speculation is the name of the game as far as this is concerned because, like every facet of our species and our world, the truth is far from the simplistic fantasy that Occam’s razor might hope. Especially in development theory, the nexus of poverty and environmentalism ranges from the seemingly idealistic “green stewardship” to an anarchic, suvival-at-all-costs type scramble. The reality is somewhere in between.
    Instead of dissecting any of the peculiarities of these competing theories, I will present only one and then tangentially ramble away from it in hopes of utilizing its principles without endorsing the entire spectrum of its objective or practical implications. I am taking such intellectual liberties for the simple fact that this is my blog and I can do what I want. I hope that doesn’t disqualify entirely what I have to say.
    To understand how poverty effects environmentalism, a good place to start would be the basic idea of Kuznet’s curve. Kuznet’s curve is a relatively straightforward illustration of a general trend that can be observed when measuring levels of economic prosperity (demarcated as “stage of economic development” or “income per capita”) against environmental degradation (pollution). See below:




    What Kuznet’s curve illustrates (and not without an immense amount of controversy) is that, generally it can be said that at either side of the wealth spectrum (that is, the very poorest or the very richest among us) are typically the worst stewards of the environment. The implications for this on class and economic structure, both domestically and internationally, are prolific, but one basic idea that can be gleaned from this over-simplification is such: poverty has negative environmental consequences.
    Such a conclusion could likely be logically deduced by most people. When one struggles to survive, to feed their family, to subsists on a daily basis, priorities are not necessarily focused on the long-term environmental impacts of their immediate actions. A hungry man will (likely) not think twice about using dynamite-fishing techniques on an endangered coral reef if it means a huge caloric return for minimal effort. Note: this is not at all an indication or indictment of laziness on the part of impoverished people. It is simply a reality of basic human/animal subsistence, that is, the optimization of thermodynamic (and/or economic) investment. It is present in every human culture at every level of economic development, most obviously manifest in our American culture through our un-healthy addiction to cheap, low-quality fast food.
    Unfortunately, there is a large body of academic development work that creates a seemingly proactive, but ultimately burdensome, approach towards rectifying such a discrepancy between poverty and environmentalism. As impoverished populations and communities with a very immediate interest in ecological preservation (those whose subsistence is most directly tied to the land, namely those at the lowest rung of Marx’s spectrum of ‘primitive accumulation’), the task of environmentalism and environmental recuperation can therefore be coupled with their daily livelihoods.
    While this framework is altogether not impossible, and certainly not inherently evil or dubious, it does place an incongruous amount of responsibility on the shoulders of already strapped and struggling people. Environmentalism can and should be integrated with development initiatives, but the alleviation of suffering, the enfranchisement and the empowerment of the most impoverished people should always take unequivocal, unquestionable ethical precedent, even in cases where it might be environmentally degrading. After all, the greatest culpability and the greatest burden of environmental degradation lies at the other end of Kuznet’s economic spectrum.
    As citizens of the wealthiest (monetarily) country in the history of the world, we should also be aware that we are the largest producer of greenhouse gasses on earth. As if it were not enough that we lead the charge to codify and perpetuate a global economic system that entrenches poverty both within and outside of our own borders, but we also contribute disproportionately to the dismal trajectory of environmental degradation on a planetary scale.
    While it is in our immediate interests to prevent further loss of ecological resources, functions and services, it is also our moral imperative to alleviate poverty and disenfranchisement. Luckily, these two issues can be coupled and confronted together. Surely, solving either one would be a great accomplishment, but ultimately impossible without also addressing the other--they are intimately linked through the structures of our economic, social and political systems. By rearranging such systems, we can undoubtedly bring both ends of the economic spectrum, Kuznet’s “worst environmental stewards”, towards the center of the bell curve. We will never be an environmentally-neutral species (in reality, no species could be), but we can at least strive to exist more responsibly within the natural limits imposed by our ecological thresholds and more equitably within our ethically-defined economic parameters.



What we can say about Poverty and its effects on the Population:
   
    It is almost taken for granted anymore the fact that reproductive rates decrease as economic levels increase. In other words, the number of babies per family decreases as their ability to provide for themselves economically increases. This can be measured in a variety of ways, either nationally as reproductive rates versus GDP, GNP or Income per capita, or through inter-group comparisons between different populations at various economic levels. Especially when one controls for other confounding variables such as cultural, religious, and social factors, the basic trend is undeniable. The question is why.
    The full answer, of course, is complex and extremely contingent upon contextual conditions, however, in general, reproductive rates among impoverished people represent an investment in the future, a sort of retirement fund for those who lack financial access or stability. Lack of family planning and education, improper or non-existent contraceptive use and rampant illness are all important factors that also play a heavy roll in large family size (among others), but these further issues are symptoms as much as they are causes in the cycle that is the endemic poverty.
    As people are able to more fully actualize their freedoms and rights, through development, enfranchisement and the alleviation of poverty, they can begin to consider not just the long-term effects of their actions in the light of environmentalism, but they can also begin to shape life-styles that are not founded in economic necessity. Absolutely, many people may still choose to have a large family and that is well within their rights to do so, but that choice should come from a conscious decision not a calculated reality that without sufficient numbers of children, one will be helpless and starving in old age, unable to provide for his/her family or his/herself. Even allowing for the the choice to have a large family, the trend still holds.
    In many developed European nations, the birth rates for the native Eurpoean populations has either plateaued or begun to decrease (Italy and Germany as prime examples). The overall populations for many of these countries, however, has still begun to rise. The reason for this is the birthrates for immigrant populations, those that tend to be overwhelmingly of a lower-class and impoverished, have continued to rise and remain growing positively. Such case studies illustrate perfectly the benefits of what is already our ethical responsibility: to provide for people, to actualize their fullest selves and agency, and to create a context of equal opportunity and justice on both a local and global scale.

    It is not only an act of human justice that should motivate us in such directions, but an act of environmental stewardship. By providing for the least among us, we are undoubtedly, unquestionably, undeniably providing for us all. Ultimately, as I hope that I have illustrated to some extent in this piece, the interests of all peoples at all points on the socio-economic spectrum are intimately linked. In a world that is increasingly understood as being ecologically interconnected, how could we possibly afford to be so socially, economically disconnected? Regardless of politics or party or entrenched belief, the only logical, objective conclusions are obvious. It is only our greed, our selfishness and our short-sightedness that stands in the way.

from Paraguay,
little hupo

Developmental Chaos Theory

    I am bathing in light, viscous and glorious as fresh honey, as I bike down a solitary dirt road. My skin tingles under the evening sun, enveloped by the smell of my own stale and sweat mixed with the heavy air of the coming rains. I feel like a god. Pedals whirr and puddles leap from my path. My breathing is calm and deep and full and I can see a storm looming over the hills but know that it will only come in the night. For now, the last bits of sunset burst from the open window that remains between the horizon and the slowly descending cumulous curtain. The rains may yet be a long way off, but the clouds are anxious, already tossing their splinters, their electric impatience, across their half of the deep-blue canvas still partitioned with the remaining daylight. Lighting spider-webs its way across the panorama, connecting the invisible dots of positives and negatives, jostling with the sun for prominence, brilliance in this bipolar sky. Its a silent climactic tumult and I feel like a deaf man watching some great battle. Only the sounds of the birds remind me that my ears are functioning just fine. The thunder is yet to come.

    Its for moments like these that my life as a Peace Corps volunteer is the best in the world. One could never say that this job is easy, or straightforward, or controllable, or in anyway following a predictable trajectory of development work and volunteer service. The reality is chaotic, a constant unfolding of days before you, sometimes with a calm and in slow transition between places and states, but other times its like un-calculated falling, tumbling from moment to moment, barely holding on but always (seemingly) turning up alright in the end.
    One thing I have realized about myself in Peace Corps is this: I thrive in two very different sets of conditions. The first condition is controlled--if I can plan things well and execute said plan, I tend to achieve a lot and feel useful and accomplished. The second is the exact opposite, the conditions in which plans have completely fallen apart. Between these two sets of conditions, there is a transition state where I tend to falter. Those moments when I try to hold onto the remnants of a slowly disintegrating plan, the desperate attempts to maintain even the facade of control while pushing forward with the stubborn determination of reaching whatever previously determined goal. I either require the order afforded by careful planning or the freedom and aimlessness that comes in the curiously comforting cocoon of disorder and madness.
    Lucky for me, Paraguay and life as a Peace Corps volunteer seems to cater to my disposition. There are times, rare and wonderful, where one can successfully carry out a plan. Its like the uncommon alignment of stars, a cosmic mishap that places everything just where it needs to be right when it needs to be there. Unfortunately (or fortunately), this is not par for the course. Instead, life-by-the-seat-of-my-pants is the operating paradigm I am most accustomed to at this point; the vague notion of direction and destination but with the flexibility to take any road no matter how arduous, or treacherous, or swallowed in untamed jungle it may be. Its chaos theory meets sustainable development. I am sure there are no scholarly articles about that quite yet.
    The best part about the madness, however, is that even though I hardly ever go where I think I am going, I always end up somewhere just as wonderful. Perhaps I don’t realize it at first, maybe that sort of perspective only comes with sufficient afterthought, but the best moments I have spent here in Paraguay have been completely unpredictable. I am over one-year into my service and never expected to be where I am right now. Who knows where I will be by the time this whole thing is over. That’s the journey though--embrace the chaos.

from Paraguay,
little hupo

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Poverty and Population (Part 1)

    A very wise man (my father) once told me: any practice is sustainable at a certain level. Whether it is driving a gas-guzzling SUV, felling forests for firewood, cultivating industrial monoculture, or burning coal to produce electricity, all such practices would be ecologically sound if there were only, lets say, a few thousand people on the planet. The implication of this statement is that current level of anthropogenic environmental degradation is really just a matter of scale; we could dump toxic chemicals into the rivers and the ocean so long as we remained within certain naturally defined thresholds of those ecosystems to processes and restore.
    I will immediately admit that this wonderfully idealized hypothetical situation is riddled with technical flaws, not the least of which is the fact that the most environmentally-degrading practices are not the products of solitary human innovation, but instead contingent products of human history and the aggregation of collective knowledge--hence, they are a function of a large population, not necessarily tied by causation, but still intimately correlated to the processes of civilization and industrialization. In other words, such a hypothetical is almost a ‘categorical error’ in which it almost makes no sense to even ask the question in the first place because the preface automatically nullifies the claim. If we choose to temporarily suspend our overly-analytical reasoning for just a moment, however (please indulge me), the statement does still serve to illustrate an interesting perspective on an important idea: the crux of population as it pertains to sustainability.
    The immediate gut-response to the query of ‘over-population’ usually seems to be something along the lines of, “If only, if only there were fewer people in the world.” The outrageous reality that almost 7 billion people currently inhabit the earth is an easy, if not also unhelpful, scapegoat for our current environmental predicament. Surely, such a monstrous population could not be maintained without these environmentally degrading practices, but on the flip side, environmentally degrading practices would not be possible (or necessary) without such a large population--hence my caveat in the previous paragraph. We would not even be asking the question of environmentalism without our enormous population, however, since few of us could or would or should begin making judgement calls about who in our world gets to stay and who has to go, population itself cannot be demonized and vilified too harshly or through such a narrow window. Ultimately, we must accept population size and growth not as a confounding variable to be eliminated at all costs, but as a fundamental element that must enter into the final calculation of our human ecology. To do so, we must first start with the understanding of such a phenomenon.


Phases of Human Population:

First Phase-
    Human population has gone through three distinct phases over the course of our roughly 100,000 year history in anatomically modern form. The first-phase, that of prehistoric humans living exclusively as small hunter-gatherer bands, corresponded to low population densities and limited environmental degradation. Humans affected their environment, of course, but no more so than any other naturally, ecologically-bound species. Note: this is an extremely debatable and not entirely accurate statement, but one whose controversy is not entirely relevant to this discussion. It is perhaps more appropriate to say, at least, that pre-agrarian humans were living in a state that was in the most ecological harmony (or minimally, in the least ecological disharmony) with their environment than any of the other proceeding phases in human history.

Second Phase-
    The second-phase of human population history is defined by the advent of agriculture and the rise of civilizations, a period in our history often termed the ‘biological old regime’. Through time and space, variable manifestations of the agrarian revolution have occurred at multiple instances and at multiple localities, ranging from roughly 8,000-9,000 BC in the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia to approximately 1,500 BC in the Mesoamerica. This phase also corresponds to the rise of centralized bureaucracies, increased population densities (cities) and the general increase in size of the global human population.
    The knowledge of domesticating and selectively exploiting natural processes allowed humans to produce in excess of immediate needs, creating surpluses that took our species from living on the brink of constant starvation (the state in which most hunter-gatherers seemed [or seem] to perpetually dwell), to living more comfortable lives in cultures that were more stratified, specialized and permitting of recreational activities. While the first-phase of human history is undoubtedly more representative of our Rousseauian-esque “natural state” or the EEA (environment of evolutionary adaptiveness) for the Homo sapien, it is through the agricultural revolution that most of those things that define us as uniquely human (as in distinct from animals) were able to evolve and flourish.
    With the rise of agriculture, we also saw the beginnings (or at least the amplification) of one particular pattern that would soon become the hallmark of the human animal--environmental degradation. The archeological evidence for this is overwhelming, but even in its absence, such a result could be inferred from simply considering the thermodynamic nature of the practice of agriculture. As previously stated, agriculture harnessed the power of natural processes; it mimicked sufficiently the natural state of once-wild plants (and animals, in the case of animal husbandry), to maximize potential thermodynamic output (in the form of consumable calories) with only slightly more thermodynamic input (there is human labor involved--a caloric investment--but in reality, the constant thermodynamic input of the sun does all the real work). This slight disequilibrium tipped the scales in favor of civilization, undermined (at least on a superficial level) the classical frontiers of ecological limitation, and allowed for the rapid expansion of the human population.

Third Phase-
    The third-phase of the human population is that of industrialization. Everyone has heard the classic story of the steam engine, the steam-powered locomotive, the rise of textile factories in Britain, the genesis of the modern formulation of the capitalist economy etc. etc. What is less well known are the historical/ecological reasons (there are many, but I will reference only a few) that allowed such events to transpire and ultimately set the stage for the greatest population explosion of any large mammal in life’s 3.5 billion (roughly) year history on earth. Note: I am intentionally not considering or evaluating any of the complex political influences for the industrial revolution (the Chinese Opium Wars, the New World silver trade via Spain, British economic protectionism, or competing global markets and industries, specifically in India and the Americas). Again, these are very important factors to the overall narrative of the industrial revolution, however, they are not entirely within the scope of a discussion focusing on the aspects of ecology and population.
    Human population was on the rise for millennia as our understanding of the world, our mastery of agriculture and our ability to control certain factors gave us an increasing edge in favor of survival and longevity. After the intellectual renaissance of the Enlightenment, marked most notably by the French Revolution, reason by means of the scientific method became the modus operandi of Western societies. Religion took a metaphorical back-seat and technology thrived, not necessarily as a result, but certainly in congruence. Eventually, one particular technology was developed that opened the flood gates to enormous economic expansion (and by extension population expansion) by providing an energetic well-spring necessary to nucleate the industrial era: the steam-powered engine.
    Early designs for the steam-powered engine were so energy-inefficient so as to be completely economically inviable. Huge amounts of lumber were require to generate the heat necessary to create sufficient amounts of steam. Luckily for Britain, and in a huge historical-geological-ecological coincidence, coal was soon discovered as an alternative fuel source. For centuries disregarded as an effectively useless mineral, coal covered large swaths of the British Isles as opposed to once-widespread forests which had been subject to enormous deforestation by the early-1800’s (hence the rapidly increasing prices of lumber in London). Coal was so abundant and so readily accessible at the surface (a geological jackpot) that using it in place of wood to fuel the archaic steam-engines was a virtually free process. By an accident of nature, steam-engine became economically savvy and soon after, the modern textile factory was born.
    From here, the trajectory of the industrial revolution is exponential, restructuring culture and society as we know it as a sort of paradigm-shifting juggernaut that is seemingly characterized as much for its monolithic force as for its implications on human population. By interjecting in the epoch-slow process of carbon cycling, humans are able to harness geologically-stored solar energy (thank you Carboniferous period ≈ 350 mya) in a way that short-circuits the thermodynamic equilibrium of the earth. Most people in our overtly machismo and technocratic society would praise such ingenuity as the greatest achievement of our divinely-inspired, or super-natural, or otherwise special and unique species. It is this very aspect of industrialization, however, that is slowly spelling utter disaster for our natural world and our species.


    Industrialization is our latest step in the spectrum of learning to artificially outstrip natural resources. Certainly, it would be hard to picture us achieving such a population density as 7 billion worldwide according to the comparatively limited parameters of the biological-old regime. Still, the merits of industrialization are undeniable--increased standards of living, longevity, comfort and an enormous expansion of science, understanding, art and human culture. Of course, these benefits are far form equitably distributed across the globe and while many enjoy the fruits of this latest phase in human history, many others abjectly suffer as a result. In the end, however, despite this inequality, our fates are all intertwined, especially as the level of environmental degradation and ecological disruption has begun to reach critical levels.
    So where to we turn with such an ominous prospect? Once again, population appears as a glaringly obvious and tantalizingly easy bearer of the burden that is our self-made lot. But how accurate, how useful is such a verdict? Does this really attack the root cause of our environmental woes? Is the solution to this whole predicament simply a matter of pruning our over-abundant species? The answer is no.
    A more honest and holistic understanding of our history and our ecology, I argue, reveals that poverty and disenfranchisement are more appropriately recognized as the ultimate sources of environmental degradation, leading to the proximate factors such as unchecked population growth and large-scale, unsustainable practices. Most technocratic capitalists would vehemently deny this claim, choosing instead to invest their faith and suckle at the teat of the ever-bountiful goddess of human innovation (a little self-righteous, if you ask me), but the evidence to support my position is abundant. Before I explain further, I should say that I don’t mean to purport that if only we could eliminate poverty that our environmental issues would somehow disappear; there are an unbelievable number of other contributing factors to be considered as well. Instead what I am saying (and hoping to substantiate sufficiently) is that the alleviation of poverty, while also an act of justice and a moral imperative, is as well an essential investment in the environmental sustainability and future of our species.

From Paraguay,
little hupo

Saturday, November 10, 2012

My Mother Taught Me To Sing

   *This blog is not about Peace Corps or Paraguay or anything like that, but it is something I wrote this week and really wanted to share. I hope you enjoy.

    My mother taught me to sing.
    I grew up in music like a fish in water. From morning until night, there always seemed to be a song hanging somewhere on the air lazing through our quiet suburban house. My days ended and my nights began with my mother singing me softly to sleep. You see, my mother didn’t teach me scales, or how to breathe through my nose while projecting my voice, she didn’t teach me to control my diaphragm or to draw from deep in my body for every note. My mother taught me nothing technical about singing, she wasn’t that kind of a singer nor that kind of a person for that matter. It wasn’t about the physics of it all, it was about the feeling.
    My mother didn’t teach me how to sing, but she did teach me how to let music into my heart. She taught me to allow every thought and emotion to become entwined with a song like ivy, like smoke gently rising. She taught me that any time of day, any moment, any menial task is infinitely sublime if only accompanied by a tune. Like some mystic always at work in her subtle art, she sung the flowers to humble bloom, the plates to sparkling clean, the clothes to ironed perfection and the children to bed.
    My mother was not a perfect singer. She has missed many notes along the way, some sharp, some flat, but all of them just where they should be. You see, my mother taught me that it doesn’t matter whether you are Puccini or Cline or Sinatra or Holiday or even if you are tone deaf--if there is music in your soul, there is a divine obligation, a spiritual necessity to let it out. My mother sang sometimes as if her very life depended on it, substituting words to sooth her homesickness and holding on to each note with full-winded, white-knuckled tenacity. Other times, she would break rhythm and tone at will just to match her own whims and fancies. No matter the composer, each song was her own and she sang it for herself, for her family, for the world.
    Sometimes I hated my mother’s singing. If it was joyful when I wanted to wallow, or heartbreaking when I was otherwise carefree. Sometimes, my mother would sing the same song, over and over, in succession. But now I know all the words to all those songs and I sing them to myself sometimes when I am far from home and most alone. I pretend sometimes that it is not me singing but my mother, and it brings me home, to my youth, to waiting for my father to come home from work, to gardening on the weekends, to coming in from the cold, to washing up after a long day, to singing along quietly so she never heard me and she never knew that secretly, I loved her singing with all my might.
    I never learned how to sing but, I learned to sing, always and forever, whether silently to yourself or out loud for the world to hear. My mother taught me this. You see, there is so much music in my heart, in every thing I see and everything that I do, but it was not me who planted the seeds to these now glorious, musical flowers. It was my mother, sowing songs with such care into the evening dreams of her three sleeping children. I was so lucky to be one of them. I hope that one day I can give such love and beauty to my own children, that I can share with them the gift my mother has selflessly given me for my whole life.
    Still, I never worry, for I know that all I need to do is sing.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Transformation is Complete

    In Peace Corps training and service, us volunteers are bombarded with advice and guidelines of almost every flavor and every variety: health and safety, technical and practical, cultural and otherwise. Unfortunately, none of that means a goddamn thing in the end. Nothing really prepares you for service (and with all due fairness, nothing really could). You’ve just gotta get out there and let yourself get a little bit crazy, the rest just follow suit.
    Throughout time in the Peace Corps, during the slow unraveling of one’s cultural biases, as normal standards are gradually chiseled away, volunteers are at times confronted with the stark contrasts between the borders of comfort in which they once existed and the limitless frontiers that have come to take their place. I, for one, experience this on an almost daily basis. Oh, the things I now accept as normal (even expected), and oh, the types of food I will unquestioningly eat without skipping a beat. Oh, the stuff that I do (alone or along with my Paraguayan neighbors) that is just part of my life anymore. Most would petrify any of my suburban dwelling neighbors from back in the states. I would be willing to bet that if most of those said neighbors bore witness to even 20% of what I do on a daily basis, they would have me committed. And to be honest, when I get enough perspective and am able to step outside of my little Paraguayan world for a moment, I can’t say that I would blame them.
    A minor example would be as follows: the other day, my neighbor’s bull got loose and ran into the woods like some harmlessly rebellious teenager who just read Walden for the first time (like me at age 16, for example). He summoned me with what I could only describe as the local dialect of “campo calls” (basically, Guarani-infused whoops and hollers to attract attention or express any one of a number of emotions) to explain the situation. I immediately understood through a series of grunts and hand gestures that he was employing my help in retrieving his upstart of a young bull. Without question, I broke off the nearest sizable ‘cow stick’ from a tree and charged headlong into the forest. I ended up spending the next hour shoe-lessly crashing through thickets, chasing this bull back toward my neighbor who waited patiently on horseback smoking a cigar and occasionally offering yelps of encouragement.
    Little by little (poco a poco, as they say) I have watched myself become not just more comfortable, but totally at home in this new culture, in this strange place. Where over a year ago I felt like a fish out of water (and granted, at times, I still do), I now settle easily into any number of tasks and a myriad of otherwise ridiculous situations. If I have a bad day, I no longer seek refuge and time alone--I head to a neighbors house to visit, to bullshit with some friends, make some jokes, drink tereré, play with the kids and unwind a bit. Its feels wonderful to be in this place, physically and mentally. It has been a long, hard process to get here, but I am glad I have arrived. Still, in other ways, my transformation into a Paraguayan campesino continues to nag at the old edifices of respectability and the limited understanding of my pre-Paraguayan self. Yesterday was a perfect example.
    I returned from visiting a neighbor to find Don Zaccarias curiously absent from the house. His grandson informed me that, “Ohoma kava hapé, omba’apohina upepe”, ‘Don Zaccarias went to work with the bees, he’s over there in the woods’. I grabbed a hunk of mandioca off of the table to stifle my quickly growing appetite (I don’t know why, but I am always hungry in this country) and walked along the worn path through the trees. Soon, I found the Don, shirtless and shoeless, pumping calmly away at his humador (a smoker for working with bees), gently opening a full hive of incessantly buzzing bees. Realizing that he would need help with this and not wanting to go home to change into anything more suitable (bee gear wasn’t an option, but long sleeve shirt and pants would have been a definite improvement), I jumped right in. We proceeded to spend the better part of an hour, elbow-deep in an enormous hive of Africanized honey bees, working slowly to extract the honey and check the colony.

Don Zaccarias, at 80 years old as of today, just back from the apiary and harvesting some honey 'no shirt, no shoes, no problem' style.
    Here I was, top half-naked, in a pair of cut-off jorts (of my own making, if I may add) and sandals with my shirt slung over my head like to keep the bees off my neck, a piece of mandioca in my back pocket, just going to town on a hive as if it were simply a batch of harmless cookie-dough, every once in a while stuffing a chunk of raw cone in my mouth to chew and savor in between bites of my favorite starchy root. See picture below.

Working bees in rural Paraguay 'asi no mas'. Bee equipment is overrated. Or maybe I really am loosing my mind after all. Note: the awesome cut-offs that were, not too long ago, a rapidly disintegrating pair of pants.
    It was a surreal, almost transcendent experience to be totally honest. To be intently calming your body and nerves in the face of a swarm of angry bees as the sweet smell of sweat and smoke and sugar lull you into a half-asphyxiated, oxygen-deprived sort of trance. Raw honey running down your fingers like amber blood as you carefully investigate each panel, gently brushing away groups of your potentially-stinging bee friends to get a better look. The whole time with the evening sun shining through the trees in the middle of the woods, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of some third-world country, in the middle of South America. And that’s your life, that’s par-for the course, that’s what passes for a good, normal day anymore. How awesome is that?
    Then, of course, I get stung. It was inevitable, or at least should have been expected. But what wasn’t expected were the first words that came out of my mouth in this sudden moment of pain, my gut-reaction to these instantaneous emotions, the most honest expression of my subconscious bursting forth, “Nderachore, a la puta chera’a!”. That was it. This was me. Distilled, condensed and now freely flowing into the world, the Guarani inside of me rearing its ugly, guttural head to a chorus of excited hoots from my neighbors and from Don Zaccarias. And then I realized, the transformation was complete. I rubbed some honey on the sting to ease the pain (yet another herbal remedy, only indicating further the extent of my acculturation) and returned to the smoky apiary to finish the day’s work. Unfazed, ready for anything, totally at home.

    Its amazing how subtly such immense changes can come about. Sometimes I worry that people from home might not recognize me, or at least be very afraid of some of the new habits I have picked up (and rightfully so, they still scare me sometimes). But in the end, I realize that I haven’t fundamentally changed as a person, I have simply expanded my horizons indefinitely and expanded my comfort zone to include just about anything (with some notable exceptions, such as: voting Republican, S+M, crystal meth, and sitting through “Mean Girls”). That’s one of the greatest aspects of the Peace Corps experience, but more importantly, that’s one of the greatest aspects of life. For people who spend most of their time occupying their respective bubbles of comfort, I wish you the best. But there are a million ways that you can shake and challenge and ultimately reconstruct your foundations every day. Look for them. The experience will be terrifying, but so worthwhile in the end. I promise.

from Paraguay,
little hupo

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Capitalism, Poverty, and Humanity: A Paraguayan Lense

    There is an opinion that I have found distressingly too often among typically reasonable and intelligent people during conversations about poverty and development. The origins of this idea (in my opinion) are rooted somewhere deep within Western individualism, hidden subtly in the mentality of a world mystified by an un-analyzed, un-criticized notion of “freedom” as fed to us by the powers that be. This opinion automatically assumes that if someone is poor then they must therefore also be lazy or inept. On the surface, this already sounds like too absurdly general of a statement. Most people, even those who do indeed believe as such, would shy away from full-fledged allegiance to such ignorance. “Of course,” they will likely say, “there are always exceptions and people with genuinely bad luck.” But even such a caveat is poison.
    Within this idea lies the fundamental disconnect in our collective perspective on poverty, be it domestic or international, urban or rural. Believing that being poor somehow equates being lazy is a wonderful prescription for those that seek to not only ignore history but also to wash the dirty hands of those who have benefited the most (directly or indirectly) from the inequalities that have subjugated, disenfranchised and otherwise dehumanized those very poorest among us for centuries.
    And as those neo-cons and pundits dismiss any acknowledgment of our tainted history as “white guilt” or “liberal scheming” the reality is that we should be guilty. Not to the point where we sell all our worldly possessions and become prostrating monks begging for forgiveness (although for you Christians out there, this was kind of what Jesus had in mind when he said, “Drop everything and follow me.”), but to the point that we realize that we are responsible to those most wretched of this earth and that our good fortune was not, could not ever have been, entirely our own making. Our fates are intertwined, we are a collective humanity or we are without any.

Here’s the economic reasoning, the morality of it all has to be worked out individually, that’s the only way it ever sticks anyway:

    We live in a world of classes--upper, middle and lower class. This economic stratification is evident to a greater or lesser extent in every society through time and space, with the only exceptions being (depending on how you look at it) the most egalitarian societies of hunter-gatherers. The reality of life, of humanity, is that there are differences between people, between individuals and between cultures (this is not meant as a qualitative statement, but an objective observation). Variation is a biological, social and cultural necessity, it is a physical predisposition, it is that thing which colors our world. Difference is inherent, beautiful and necessary and yet, it never justifies discrimination in any form.
    In this world of differences, ultimately there are those who win and those who loose. Capitalist ideology would have us believe that those who win are those who achieved while those who lost are those who just couldn’t cut it. Only those who deserve to win would ever do so, and those who loose, well, they deserved their lot just as well. If we lived in an “ideal” world, one where everyone was competing from an even platform and only with their ‘god’ given talents, perhaps I could get more on board with such capitalist ideas, but that is not the case. We living in a world that is the contingent product of millennia of war and slavery and exploitation and treachery and all of the worst aspects (and at the same time, all of the best aspects as well) of human history. We cannot ignore this because to do so would be to ignore ourselves, we are the products of inequality, the most successful and the most impoverished alike.
    So what does this mean? Do we wallow in our guilt, paralyzed by the heinous inhumanity of our past and to a large extent, our present? Not at all. We must, however, be willing to recognize that “free competition” as idealized and essential as it is to the capitalist model, is a fantasy that can never and will never exist. One could never make the argument that the earning power of a poor Latin American farmer is equal to that of a middle-class, white-American male (me, for example). Why? Not because of any inherent differences in intelligence, capability, or our willingness to work hard but, simply because that Latin American farmer has been disenfranchised from almost every direction since before he was even born.


Let me relate an example from my own work here in Paraguay:

    For those who have never experience farm work, particularly manual farm work (that is without any machines, just your two hands, a machete and a hoe) I would highly suggest trying it on for size. I live in a community right now where every family engages in small-scale agriculture. My next door neighbor and best friend, Don Zaccarias will turn 80 years old next month. Every morning at 4 am he gets up, drinks his maté in the dark and goes out to his field before the sun rises. He works for hours, farming by hand about 3 hectares of cash and consumption crops, and comes home before the sun peaks in the sky and the temperature soars to over 100 degrees. If he can coax his weary body and sinewy muscles back to life later in the day, sometimes he can put in a few more hours in the evening before the sun sets. He has been doing this backbreaking kind of work his whole life, literally since he was a child and could carry a hoe. His story is not unique among my community, or among most people in the developing world for that matter.
    If effort and gumption could somehow be equated to success (as traditional capitalism would have us believe), the my good friend Don Zaccarias would be a millionaire. Instead, he lives in poverty. Abject poverty. The kind of poverty where I need to visit his house daily to make sure he has something to eat for the day. The kind of poverty where he refuses to go see a doctor, despite the fact that his heart condition desperately requires it, because he can’t afford the bill, let alone the medicine. This was Don Zaccarias’s lot from the day he was born. He is the victim of a system that never allowed him to receive an education, to make a different sort of life for himself or his family, a system that is increasingly reinforced on a global scale every day. Still, the Don would never say he was a victim, and truly, he laughs and smiles more than most people I have ever met. Tell that to a Wall Street executive who wouldn’t even know how to hold a shovel, let alone use one.
    I am not here to preach Marxism, for that is not what I believe. To me, it seems that the strong leftist ideas of Marx and Hegel were really more reactionary than practical, responding to the global inequalities it saw stemming from a newly industrialized, capitalistic, and Western-oriented world. But we must be willing to admit that any submission to pure capitalism represents the greatest possible injustice we could possibly commit. No one, not even the most “I built this!” people of capitalistic-repute can claim that they did it all on their own. That is not how this world works. It never was. We are not programmed that way.
    While yes, there are always cases of people breaking out of the lower-classes to achieve the Holy Grail of entrepreneurial stardom, the system is such that there will always be a lower class. No matter how many success stories there are, there are a million losers along the way--not because they didn’t try, and certainly not because they are lazy--but simply because that’s the way it is supposed to work.
    Of course, there are freeloaders, there are always a few rotten apples. But I posit this comparison--what is the difference between someone living off of government welfare and someone who makes their living buying and selling toxic financial “products” that create absolutely no value in this world and are ultimately set up to fail? The prior is, at worst, a passive beneficiary of an inefficient public service. The later is an active saboteur, willing to trade anything, even his/her most precious of American ideals to make a buck.
    Are we really so naive to think that there are no freeloaders on Wall Street or among the elite? As a matter of fact, the amount of corruption and mismanagement that is so common of politicians and CEO’s receiving underhand government contracts (the economics behind the War in Iraq would be a great case study) would lead me to believe that there are even more freeloaders among that bourgeoisie, or at least freeloaders who drain so much more from society than a single mother collecting food stamps ever could.  There are always bad apples, regardless of class or nationality or race or creed or gender or whatever else, but that doesn’t mean the whole barrel is rotten, or somehow undeserving of our compassion or relief. I’d rather feed a poor freeloading family any day, but that’s just me.
    As a conclusion to this post (which turned out to be a lot longer than I thought it would), poverty is not a product of laziness, or listlessness, or lack of motivation. It is a symptom of a sick system, a fallout for which we all (and especially those most successful among us) bear an enormous burden. We need not rise in armed insurrection or flagellate ourselves upon the alter of guilt and shame, but we must, we must, come to honest terms with the world we have created. It is our collective history, our collective present and our collective future. Poverty and inequality are not on their way out any time soon, but the greater we can empathize and internalize the struggles of others, the more compassionate and holistic our future will become. As the Buddha so wisely noted so long ago “Life is suffering.” We should strive always to turn outward with our own love and ability to alleviate that suffering and make it the pinnacle of our struggles not the capitalist ideal of wealth and status, but the humanization of every aspect of our world.

from Paraguay,
little hupo

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Walking the Line: Hotel Westfalenhaus and Campo Trippin’

    You know when you see a completely different side to something that you have been staring at for a long time--that plus good wine is how I would describe the past 8 days or so. This week I was graced with a visit from the world-renowned scholar, the amazing individual, and my great friend (that also happens to be my professor), Petra Tshakert. I first met Petra, almost 2 years ago now, during a study abroad trip to South Africa. Since then, she has sort of taken me under wing on several projects and begun introducing me to the academic side of international development. The summer before I left for Peace Corps, I was able to work with her and a number of other academics on developing an NSF proposal studying biofuel land-grabs in Africa and the social impacts of such practices. In addition, a few months ago we co-authored and published a paper (my first scholarly publication) in the Journal of Ethics and Social Welfare.
    Petra’s visit to the Paraguayan campo comes as a respite for her, a quick detour en route from South Africa, where she has been living as of late, to Buenos Aires, where she will be attending the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) conference this following week. For her, this time out in the field with no responsibility and no leadership role was a vacation from her otherwise demanding position as project leader and field-marshal on projects in places such as Senegal, Ghana, South Africa, and even into Nepal and Central America. For me, it was an opportunity to recharge my analytical batteries, gain a fresh new perspective on the little bubble-of-a-world in which I have been living for the past year, and to re-inspire myself for the next year of service. Plus, what better company could one as for than a lively, charismatic, profoundly-intelligent and well read scholar to talk, debate and drink tereré with?

    Last Monday, Petra arrived in the Asuncion airport. We taxied downtown to the city center, stopping off to see some of the old Spanish architecture along the river and to buy some nice wine and cigars. Asuncion is always a funny and strange place when you first get here. That day happened to be an idillic sunny South American afternoon that ended with singing, dancing and free glasses of sangria courtesy of the managers at an adorable local restaurant with authentic, Old World-style Spanish food. The stage was set, the following morning it was off to the campo.
    The alarm went off at 5 am. As I stumbled to get my bags together, all I could think of was that first sip of my first cup of coffee. We stopped for a little breakfast’i at the famous Bolsi bar, which takes after the classic American roadside diner tradition and also happens to be one of the few 24 hour eateries I have found in the capital. We got to the bus terminal by 7 prepared for a stop-and-go journey to Carayao by way of Coronel Oviedo. We arrive, tired and laden with our heavy backpacks only to find that, due to a moderate amount of rain the night before, the bus wasn’t running. We started out on foot on the 30 kilometer dirt road back to my site.
    As it turns out, when you travel with an energetic and youthful Austrian woman, it seems anyone with space in their truck is willing to pick you up and share some tereré. After maybe an hour and a half of bumming along the dusty road, a couple of campesinos driving a logging semi gave us a lift. We got to my community around mid-afternoon, shared a glass of wine, made diner and called it a night.
    These next few days turned out to be an awesome learning experience for me. While I was Petra’s unofficial tour guide and translator in my village (although her Spanish skills seemed to come back easily--although she did speak with a distinct French accent, I should note. Oh, the perils of being multi-lingual!), it was an awesome process to see Petra at work meeting the locals and being the cross-cultural expert that she is. From my perspective, it was a week long lesson in community interaction and integration, something that I had previously settled into easily but was in need of some new inspiration. There is a certain demeanor to people who are good in these sorts of situations. Such a capability can be as natural as it can be learned, but either way when you see a pro at work, it is always impressive to watch them effortlessly navigate all sorts of cultural and linguistic barriers. I am getting better at this myself, but as I have seen, I still have a lot more work to do.
    Another lesson I took from this week wasn’t so much about anything new, but simply reaffirmation of a principle I have already assumed although never really articulated. While traveling with someone like Petra around a developing country, you realize that it is unbelievably imperative to go with the flow. For those people who have experienced the chaos and unpredictability of the third-world, it becomes essential to control those few factors you can (usually those pertaining to yourself) and yet remain willing to continually adapt to every circumstance as it evolves. You must always be ready just to let go. It is important to know your limits, whether explicitly or implicitly, and to be able to judge when a situation has crossed a certain threshold of safety that you are no longer comfortable with. But within those constraints, you must be willing and capable to accept whatever might come your way and to do so with a smile. Again, Petra is an expert at this. I am getting better by the day.
    We spent Petra’s final night in Asuncion at a very nice German hotel called Hotel Westfalenhaus. This might be the fanciest sort of hotel I have ever stayed in my entire life, but seeing as it was close to the airport and it was Petra’s treat, who was I to object. Oh yeah, and they served real bacon for breakfast. What PC volunteer could turn that down? The contrast between this place, in all its clean and orderly glory, and the rural community we had just left couldn’t be more stark. But within that contrast lies the lesson.
    For those working in modern development, it is becoming increasingly important to be able to transcend such boundaries, to engage in such different bubbles of existence in order to facilitate communication and progress. It is rare for individuals to be completely comfortable to one day be farming with poor campesinos, using a latrine, showering with a bucket and sleeping on the floor, only to turn around the next day and present important grass-roots research to a crowd of intellectuals and policy makers. That is one of the most important roles that we can play, however, so that the voice of those marginalized and disenfranchised people can be heard in a forum for change. It is a strange sort of life, but also unbelievably fulfilling and exciting.
    After a week of intellectual discussion, debate, speculation about the fate of humanity and the constant sharing adventure tales, Petra boarded a plane this morning to Argentina. I remained at Hotel Westfalenhaus and made the most of their complimentary breakfast by sitting and eating for the entire 3 hours that it was open. I also must admit, I did steal a plastic bag full of bacon to take with me and munch on all day. Unfortunately, my supplies didn’t last nearly as long as I expected and now I am seriously craving some chancho asado. Peace Corps may be the ruin of me.
    What an awesome adventure this week. And who could have asked for a better third-world traveling companion? I am very much looking forward to grad school and learning more of the ropes from my soon-to-be graduate adviser--Petra Tshakert. For now though, it is more than enough to be here, very much at home in Paraguay with the next year of service to enjoy and live to the fullest. And for anyone else that would care to visit my little corner of the globe, the door of my humble (and clean--ask Petra!) abode is always open.

tranquillopa,
little hupo

Friday, October 5, 2012

Growing Grass

     Over this week I have had the amazing opportunity to talk, to re-connect, with several of my favorite people in the world. The problem with being so far away is not that communication is necessarily prohibitively difficult (although usually fairly inconvenient), but when your life is so physically removed from the lives of others, it also becomes somehow emotionally separate, or at least less connected. Many years ago, someone shared with me a poem they had written (this mysterious someone just happens to be one of these wonderful individuals with whom I spoke this week--the one and only Thomas Storm) and a quote from that poem has always stuck with me. I share it in the hopes that it may similarly haunt others of the traveling and/or adventurous disposition. The quote:

    “I walked into the woods today and found the grass growing without me.”
                         
    I think this perfectly describes the sentiment of reconnecting with good friends after a period of emotional and physical distance. I didn’t realize until I spoke with these people how much I actually missed them and yet, at the same time, their energy and spirit and encouragement was exactly what my travel-weary heart needed.
    The Peace Corps experience is a lot of things. One thing it certainly has become for me is a way to gather a deeper understanding of myself, an appreciation and perspective of the complex nuances that compose the slightly insane individual that I am. When you live in a social and cultural situation that, even despite the greatest efforts on everyone’s part, is extremely isolating such a self-reflective process is inevitable.
     I just finished re-reading the book Life of Pi which chronicles the fictional experience of a shipwrecked survivor at sea for many months. The situation is one of extreme physical isolation and while I am daily surrounded by people (I live in a rural community, not a deserted island) I found myself relating so well to the main character. There is so much more to human connection than just physical presence.
    Every day I sit with groups of individuals and we have conversations and discussions, make jokes and commiserate about this and that--these moments are wonderful and I appreciate them immensely. But it is almost in these moments that I feel most alone. Culturally, I am a visitor. Linguistically, I am a child. Personally, I am such an outlier that most of my proudly wielded individuality doesn’t even register for most of my neighbors. Such is the lot of a Peace Corps experience and I am hardly the first, nor the last person to run such a gauntlet.
    Please do not interpret these notions somehow as complaints or sorrow, they are just observations of situations that continually help me grow as a person. The idea I am hoping to illustrate here is that, despite all this ambiguity in personal definition and identity, it takes the smallest things to keep a wandering spirit grounded in something like home. Talking to my friends from the states, people that are as close to family as my own family, hearing about their lives, re-telling those old stories, these are the things that bring me back to life.
    In this place, I am living and thriving in my own way. Indeed, this is one of the most enriching and enlightening experience of my entire life. But the contrast between this place, this life, and my life at home sometimes make me feel like separate people. There is something so full and beautiful in this idea, but at the same time an emptiness and a confusion. My life is truly a life of contrasts. Despite that, I still have my anchors, I know those people would fight any storm to keep me at harbor, if not in my body than in my spirit, always. You know who you are. Thank you and I love you.

from Paraguay,
little hupo

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Walking in the Rain

    I harp on about rain as if it were the only song I know. It permeates my writing, my blogs and my thoughts like some long-lost lover forever haunting over each horizon. Its maddening and obsessive at times, the anticipation and the expectation that comes with particularly shaped clouds on particularly ominous afternoons. In this place, in this life I am living, the rains are not just passing storm systems or blips on the radar, they are baptisms and blessings that literally control the pace of the world around me--ushering farmers to and from the field, turning leaves upside down in quiet reverence, being precluded by winds that make the trees dance and sing.

    They had been calling for thunderstorms this whole week and each time the heat of midday peaked unbearably under a lingering-cloudy threat only to blow over into nothing. More sun. More parched earth. More sweaty nights.

    Today, finally it came and in no small way. I was restless sleeping, knowing it would be here soon. I woke several times just to sit outside and listen to the winds churning. Around 2 am, the sky opened up. Thunder and lightning of all shapes and sizes, with moderate to furious temperaments. I couldn’t have been happier. It continued all morning, on and off at points. Eventually, I decided I just needed to go out and walk around in it. So I made up a bullshit excuse to myself to walk 10 kilometers to the local pueblo just so I had a reason to be out there. I would cuddle up with a cup of coffee later this evening, but I wanted to earn it first.

    Walking to pueblo is a long, hot ordeal during the summer. During the rain, it is a messy labyrinth of puddles and streams, requiring keen knowledge of what kind of textured mud is safest or sturdiest or least likely to swallow up your whole leg. It was a glorious walk, just like I thought. Within 15 minutes, I was soaked through, the winds whipping the rain horizontally and relentlessly into my face and under my coat. There were very few people on the road other than me. The locals are smarter than this. Still for me, it was a perfect afternoon stroll.
    I have said this before--Paraguay is not a particularly beautiful country. There is beauty here, of course, but it has to be sought out. It is a different kind of landscape that requires a different kind of appreciation. Unlike towering mountains or pristine coastlines, the land itself is does not contain the beauty a seeking eye would hope to find. But if you look closely, if you are quiet enough, patient enough, you realize that Paraguay is not the art, it is the canvas upon which the artists draw. The sun and the sky and the wind, each carefully cast their lines across this flat, empty space. It is a collaborative effort and some of the artists work faster than others--the weather for instance, at a feverish pace. Still others, like the geology or the topography, produce their art glacially.
    That is what I saw today on my walk. Like some sort of impressionist painting, muddled in its clarity by millions of descending droplets. You need to stare for a few minutes in order to realize what it is you are even staring at. And then there it is, all before you. Not a breathtaking or earth-shattering type of beauty, but a subtle and delicate type, an aching beauty that weighs upon your shoulders and makes you homesick. In reality, it was just a mash of colors--green pasture, red clay dirt-- just a flat wetness interrupted by trees and cows and a shack here and there. But whatever it was, it had its way with my heart.
    Its a confusing feeling, homesickness for a place that is not your home. I guess when you have so radically altered that notion of “home” to begin with, its not really places you are sick for anyway, it is people and moments and smells and feelings. When your home as a concrete place ceases to exist, you can feel that tug of nostalgia anywhere at anytime in anyplace, its just totally unclear in which direction its pulling you.
    I got home a few hours later, changed out of my wet clothes, made a cup of coffee and some fresh-baked bread. I am warm inside now and I feel much better for having made myself walk. I love the rain but I prefer it when I have someone to share it with.

From Paraguay,
little hupo

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Thoughts on Being a PCV--1 Year in the Deep

    As of next Saturday, I will have spent 1 year so far serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer here in the country of Paraguay. A lot has happened in the last year of my life-- personally, emotionally, physically (gotta love those tropical parasites), spiritually, intellectually, and in every other way imaginable--but its hard to really put a finger on most of it. Without trying to be esoteric or evasive, I must say that when you are on the inside as a PCV, inside this strange world, living your sort of alternative-reality as a temporary visitor in the lives of other people, the subtle (and sometimes even the tectonic) shifts and changes are often hidden in a cultural, linguistic, geographic stupor. The questions like “where the fuck am I?” and “what the fuck am I doing here?” don’t have a time or a place inside a brain that is, on a day-in and day-out basis, running the programs and moving the body through the functions of survival. You automatically stop trying to make sense of everything or figure it all out, you just accept your new reality, modify the program and keep on keeping on.
    The hardest part of this whole experience for me has not been adaptation to this world I am currently (if not also momentarily) occupying, that hardest part has been seeing my other life, my real life, my life that I left and will return to, changing and progressing and not being able to do anything about it. I wake up every day, I do what I need to do in order to get by, to be productive and do my job, to feel happy and content with my current self-imposed lot. Then I get a phone call from home, from friends or family, and that world back home is changing. People are living there lives without me. Hopefully, this doesn’t sound narcissistic or too self-gratifying, I honestly don’t mean it in that sort of way. But just think about this: you live your entire life connected to a certain number of people, the you take a 2 year hiatus from seeing, interacting and all too often even communicating with them. Its strange and unfortunately, on those lonely nights in the middle of nowhere in some third-world country, its unsettling as well.
    Eventually, I am going to go back to my life at home (my “real” life, as I sometimes say) with the benefit of this amazing experience that I am currently having. Nothing good ever came easy--tell me about it. In the meantime, those things that were once constant in my life, are going about themselves all the same. Its almost like I have walked out the door, left the house, and now I realize that maybe there is no room for me to take when I come home. Maybe I could bum on the sofa of my old life for a few days, but those people and those things that once had space and time for me have found other occupants--renters, or sub-letters, or maybe even they’ve sold the real estate all together.
    The hardest part of that notion is that I haven’t found another place anywhere else. Where I am now, what I am doing, its not like I have moved on. Sure, I am comfortable, but this is not my home, I don’t belong here, I haven’t found another life, just a temporary state, a transition between parts of myself. So I am liminal for the time being. Not me, but not someone else. Not at home, but not entirely lost. Not forgotten, but slowly, not remembered as often as I might hope. And maybe that in itself is part of the delusion of sitting on the fence somehow outside of my lives but not entirely outside of myself--the loss of identity, though language and isolation and relativity, and yet the discovery of entirely new facets of myself.
    I have always thought myself a simple person. But I am not. No one is. The best thing to do is just talk slower, ask more questions of yourself and other people, and listen to happy music. In this sort of personal and social vaccum, where I live right now, nothing is clear but everything is visible, in many cases for the first time. Its like swimming though yourself and waiting waiting waiting 2 years between breathes. Its like   slow-motion touching the bottom of the ocean and kicking off the sand, kicking against the water, shooting back up to the sky, eyes closed but you are seeing everything in those suspended moments underwater, and you know that any second now you are going to break the surface and the sun will be shining still and the air will be cool and god-given and then everyone will be waiting for you. But for the time being, you’re still swimming, if thats what they call this ungraceful flailing of the arms and legs.
    So that’s where I am, 1 year in the deep. Changing my little world, this little microcosm, one awkward moment and one unintentional moment of perspective at a time. See you on the shore my friends.

from Paraguay,
little hupo

Friday, September 21, 2012

3 Week Illness

    I have been sick for about 2 or 3 weeks. Not some sort of debilitating illness like malaria or Dengue fever--common in South America, though usually not fatal--but a looming nausea and general shitty-ness that makes simple tasks, like watering my garden, into seemingly monumental obstacles. I have just wanted to sleep constantly. Just sleep.
    Two weeks ago, the Peace Corps medical staff diagnosed me with a case of giardia, a waterborne protozoan parasite that afflicts the intestine and makes life less than enjoyable for a few days to a week. After biking 10 kilometers back and forth, searching through my sweaty, sickly stupor for any medicine that might bring me some relief, I finally received salvation from a concerned neighbor who brought the medicine from the next nearest pharmacy (some 60 kilometers away). He told me a pack of cigarettes, a bottle of caña (dirt cheap sugar-cane alcohol), and 2000 mg (half the pack) of the meds should cure me by morning. I took his advice, minus the alcohol and tobacco, and fell asleep that night hopefully.
    Gradually I felt better over the next few days. From around 20%, I’d say I climbed up to around 60 or 80% of wellness. It was preferable, but certainly not ideal. Whatever was messing with me, it wasn’t going down easy. I went into the city last week for blood tests to see if this persistent illness was something more serious. The tests, as my doctor informed me, came back negative for all the major stuff, however, I was informed that several hormones from my liver (that wonderful organ which processes toxins from your body) were higher than they should be.
    After returning home feeling nominally better, although not entirely physically recuperated, I almost immediately found what I believe to be the culprit of my sickness. After soaking some dry beans in water in preparation to cook them, I found something unusual floating on the top of the water. Thousands of dead insects, which I then realized had burrowed into the beans themselves, had been inhabiting my food for the past few weeks. These beans, which I had bought from my neighbor and had been feasting on almost nightly for over 2 weeks, had been filled with thousands more of whatever the hell bug was now bobbing harmlessly on top of this pot of dry legumes.
    Of course, this is far from a medical diagnosis, but from my own opinion and perspective, I won’t rule this out as the cause for my sickness. It explains the heightened liver activity (as all these little guys most certainly constituted a significant amount of foreign and unexpected substances in my body), it explains why the giardhia medicine didn’t do the trick, and it explains the sickly-sweet taste that has been a strange and yet regular feature of my meals as of late. When you live so far out in the middle of nowhere though, food 'options' doesn't really consists of what you want to eat, but rather if you want to eat or not. If you're hungry, you eat whats around. And I was hungry, so I did. Now at least, I can hopefully eliminate thousands of insects from my daily diet, although with that means also eliminating beans (whomp whomp), at least until I can travel the 2 hours into town to buy some disinfected ones. What a fucking life.

From Paraguay,
little hupo

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

100 Degree Winter


    I am stopped in the shade by a fence post looking out to the horizon over Paraguayan estero (marshland). Its like watching a pot of rice right before it boils--the foaming steam rises like a thick cloud of smoke as the pockets of standing water are burned off by a unforgiving sun. The visibility is driven down. The smell of muddy water hangs on a delicate, teasing, hot breeze. Air fills the lungs like sap, heavy and viscous and sticking to the inside of the chest. My limbs seem to carry me autonomously from shade to shade, skipping over the dirt of the open road like a stone across water. I wish. Its fucking hot.
    Spring time officially arrives on the 21st of September here in the Southern Hemisphere. Right now, as I drag my feet across this desiccated patch of earth, I am reminded by this seasons first glimpse returning migrant birds that it is, in fact, still only winter. Yvyra’pyta trees have begun to sport their temporal red blooms, adorning the tops of their umbrella-like form, dancing in the heat haze as if part of some Dr. Seuss landscape. The crops creep slowly upwards, the only direction they know how, hoping to become something strong before being reigned in and beaten down by the coming summer sun.
    My neighbors are less enthusiastic about doing projects than I think I am. At least, I think I am being enthusiastic. In reality, I am finding myself, drowsing off, zoning out and silently praying for responses like, “Despues de la lluvia” or, “Otro dia, possiblimente”. When its over a hundred degrees, you can see the effects in the world around you, the sapping energy of that heat is like a glaring scar on every leaf and in the face of every person. Even more profound, is the effect that this kind of heat has within the body itself--as if some enormous snake has its grips around your rip cage, forcing an effort for each breath. The atmosphere, playing the magnifying glass to the will of a sadistic sun, holds down your already heavy body. Your density is only outpaced by that of the air itself; floating on the Dead Sea. That sun shines and burns and persists only for you.


From Paraguay,
little hupo

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Campesinos Sin Tierra--My Neighbors, My Perspective

    There is a child sitting next to me, his head resting in his mothers lap. He is exhausted and his small body hangs like a collapsed tent on the bones of his tiny frame. His soccer jersey is a mine-field pocked with holes of vary size and geometry; the remaining fabric is occupied by stains of ash and dirt haphazardly scribbled in-between stripes of red and white, the colors of Paraguay's 'Selecion Nacional'. 
     Streaks of soot cross his face with the tragic effect of hollowing his already slender cheeks--each dash of powdered carbon, like some temporary scar, mumbling its own sad story. His eyes are unassuming and within them resides the calmness of defeat, the quietness of his obvious hunger. They echo with the shock of having unexpectedly glanced too far beyond the carefree frontiers of childhood bliss and into a reality that is as unnerving as it is inevitable. He hardly moves, says nothing. With one finger, he traces the veins across the back of his mother's hand.
    His mother's head remains balanced in the cradle of her opposing palm. She is looking away from the crowd of people gathered at her feet, away from the rest of her weary children, away from the man yelling defiantly some meters away. She is looking instead towards some nothing, somewhere over the horizon. There is a billowing plume of smoke and the haze of heat that rises over that distant, barren pasture. Those around her seem to be intentionally avoiding her same orientation. I, however, am not so disciplined--torn between all of these quietly persistence gazes, the small battles of will dancing across the wrinkles and lines in the faces all around me, and that point over the hill where something is still burning. There has been an attack today on something very profound and very dear to these people, that much is clear.  There is a war going on here, but it is a silent war.


    Let me start where things usually begin, somewhere in history. I won’t tell the whole history, for that would take too long, it would be too massive an undertaking, and these humble people seem to deserve something much more than an esoteric essay on historical causes and effects. This is not a justification anyways (as history is often construed to be); this is a real story with real people and real events. Lets not dilute that with any nonsense. What I am about to tell you has happened and is happening right now in my little corner of the world.
    Several months ago, a group of landless peasants who live near my home in the Cordillera district of Paraguay, South America made the collective decision to illegally occupy a small fraction of the massive swath of private property that borders one edge of my community. Almost thirty families moved from the shanty-town encampment--where they had been living in small tents for almost a year without running water or electricity--into this fertile area of fallow land. They began by clearing trees, planting crops, building more permanent structures for homes and creating actual lives for themselves, as opposed to the semi-mobile, barely-scraping-food-together type of existence they had previously been leading.
    Politics here in Paraguay, especially in regards to the landless peasant groups (Campesinos Sin Tierra--see my other blog South American Politics for more info), have been quite volatile over the past few months. Already this year, the clashing interests of large land owners and disenfranchised Paraguayans have spilt blood, impeached a President and solicited international economic sanctions. For many decades, this important and controversial issue has bubbled just below the tumultuous surface of the Paraguayan political current. As of this week, these tensions reached yet another flash point as an army of national police was used to forcefully remove these poor peasants of my community from the small patches of earth that they had only recently come to call their home.
    Not only did this fully armed, battle-ready police force of over a hundred officers arrive in the early morning hours to evict these people (families of men, women, children and babies), but they proceeded to slash their crops and burn their small houses to the ground as a means to discourage their return to the area. The peasants, who had finally staked claim and started a simple, poor, yet dignified life for themselves, were, in a matter of minutes, dispossessed of absolutely everything in the world but the clothes on their back and the half-sleeping children walking at their side. The message was clear: private property, market interests and deep-pockets trump human rights, even basic human dignity, every time. My neighbors were cast as the roll of 'collateral damage' in the great theater that is our global, capitalist drama. It is a minor character, one without any speaking parts, but poignant nonetheless and utterly essential for the show to go on.

    Politics, economics, laws aside, imagine this if you will: you are a hard working farmer who wakes up every morning before the sun to toil and sweat in the fields while your wife remains at home cooking and caring for your small children and your newly born baby. Work is hard, life is harder, you have few things, no health care, you lack water or electricity, you cook over an open fire, your diet is lacking in nutritional value, you are subsisting at a very fundamental level. But at least, you have a field to call your own, a home that is the product of your own work in the forests, felling trees and stitching thatch together for the roof, and a family to sit around the fire with at night.
    One morning you wake up to army helicopters and machine-gun wielding police at your door. They gather you along with your wife and children and force you from your home. In your wake, you see them cut the crops you have sown and raised for months in the hot South American sun, you watch them set fire to that small house, your home, and burn it to the ground. You are then told that you can never return to this place for fear of arrest or more brutal police treatment. You have no bed to sleep in, no roof over your head, no food to fill your belly or the bellies of your malnourished, fly-bitten children. Legally, literally, realistically, you can do nothing but wait and stare at that horizon where your home used to be.
    There is no acceptable ethical or rational justification for the treatment of human beings this way. It is undignified, dehumanizing, unjust. But this is the reality of our world--it is a very immediate reality of my world, as these families, these hungry children are my neighbors and friends--but this is still a very real part of our world. History will tell you why, modern politics will show you how, but the way in which such events have come to pass is not the exception, it is the heartbreaking norm and one that has been largely sheltered from our eyes as citizens of the All-Mighty American Empire. Yet, it is the very things that we do, the decisions we make on a daily basis, the foundational philosophies that govern the lives of those in the first-world that have contributed to the rise of this system of economically-stratified, monetarily-prioritized human beings.
     The Campesino Sin Tierra movement is just one of countless other organized activist groups across the globe reacting to the ubiquitous phenomenon of disenfranchisement by means of economic imperialism. The Zapatistas of the Chapas region in Mexico, tribal-rights groups from the Niger Delta, Brazil's MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra), are just a few among the multitude. These organizations represent peoples that have played (in their own small way) by the rules of the globalized marketplace and yet, lost out completely every time. Now many struggle to feed themselves and their families.
     For us in the first-world, it's hard to contextualize or understand the ideas that drive people to knowingly break the law in search of even marginally better lives. The factors that motivate people to rise up so passionately remains a mystery to most because our perspective on such issues only includes half of the whole picture. Where others see their livelihoods compromised and their lives disrupted we simply see an economic system that allows us to sustain our gluttonous lifestyles, a system that grants certain countries (primarily the United States) disproportionate quantities of the global bounty.
     Most of us have never spent days on end with an empty stomach nor have we toiled for months in the hot sun to coax a small parcel of dirt into production. Most of us have never had to live in a shack without running water. In fact, most of us have never even witnessed, let along experienced first-hand, the cards dealt to those living in abject poverty, except for maybe occasionally and only from the safe distance made possible via TV infomercials. We have been too blinded by the unquestioned virtues of the free-market and globalization because those are the only sides of the equation to which we are ever exposed.
     But what is happening here to these families, this is neither freedom nor democracy nor liberty nor any of those wonderfully bastardized catch-phrases wielded in the name of modern capitalism and global neo-liberalism. This is the underbelly of the beast, the opposite end of the capitalist spectrum, the part that is all too often written-off as unavoidable fallout resulting from a system that is otherwise considered pure and infallible. The individual lives of each of these human beings constitute, piece by piece, the briefly acknowledged "human toll" that sits as a footnote on a page in the annals of political and economic policy.
     But to me, these people cannot just be categorized and simplified so easily; to me, these people have names, faces, each one of them has a different personality, different ways of speaking to me, variable senses of humor, even subtly different way to pour and share tereré. Unfortunately, the ideal of the 'capitalist individual' is not contingent upon such nuances of a human being or their spirit, but instead, only upon one's ability to command finances and capital to achieve certain aims.
     What is happening here is just one part of an important chapter in the story that is the tragedy of our times. While Fukayama may have declared "the end of history" all those years ago, history has instead soldiered on. Surely, the communist tide has waned, but the capitalist ideology is still challenged every day by those very people it has bulldozed, ignored and forgotten. People yearn for a rhetoric of inclusion, a system that unites hopes and concerns from all tiers of life, a collective philosophy behind which we can all rally as we face the unprecedented challenges of our shared future. Instead, there continues to exist an inconceivably profound schism between the richest and the poorest among us, the winners and the losers of our world. We have allowed ourselves to construct artificial pedestals to compartmentalize our species and neatly delineate our world, enabling us to avoid the uncomfortable confrontation with the abject conditions of so many others. There is no greater lie on earth.
     The actions that have been carried out here in my community, the events that have ravaged the already difficult lives of my neighbors and friends, have taken place at the hands of a few. But it is through the passivity and complicity of the many through which they achieved legitimacy and have been allowed to perpetuate. It is my sincere hope that we never reach "the end of history", that people will unite for common goals instead of against common enemies, that each of us can personally participate in the construction of a better future. There is too much at stake to do otherwise.


from this world, from our world
-little hupo