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Trashy Women: What does Garbage Have to do with Feminism?

Trashy Women: What does Garbage Have to do with Feminism?

H. Bradford

4/14/17


Each month the Feminist Justice League (formerly the Twin Ports Women’s Rights Coalition) hosts a feminist frolic.  The goal of these events are to build community, educate one another, grow in our feminism, and enjoy the outdoors.  Our frolics are not well attended, but I think they are worthwhile since they challenge me to educate myself and others.  This month, we will be doing geocaching and trash collection at a local park.  This is a great way to learn how to geocache while engaging in environmentally focused volunteerism.  However, I was uncertain about the educational component of the activity.  I wanted to connect trash collection with feminism, which honestly, is not a topic that I have ever given any consideration.  Thus, this essay is an attempt to unify feminism with trash. s-l225


Trash in the Context of Capitalism:

First of all, it is useful to frame the problem.  Each person in the United States produces about 4.3 pounds of solid waste a day, amounting to 243 million tons a year.  Of this, in 2009, 1.5 pounds of waste per person per day was recycled (Pearson, Dawson, and Breitkopf, 2012).  The United States produces the most waste of any country in the world.  Though, waste production and disposal is a global problem.  The more industrialized and urbanized a country becomes, the more waste it produces.  For instance, before 1980 in Katmandu, Nepal, 80% of household waste was derived from kitchen waste.  This was disposed of through composting pits.  With increased urbanization and industrialization, there has been an increase of non-compostable waste, but the country lacks the waste management infrastructure to attend to it.  Thus, it ends up in rivers, roadsides, and vacant lots (Bushell and Goto, 2006).  Similarly, owing to increased development and economic growth, China has become the second largest producer of waste in the year. China has a population that is four times greater than that of the United States, but still produces less waste.  While we produce over 250 million tons of waste by some estimates, China produces 190 million tons.   Although China produces the second most amount of waste, it is important to note that like Nepal, much of that waste is food waste.  In China, 70% of the waste that is produced is food waste.  Typically, in developed countries, about 20% of waste is food waste (Van Kerckhove, 2012).  Thus, it can generally be said that the United States produces a lot of waste, as all developed countries do.  Development can be connected to waste production.  At the same time, as a country develops, the type of waste it produces changes from mostly food wastes to other wastes.


It may be easy to blame development itself on the production of waste, but this is not entirely true.  Waste is the outcome of development within capitalism.  Consider for a moment that U.S. supermarkets throw away 2.5 million tons of food a year.  This number is obscene, considering that many people in our country go hungry or lack access to food.  Why would so much food go to waste?  Capitalist production seeks to produce value.  This sounds a bit complicated, but consider that everything is given value from labor.  Labor is invested into the production of everything, though because of alienation from labor, the labor that went into each product or service is fairly invisible to most of us.  In strictly Marxist economic sense, the value of something is the amount of labor that went into the production of something.  Thus, an apple’s value could be expressed in minutes or hours of labor invested in caring for the apple tree, picking the apple, shipping the apple, or arranging the apple in the produce section at a store.  All of the food at a grocery store that is thrown away, certainly has use value to the hungry, but also value in the generic labor sense.  Throwing out food means discarding the labor that went into it.  This seems terribly inefficient in the sense that people go hungry and that this seems to squander labor.  But, capitalism is a system that really doesn’t care about hunger or waste.  Capitalist production is entirely geared towards valoration or the accumulation of capital.  Again, this is a little complicated.  Valorization entails trying to extract more value from labor by increasing production.  All profits come from the excess surplus value from labor.  By producing more, a capitalist hopes to extract more profits from labor.  The bottom line is that meeting human needs is not the goal of capitalist production,  the goal is profits.  Since acquiring more profits from surplus value requires more production, capitalist production results in a wasteful treadmill of production.  That is, in the interest of profits, the economy produces more than what can be sold.  What can’t be sold is discarded as waste.  Most products are not recycled, not because people choose not to recycle, but because recycling is not profitable.  This is because recycling may involve costly inputs (constant capital) and the end product may not be made into a commodity that is sought after or imbued with as much value as the original commodity (Yates, 2015).  In short, one way that capitalism seeks to increase profits is through more production and all of this production creates waste.  Recycling of waste is not always profitable, due to such things as costly capital inputs and diminished value.  This is why as countries develop within capitalism, they produce more waste.


Another aspect of capitalist development is that not all countries develop equally.  Almost all of the world was colonized by a few European countries.  Colonies developed economies that supported the development of their colonial masters by providing cheap raw materials, cash crop economies, export based economies, markets for goods, cheap labor, etc.   After these colonies fought for and gained their independence, they remained dependent on their former colonial masters through institutions such as the WTO, World Bank, and IMF, as well as fair trade agreements and military interventions.  These systems have stymied development in former colonies.  At the same time, capitalism itself makes development challenging since these countries must compete with the already highly advanced economies of former colonial powers.  It is no wonder then that more than half of the world’s population does not have access to waste collection (Simmons, 2016).   In much of the world, impoverished people make a living from rubbish.  In Beijing alone, 160,000- 200,000 people work as scavengers, who pick through the trash in search of recyclables they can sell.  While China is the second largest producer of waste, is also the world’s largest waste importer, importing all of the waste paper products from the east coast of the United States and ⅓ of the UK’s recyclables.  In turn, the United States imports 11.6 million tons of recycled paper and cardboard from China (Van Kerckhove, 2012).  This phenomenon represents a few aspects of capitalism.  Once again, capitalism is extremely wasteful if it is actually more profitable to ship recyclables back to China to be shipped back to the United States.  Secondly, capitalism creates a lot of “have nots” in the world.  These “have nots” survive from the waste produced in our country and their own.

WC_28_WorldImp

How are these countries faring today?


Capitalism produces both waste and poverty.  Poverty and waste intersect in terrible ways.  For instance, uranium was mined on Navajo lands to produce nuclear weapons during the Cold War.  The nuclear waste was not disposed of properly and resulted in contamination of land, increased rates of cancer, and birth defects.  Various studies have found that Native American are more impacted by pollution than other groups.  For example, Native Americans are more likely to live by toxic waste dumps, have their communities be targeted as sites for nuclear waste disposal facilities, and live near superfund sites than other groups (Lynch, 2014).  Owing to the long history of genocide, racism, trauma, and the fact that one in four Native Americans live in poverty, they have less political and economic power to fight the outsourcing of pollution to their land and fight corporate power.  All poor people, ethnic minorities, and other oppressed groups are less valued in society, have less power, and are more likely to face the negative environmental consequences of capitalism.


Another way that poverty intersects with waste is that waste recycling generates income to low income individuals, which puts them at risk of exposure to pollutants.  One example of this has been the boom in electronic waste.  Electronics is one of the fastest growing types of waste in the world.  Although it only accounts for 5% of municipal waste, it is the most lucrative kind of waste because it can yield iron, gold, silver, copper, aluminum and rare earth metals.  Thus, e-waste recycling appeals to impoverished people in need money.  At the same time, the recycling process can expose workers to lead, mercury, flame retardants, and plastic chemicals.  The chemicals, elements, and compounds in e-waste are known to impact brain development in children and overall lifespan, thereby wrecking not only the health of the workers but their children and communities.  Once again, global inequalities shape where e-waste ends up, as  the United States is the number one producer of e-waste but China and Africa end up with 80% of the world’s used electronics.  There are often fewer waste and labor regulations in many of these countries.  At the same time, there are incentives to have fewer regulations since it makes the labor cheaper and economic conditions more appealing to foreign investors (Heacock, Kelly, Kwadwo Ansong, Birnbaum, Bergman, Bruné, and Sly, 2016).


Poor people and poor countries are often blamed for environmental problems.  Environmentalists often blame population growth on environmental problems.  As such, it is easy to look to the large populations of the less developed world and see future car owners, fast food eaters, and mall shoppers.  It can’t be Christmas everyday and certainly not all over the world!  It is easy to look at the developing world and see waste and pollution.  In the United States, our garbage is collected by professionals and carted away to some place out of the sight of most middle class white people.  Elsewhere, more than 40% of the world’s garbage ends up in illegal or unregulated waste dumps (Simmons, 2016).  Sometimes poor people or people from the developing world are blamed for not disposing of trash properly, perhaps because of lack of environmental education.  However, in a study of 1,512 Hispanic women living in southern Texas, the women who were less acculturated, which was measured by a self-report of use of English at home, with friends, with children, etc. were more likely to be engaged in recycling.   Researchers believed that perhaps this is because the women were more engaged in informal recycling in their home country, such as sharing clothes or recycling bottles for vases.  It is also possible that they are more aware of environmental problems that they were exposed to in their home country (Pearson, Dawson, and Breitkopf, 2012).  This is one small study, but it should be used to dispel the idea that white people of the developed world are more enlightened about the environment.  We are the ones creating the most waste, despite our smaller population.  Again, the problem is production not population.


To summarize these points thus far, capitalism is driven by profits rather than health and human needs.  It is also driven towards production in the interest of generating more profits.  This is inherently wasteful.  Not only is capitalism wasteful, it creates and supports inequalities on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, age, ability, etc.  It also creates and supports inequalities between entire nations, in which a few countries are highly developed, but the vast majority exist on the periphery as supports to more advanced economies.  Poor people and poor nations are more likely to endure the negative consequences of the world’s waste, even if they are not the world’s biggest producers of waste.  As a final point on the topic of capitalism, it is important to note that many environmentalists blame consumers and consumerism for the amount of waste.  Certainly consumers do play a role in buying and discarding products.  However, this framework ignores capitalist production, which arguably seeks endless productive growth and by extension, endless waste.  Products themselves are not designed to be long lasting or durable.  This phenomenon is called planned obsolescence and means that production will always chug along because nothing lasts, parts can’t be replaced, and nothing remains trendy in capitalism.  Planned obsolescence is not a term invented by anti-capitalists, but by capitalists themselves who noted that production must continue to avoid economic stagnation.  Goods are created to be replaced.  This is why a car only lasts for 150,000 – 200,000 miles.  It is not because it is impossible to design a better car, but that the effort to design such a car is not incentivized by capitalism.  It is better to produce a car that lasts a few years and then must be replaced by a newer model.  In addition to the waste generated by the drive towards more and new products, corporations spend trillions of dollars on advertising to convince people to buy things.  This results in wasteful products, packages, ads, and production.  Finally, while consumer waste is astounding, it pales in comparison to industrial waste and military waste.  Household waste only makes up 2.5% of U.S. solid waste.  97.5% of the waste actually comes from businesses and the government (Butler, 2011).  The military plays an important role in destroying competitors, opening up new markets, consuming products, providing jobs, silencing countries and groups who do not agree with our way of things, and other functions that help capitalism continue.  It can easily be said that the production of waste is not only a side effect of capitalism, it is in many ways central to its functioning.

Apple-Planned-Obsolescence

 


 

Trash in the Context of Patriarchy:

Today, the Feminist Justice League is collecting trash.  I would like to dissect that for a moment to understand the role of patriarchy in all of this.  I have already established that capitalism creates waste and that minorities and poor people are affected more by this than groups with more power.  At the same time, globally and in the United States, women are more likely to be poor than men.  Women have less social and political power and are less valued in society.  Because of oppression, women are also more susceptible to the negative impacts of waste.  For instance, Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs are flame retardant compounds used in construction, electronics, motor vehicles, furniture, etc.  They have a tendency to accumulate up the food chain, resulting in higher levels of PBDEs in human beings.  As such, the European Union and United States have banned the use of some of these compounds.  This is not the case in the developing world, again, because of global economic pressures which reward government deregulation in lower income countries.  It is estimated that 20-50 million tons of electronic waste is produced throughout the world each year.  A single electronics recycling plant in Taizhou, China dismantles over two million tons of electronics alone and employs over 40,000 people.  As a result, snails, mud, poultry, plants, and the air around the facility had significantly high levels of PBDE’s.  When researchers took breast milk samples from women living near the facility between 2012 and 2013, they found that their PBDE levels were twice as high as samples from developed countries, higher than other parts of China, and even higher than women living near other recycling plants.  Infants exposed to higher levels of PBDEs can have reduced memory and motor functions (Li, Tian, Ben, and Lv, 2017).   In China, migrant workers from rural areas and ethnic minorities are groups often involved in this kind of labor.  However, in India, women of the Dalit caste may find themselves living near waste sites or engaged in recycling.  Women are the lowest of the low in both social contexts, so they are more likely to find themselves doing low paying, highly exploited work.  In addition to problems that infants exposed to chemicals face, women may experience fertility issues, cancer in reproductive organs, autoimmune disease,  and spontaneous abortion if exposed to heavy metals, flame retardants, and other toxins (Mcalister, Mcgee, and Hale, 2014).  Pollution itself has also been linked to the shortening of telomeres.  Telomeres appear at the end of strands of DNA and serve the function of protecting chromosomes.  Traffic pollution, fine particles, and smoking is linked to shorter telomeres.  Telomeres naturally shorten with age, but pollution accelerates this process.  In a study of 50 blood samples collected from pregnant women (controlling for age) living in a polluted area near Naples Italy compared to 50 samples from a less polluted area in Avellino, Italy, found that the women near Naples had shorter telomeres.  Telomere shortening has been connected to the aging process and to cancer (De Felice, Nappi, Zizolfi, Guida, Sardo, Bifulco, and Guida, 2012).  In sum, women are certainly impacted by the waste in the environment, especially when gender compounds with class, ethnicity, or caste in the case of India.  Because women have less economic power, they may have less access to health care.  Finally, women are responsible for producing the next generation of human beings.  Unhealthy women may give birth to unhealthy babies or may be unable to reproduce at all.   Historically and in many parts of the world, a woman is valued for her reproductive ability.  Fertility issues compromise the already shaky position of women. e-waste-3


Within the United States, women are less likely to work directly with waste management.  In fact, feminists who demand equality to men are sometimes told that they really don’t want equality as this means they will have to do hard, dirty work, like garbage collection.  Within the United States, men tend to dominate this field.  In New York City, there are 7,000 trash collectors.  As of 2008, 200 were women.  These women were honored during Women’s History Month and at least one had been working as a garbage collector for thirty years (Horan, 2008).  American women may not be socialized to look at garbage collection as a career, or perhaps, since it is viewed as a male dominated space, women are less likely to apply to those jobs.  Nevertheless, women are perfectly capable and willing to do this kind of hard work.  For example, Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, has an all female garbage collection team.  The women drive trucks, but must also lift heavy garbage cans as the job is not as mechanized as in the U.S..  The women were hired as part of an initiative to attain gender equality among various sectors of the economy and serve the area of Warren Park, a low income community within Harare.  The women seemingly took pride in their work and reported they were treated well because of their good customer service and that they were not harassed by their male counterparts (All women garbage collection team cleans up Harare, n.d.).  The picture is not as rosy for women and girls in Mogadishu, Somalia.  Two decades of instability left the country unable to institute basic governance over such things as garbage collection.  The federal government formed in 2012 sought to tackle the massive amount of garbage that amassed over the years of chaos.  To this end, it hired private contractors to clean the garbage.  Most of the people hired by these private companies are women and girls.  They are regularly sexually harassed and harangued as they work.  For instance, they are told that they should be cleaning their homes, not the streets.  The women may begin work at 5 pm and end work after 9 in the morning.  They are paid $3 a day for their work and if they do not work hard enough, their supervisor may deduct $1 from their pay.  In November 2008, a bomb planted near a pile of trash took the lives of 21 women street cleaners (Mogadishu’s unsung garbage collectors, 2016).  Even under the threat of violence and constant harassment, the women dutifully worked as there were few job opportunities available to them.

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Around the world, women play a unique role in waste management, even if this is not always evident in paid labor.  For instance, women are often in charge of household waste disposal, as they are more likely to manage household chores such as cooking and cleaning.  Women are often important consumers of products, as they may conduct shopping on behalf of the family.  This can determine the kinds of waste that a household produces.  Women often socialize children and are involved in education, which means that they play a role in promoting and passing on social values, such as recycling.  Globally, women participate in the economy as waste pickers, sweepers, and domestic workers but are less likely than men to have secure, full time employment in waste management.  Women have also been more involved than men in grassroots initiatives in solid waste management, perhaps because waste has a greater impact on their role in the household(Beall, n.d.).   As example of this, women in Kathmandu Nepal noticed all of the trash that was accumulating in their city and started up a project called Women for Sustainable Development.  One of their projects was a waste management initiative which encouraged paper recycling and pressured shop owners to move away from plastic bags (Bushell and Goto, 2006).  Similarly, in 1997, a small group of women from Dzilam de Bravo in Mexico organized to begin collecting trash and seaweed from the beaches in an organization called Las Costeras.  They wanted to beautify the beaches for tourists and turn the seaweed into compost, which they could sell to farmers.  By 2011, the group had inspired other coastal garbage collection organizations, involving over 400 participants.  The women receive small sums of money from the government for their work and also receive vegetables from farmers.  However, the women expressed that they felt stigmatized by others, since it was dirty work.  The soil of the Yucatan Peninsula is made of karst limestone and very permeable, so their composting project has actually helped to improve agriculture (Buechler and Hanson, 2015).  There are many similar examples of women all over the world who have organized in their community to clean up garbage and recycle trash into art, jewelry, or purses that they can sell.


Not only are women more vulnerable to environmental problems, studies suggest that women may be more involved in more formal and informal environmental activism than men.  This is despite the fact that women have more barriers to involvement in activism in general, due to unequal pay with men and the unequal burden of unpaid labor.  Historically, women have been more involved in environmental activism than other kinds of activism.  Research has also suggested that women are more likely to be concerned about the environment than men. Women are socialized to care for their families and be nurturing, which may lend itself to greater concern for the environment.  Of course, gender inequalities do shape how women choose to engage in activism.  In a survey of British Colombia women involved in three social movement organizations, researchers found that women were more engaged in the organizations.  The women were more likely than men to engage in recycling at home, plant trees, reuse items, compost, avoid disposable cups, buy environmentally friendly cleaning products, buy organic produce, and conserve energy.  Men did outscore women in a few areas, such as being more likely to bike or walk to work, recycling at work, and helping to maintain nature reserves or parks.   Men were more likely to sign petitions, attend protests, attend an educational lecture, do a lecture, attend a community meeting, and write letters to politicians, though women were more likely to engage in more individual activity such as donating money to organizations or buying their products.  The study found that women were more engaged in environmentally friendly behaviors, but less involved in social movement activities.  Perhaps the women did not have as many opportunities to engage in community activism or did not feel confident in taking a public role in their environmentalism (Tindall, Davies, and Mauboules, 2003).


It seems that women may take a more lifestyle approach to their activism. A 2012 UK Survey found that single women recycle more than men.  70% of women were engaged in environmentally friendly waste disposal as opposed to 58% of single men.  80% of couples engaged in environmentally friendly waste disposal, though women were believed to be the catalyst behind this activity.  This may be because of the gendered division of labor in which women are more likely to wash out cans, remove lids, and sort waste.  Buying and cooking food consists of 60% of household waste and is traditionally done by females (Levy, 2012).  In another study, data collected from 22 nations through the International Social Survey Program (ISSP) was analyzed to understand how gender shapes self-reported environmental engagement.  The study found that women were significantly more likely to engage in environmentally minded behaviors such as recycling and driving less.  All individuals in the study were more likely to be engaged in private environmental behaviors than social activism.  Even in lower GNI countries, women were more engaged in private environmental behaviors.  In higher GNI, this becomes more pronounced as women had more ability to engage in these behaviors (Hunter, Hatch, and Johnson, 2004).  Thus, it can be concluded that women are on a daily basis more engaged in lifestyle activism.  It is alarming that both men and women prefer not to engage in social movement activism and if they do, men are more engaged in this.  Social movement building is important in challenging the structures of patriarchy and capitalism which create waste, environmental destruction, and social stratification to begin with.


The fact that we chose to collect trash as a feminist group aligns with the norms of being female.  It is a nice gesture.  It is a nice way to beautify our city.  But, the lesson that should be drawn from all of this is that the problem of waste is global and systemic. Small groups of volunteers can certainly play a small role in making the world a better place, but to truly make the world a better place, we need to challenge the logic of capitalist production.  There will always be more waste to pick up since capitalism creates waste in pursuit of profits.  The most vulnerable groups in society will always be impacted the most by waste.  Social movement activism is important to realizing our collective power to challenge capitalism.  No amount of recycling, buying organic, or composting will overthrow capitalism.  These are good things and should not be shunned, but they do not challenge how capitalism operates.  Capitalism operates globally, perpetuating war, inequality, and environmental destruction.  Protests, petitions, strikes, boycotts, educational events, etc. are all tools that should be in our activist tool box.  Feminists should support and unite with other social movements such as anti-racist movements, movements for indigenous rights, and the environmental movement, as each of these challenge capitalism in their own way and we are stronger if we work together.  Picking up trash is fine, but the goal should be to throw capitalism into the dustbin of history.

capitalism_belongs_in_the_trash_by_commie_kun-db1jm0w

 


References

All-women garbage collection team cleans up Harare | Africa | DW.COM | 29.03.2016. (n.d.). Retrieved April 11, 2017, from http://www.dw.com/en/all-women-garbage-collection-team-cleans-up-harare/a-19148073

Beall, n.d.  http://wedc.lboro.ac.uk/resources/books/Solid_Waste_Management_-_SN_5_-_Complete.pdf

Buechler, S., & Hanson, A. M. S. (Eds.). (2015). A political ecology of women, water and global environmental change (Vol. 15). Routledge.

Bushell, B., & Goto, M. (2006). Kathmandu: Women Tackle Solid Waste Management. Women & Environments International Magazine, (70/71), 60-62.

Butler, S. P. (2011, December 3). Are consumers destroying the earth? Retrieved April 13, 2017, from http://climateandcapitalism.com/2011/12/03/are-consumers-destroying-the-earth/

De Felice, B., Nappi, C., Zizolfi, B., Guida, M., Sardo, A. S., Bifulco, G., & Guida, M. (2012). Telomere shortening in women resident close to waste landfill sites. Gene, 500(1), 101-106. doi:10.1016/j.gene.2012.03.040

Heacock, M., Kelly, C. B., Kwadwo Ansong, A., Birnbaum, L. S., Bergman, Å. L., Bruné, M., & … Sly, P. D. (2016). E-Waste and Harm to Vulnerable Populations: A Growing Global Problem. Environmental Health Perspectives, 124(5), 550-555. doi:10.1289/ehp.1509699

Horan, K. (2008, March 29). City Honors Female Garbage Collectors. Retrieved April 11, 2017, from http://www.wnyc.org/story/77923-city-honors-female-garbage-collectors/

Hunter, L. M., Hatch, A., & Johnson, A. (2004). Cross‐national gender variation in environmental behaviors. Social science quarterly, 85(3), 677-694.

Li, X., Tian, Y., Zhang, Y., Ben, Y., & Lv, Q. (2017). Accumulation of polybrominated diphenyl ethers in breast milk of women from an e-waste recycling center in China. Journal Of Environmental Sciences (Elsevier), 52305-313. doi:10.1016/j.jes.2016.10.008

Levy, A. (2012, December 31). Recycling? Women have got it all sorted (and it’s wives who force their men to follow the rules). Retrieved April 09, 2017, from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2255090/Recycling-Women-got-sorted-revealed-wives-force-husbands-follow-rules.html

Lynch, M. (2014, March 10). Native American People, Environmental Health and Justice Issues. Retrieved April 14, 2017, from http://greencriminology.org/glossary/native-american-people-environmental-health-and-justice-issues/

McAllister, L., Magee, A., & Hale, B. (2014). Women, e-waste, and technological solutions to climate change. Health and Human Rights Journal, 16(1).

Mogadishu’s unsung garbage collectors. (2016, January). Retrieved April 11, 2017, from http://witnesssomalia.org/index.php/14-icetheme/homepage/169-mogadishu-s-unsung-heroes-its-

Garbage-collectors

Pearson, H. C., Dawson, L. N., & Breitkopf, C. R. (2012). Recycling Attitudes and Behavior among a Clinic-Based Sample of Low-Income Hispanic Women in Southeast Texas. Plos ONE, 7(4), 1-6. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0034469

Simmons, A. (2016, April 22). The world’s trash crisis, and why many Americans are oblivious. Retrieved April 12, 2017, from http://www.latimes.com/world/global-development/la-fg-global-trash-20160422-20160421-snap-htmlstory.html

Tindall, D. B., Davies, S., & Mauboules, C. (2003). Activism and conservation behavior in an environmental movement: The contradictory effects of gender. Society & Natural Resources, 16(10), 909-932.

Van Kerckhove, G. (2012). Toxic capitalism: The orgy of consumerism and waste: Are we the last generation on earth. AuthorHouse, 58-87.

Yates, M. (2015, August). Waste, Immiseration, and the Lure of Profitability . Retrieved April 13, 2017, from https://worldecologynetwork.files.wordpress.com/2015/08/yates-formatted.pdf

An Overview of Overland Travel

An Overview of Overland Travel

H. Bradford


This past summer I went on an overland trip through South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe through Nomad Overland Adventure Tours.  I chose Nomad because they included The Great Zimbabwe complex on their itinerary, they were reasonably priced compared to other companies, they had good reviews, and their website looked appealing.  The tour that I chose was “Four Country Trek” which involved 25 Days of camping…in southern Africa.  I had never actually gone camping in my life!  So, this is the review of a novice camper.  Because it was my first time camping, I did have some misgivings.  I feared that I was not be up for the adventure.  My brother tried to talk me out of it, or at least talk some sense into me.  However, there are plenty of people who go to Africa on overland camping trips.  I am sure I am not the weakest or least adventurous of this lot.  Am I?  Well, maybe I am.  Who knows. dscf3967


The Flight:  I flew from Duluth, Mn to Cape Town, South Africa.  This in itself was an adventure, since it involved a flight to Amsterdam followed by a flight to Cape Town.  This resulted in over 20 hours of flying time.  It was pretty amazing to fly over ALL of Africa.  I arrived in Cape Town at 11 pm and was glad that I purchased a transfer to my hotel, or for that matter, a hotel.  While I try to be a frugal person when I travel, I have found that it is nice to stay in a hotel when I first arrive somewhere, rather than a hostel.  This allows my body and mind time to adjust to my new environment rather than being immediately thrust into the discomfort of hostels.  I was happy to have a hotel for my first two nights.


Cape Town: I spent the next day exploring Cape Town, which was the most beautiful city that I have ever seen.  It is hemmed by cloudy mountains, strange forests, and the meeting point of two oceans.  My solo adventures in the city involved visiting Robben Island, going on a Hop on-Hop off Bus Tour, a visit to the top of the table mountain, and wandering around the waterfront.  It also involved a 45 minute frantic jog back to my hotel through darkened streets after a man grabbed me by the arm.  That is another story for another blog post.  I will only say that Cape Town was wonderful.  I particularly enjoyed seeing a hyrax (a rodent like mountain animal which is related to the elephant) and a variety of unique plants (the Cape is one of several plant regions, which families of plants found nowhere in the world).   Oh, our tour guide at Robben Island was once a prisoner on the island and was once part of the Black Consciousness movement. dscn0186 dscn0110


Registration and the Truck:

The next morning, I went to Nomad’s office to sign in for the trip.  This is where I first met the people who would be traveling with me, the guides, and the truck.  Our overland truck was named Ottis.  Ottis could fit 24 passengers.  We were each allowed a soft duffel bag or soft backpack with a daypack and assigned our own locker on Ottis.  Ottis contained all of our tents, cooking equipment, a freezer, electrical outlets, food supplies, a water tank, and basically everything we would need for our camping journey through southern Africa.  Ottis was a sturdy truck with the capacity to take on the worst bumpy and dirt roads on our trek.

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The People:

There were about 24 people on our trip, so Ottis was packed!  We were squeezed onto the truck pretty tightly.  The passengers came from all over the world, including Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Germany, Belgium, Canada, France, United States, Netherlands, Denmark, South Korea, Switzerland, and Japan!  I was one of three Americans on the trip.  As a whole, it seemed that Netherlands and Dutch speaking Belgians made up the majority of those on the trip.  This is perhaps owing to the fact that South Africa was originally settled by the Dutch and Afrikaans is closely related to Dutch.  Just as there was a wide spread of nationalities, there was a wide range of ages.  Most of the people on the trip were in their 20s, but there were a few people in their 30s, as well as some adults who were in their 50s and 60s.  It can generally be said that everyone was well traveled and had a spirit of adventure.  It can also be said that everyone was at least somewhat athletic, with several individuals who had trekked up mountains or hiked extensively.  Many of the travelers enjoyed pursuits such as scuba diving, mountain climbing, skiing, biking, hiking, skydiving, etc.  Compared to the others, I was definitely on the lower end of fitness and propensity for adventure.


The Guides: Both of our guides were from Zimbabwe, which was great since I was most excited for my time in Zimbabwe.  The driver, Dingi, was a little older and generally had a good sense of humor.  Dingi was patient and never lost his cool as we faced long, arduous days on dusty roads.  Prince was younger and had spent some time working and living in the United States.  Prince did more of the cooking than Dingi and was a fabulous cook!  We all helped to prepare meals by washing and chopping vegetables, cleaning dishes, or otherwise helping as needed.  Prince worked his magic over the rudimentary burners and campfire to create flavorful southern Africa meals.  Both of them worked from before 5am to after 10 pm each night.  They did not get breaks between tours, so they worked non-stop from early spring to December.   They both tried to have a good attitude about it, as even the hyper-exploitative conditions paid better than jobs that they might find or not find in Zimbabwe.  Their low wage is bolstered by the tips they receive at the end of the trip.  So, as a note to fellow travelers: be sure to budget tip money.


The Camping:

My introduction to camping was my first night in the Cederberg region of South Africa.  We stayed at a campsite that was adjacent to a farm/vineyard.  A burly Boer regaled us with tales of leopards that pass through the farm.  I went to bed feeling giddy with my new adventure.  However, that night it rained very hard and became chilly.  My tent got wet inside.  I got wet.  I was miserable as I had to take apart my tent in the rain, pack it up, becoming covered in mud.  This was not the best introduction to camping.  This was one of the worst nights.  I will note that camping was much colder than I had prepared for.  I thought that it would be warmer…after all, it was Africa.  I come from Minnesota, where winter can involve 110 inches of snow and weeks of below zero temperatures.  I could not believe that winter in Africa could possibly be cold.  I was wrong.  There were nights that were near freezing, especially in desert areas.  I did not prepare myself well enough.  My sleeping bag was not up to the task.  So, there were some miserable, shivering nights.  However, there was also a sense of accomplishment and adventure.  Each day we had to get up early and take apart the tents.  Each day we had to put them back up.  It ended up being more work than it sounds like.  Also, because it was winter, the sun set early.  We were always putting up and taking down tents in the darkness of winter.  We chopped vegetables and did dishes in the dark, coldness of desert night.  It was fun, challenging, and beautiful all at once.  I never felt demoralized, but I also counted the days to my next warm shower and bed.  Thankfully, our longest stretch of camping was about five days.  Then, we had a reprieve in a city, where we stayed in a hotel.  This would be followed by another stretch of camping, with the eventual reward of a stay in a city.

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Showers and Bathrooms: The shower and bathroom situation was better than expected.  To be fair, I expected that I would probably be digging a hole and burying my pooh.  I also expected no showers or only cold showers.  In actuality, the bathroom situation was pretty good in South Africa and Namibia, which public restrooms at gas stations (which could be accessed for a fee).  The camp grounds featured flush toilets.  Showers tended to be either extremely cold or burning hot, with no way to moderate the heat.  This made showering a challenge, but since I was always extremely dirty it was worth the challenge.  Showers often did not have any lights, which meant showering with a flashlight or headlamp.  We did “bush camp” in Namibia for one night, which meant there were no showers and only an outhouse.  Really, I don’t mind outhouses.  In Botswana, the toilet situation took a turn for the worst.  The gas stations no longer had public toilets or running water.  I remember at one point, I had to use the toilet, but there was no toilet.  So, I had to trek away from Ottis, our bus, to find a secluded area to do my business.  However, ALL of the trees were variations of acacias.  Each tree was covered in terrible sharp spikes!   I squatted by this not very concealing, thorn covered tree…which jabbed by butt with a nasty thorn.  I pulled up my pants in disgust!  I was so angry that I couldn’t even answer nature’s call.  I felt angry at nature…angry at these mean trees that were neither concealing nor kind.  There was also a public restroom in Zimbabwe which was basically a tennis ball sized hole in a cement floor.  Despite some minor challenges along the way, I had access to flush toilets for most of the trip and a temperature controlled shower at least once a week. dscf3896


The Food:

The food was far better than I expected.  Each day that we camped, we started the day with a modest breakfast.  The breakfast consisted of cereal, tea, instant coffee, toast made over the campfire, fruit, and granola.  Sometimes the guides would make us bacon or eggs, but I never had these since I don’t eat meat and I prefer a light breakfast.  Each morning, I basically ate toast, fruit, and tea.  Our lunch was usually taken very quickly at a rest stop.  So, this usually consisted of cold sandwiches.  I ate a lot of cucumber, cheese, and tomato sandwiches on the road.  Since we made bathroom stops every few hours, there were opportunities to buy snacks and drinks.  Dinner was more of a production.  Once the tents were set up, we helped prepare dinner by cutting vegetables, setting the table, washing, or whatever else was needed.  Prince tried to make traditional foods, but also catered to my vegetarian diet.  I was the only vegetarian and didn’t ask for any special treatment.  Despite my protests, he always made me something special.  Our evening meals consisted of cooked squash, sweet potatoes, mealie pap, chakalaka stew, game meats, fish, pasta, curry vegetables, etc.  The food always tasted fresh and delicious.  There were always plenty of vegetable dishes and I never felt hungry.  Also, I usually get sick when I travel.  However, I did not become ill the whole time!  So, my digestive system handled the food very well. dscf3691

 

 

Health:

Before I went on the trip, I visited a travel health clinic.  Actually, it was my first time doing this, as usually I have not been too worried about my health while traveling.  I was given a variety of vaccinations, including yellow fever, meningitis, Hepatitis A/B, and typhoid.  I was also given malarial pills and anti-diarrhea pills.  I was told to take the malarial pills before beginning the trip.  Really, I was the only person on Ottis who was taking malaria pills (until Botswana).  Oh well, at least I gave my body a long time to get used to the malaria pills. I had no symptoms from the malarial pills other than vivid dreams.  I took them at night with my dinner, rather than at breakfast, since I did notice they gave me a little diarrhea and it was easier to deal with diarrhea at night rather than during the day while on a truck.  Otherwise, I had no major health issues during the trip.  Because it was winter during the trip, I really didn’t see any mosquitoes.  I had a few bites on my hands (since the spray was washed off), but mosquitoes were not very active.  Winter was also useful because snakes, scorpions, and insects in general were dormant during the trip.


The Days:

The days were usually long and involved a lot of driving.  There were places where the roads were extremely bumpy and dusty, resulting in hours of a slow slog through clouds of red dust.  At one point, the vibrations from the bumpy roads caused one of the windows to shatter into thousands of pieces.  We used a mattress to cover the window until it could be repaired.  I usually awoke before 5am, however I rose early to make sure I had enough time to shower and take down my tent.  I never wanted to make people wait for me.  Usually, we were sleeping by around 10 pm.  On days when we were not driving, we usually ended up in a vehicle …as we did wildlife drives to see animals!


The Excursions: Many of the activities were covered in the activity package I purchased.  However, many of the stops had the option for some optional excursions.  Many people did not partake in these optional excursions due to the price or the fact they wanted to relax after spending time on the road.  I went on several optional excursions, which I found to be fun, but not necessary.  For instance, I went canoeing on the Orange River.  I thought this was a good activity because I wanted some exercise after being cooped up in the truck.  While I Swakopmund, I went on a tour of the Cape Seal Colony via a boat ride.  This was also well worth the money, since when are you going to see hundreds of seals on a beach and in the water?  The land was dotted with the swarm of dark bodies.  I also went on a night wildlife drive at Etosha National Park.  Once again this wasn’t necessary, as we had a drive earlier in the day.  However, it offered me the opportunity to see nocturnal animals such as hyenas and an aardwolf.   This tour was freezing cold, as we were in an open jeep.  However, a group of hyenas brushed by our vehicle, a few feet away from us.  I also went on a helicopter ride over Victoria falls.  This was spendy, but worth it, because I had never been in a helicopter before and it offered the full view of Victoria falls.  Nevertheless,  a person could be perfectly satisfied without spending any money on extra excursions- as there was plenty to see and do without these excursions. dscn1225 Money: On a day to day basis, I didn’t spend much money.  I don’t drink alcohol, which was popular with other passengers.  I also tried to limit my snacks, as I didn’t want to gain weight (from the sedentary days on the truck).  Most days did not have optional excursions, as there were included activities such as walks, wildlife drives, or city tours.  My main expenses were water, soft drinks, and supplemental snacks.  This made me feel less guilty when I splurged on a helicopter ride.  I don’t like buying souvenirs, so I waited until the end to pick up a few small items.  In the end, I had money left over in my budget as I had not spent as much as I thought.


Highlights:

  1. Seeing rhinos and elephants acting aggressively towards each other at a watering hole.
  2. The Great Zimbabwe Ruins
  3. Climbing Dune 45
  4. Seeing the Cape Seal Colony
  5. Visiting Robben Island
  6. Taking the cable car up the Table Mountain
  7. Sitting a few feet away from lions eating a giraffe (in an open vehicle)
  8. Squatting in the grass a few feet away from a wild white rhino!
  9. Seeing 200 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and plants
  10. Sitting in a canoe- watching hippos in the Okavango Delta
  11. A helicopter ride over Victoria falls
  12. Star gazing in the Southern Hemisphere
  13. Visiting Cecil Rhodes grave
  14. Spotting a leopard!
  15. Spotting all of the Big Five: Lion, leopard, cape buffalo, rhino, elephant
  16. Seeing my first elephant, first lion…first zebra…first….etc.
  17. Scurrying across the border to Zambia..by myself
  18. Seeing both sides of Victoria Falls
  19. Meeting lion researchers in Okavango delta
  20. Surviving!

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Overall:

Overland camping involves long days in a crowded truck on bumpy roads.  In the winter, it was uncomfortably cold with late sunrises and sunsets.  I was covered in dirt and my skin became extremely dry.  However, it was still less challenging than I thought it would be.  It involved early mornings, effort, and cooperation.  Nevertheless, I think that anyone with a positive attitude, patience, and open mind could enjoy this kind of trip.  The reward for sleeping in a tent, is waking up to fresh, brisk mornings and nights under the expansive and exotic sky of the Southern hemisphere.  The group effort and shared discomforts builds camaraderie.  There is also something nice about sitting in a circle around a campfire with people from around the world.  They all have stories about where they have been and what they have done.  It is inspiring.  The days on the truck are also rewarded with sights of birds and animals that you would otherwise only see in the zoo.  There is something wonderful about seeing these animals in nature, behaving as they would naturally (eating one another, fighting, or showing indifference to each other).  Each day I saw or experienced something completely unique and fascinating.  It enlivened my curiosity and made me feel like a child.  With that said, I highly recommend overland camping!

What’s a Mugabe?

What’s a Mugabe?

What’s a Mugabe?

I recently read Martin Meredith’s book, Mugabe: Power, Plunder, and the Struggle for Zimbabwe’s Future. My boyfriend saw the book and asked me what a “Mug-a-bee” was. As my previous post indicates, I am not an African history buff. I wish I was a history of everything buff. But, I am just me. This version of me is interested in history, but has so much to learn. That is why I read Mugabe: Power, Plunder, and the Struggle for Zimbabwe’s Future. I wanted to know what a Mugabe was.


To give a brief history, as presented in the book and from some previous knowledge, the country now known as Zimbabwe was once called Rhodesia, named after the British diamond mine owner/promoter of imperialism, Cecil Rhodes. Basically, Rhode’s mining company BSAC was granted the mineral rights to an enormous track of land spanning from Limpopo River to Lake Tanganyika. To secure the land (i.e. colonize or take control of), Rhodes promised 3,000 acres of land to anyone who volunteered to be in his pioneer army. Thus, an army of volunteers basically conquered what would become modern day Zimbabwe, taking over the land, killing native people, crushing resistance, and forcing the remaining native people to pay taxes (thus forcing them into a cash/labor/wage based economy).


Fast forward to 1965. A minority of wealthy white land owners have controlled the country since 1890. This is because in order to vote, the electorate must meet certain wealth, educational, and property thresholds. Only the white population, 5% of the total population, met these qualifications. And, having enjoyed over seventy years of uncontested political and economic power, this white minority was not eager to give it up. Thus, in 1965, Rhodesia, which is still a British territory, made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) from Britain. They did this because the white elite did not want to negotiate with the British for their independence, as this would entail at least some commitment to transferring power to the black majority. In short, the UDI was not really a declaration of independence, but a declaration of the government to independently continue the status quo of white power.


While I don’t expect much from the United States, UN, or Britain, in this case, the whole world was against white Rhodesia (or at least gave lip service to being against white Rhodesia). The UN condemned the declaration as illegal and racist and the Security Council imposed sanctions on the country. The sanctions weren’t necessary strictly followed and South Africa continued to provide military support, Iran provided oil, Japan purchased imports, and the United Sates continued to purchase chromium and nickel. Meanwhile, various rebel groups launched a bloody war of liberation that continued until 1979, when all parties agreed to terms of independence (elections, delayed land reform, a constitution, ceasefire, etc.) in the Lancaster Agreement.


That brings me back to the original question, “What is a Mugabe?” In the book, Mugabe: Power, Plunder, and the Struggle for Zimbabwe’s Future, Robert Mugabe began as a relatable character. He was an isolated, serious, bookish person. I can relate to that. He didn’t drink or smoke. I can relate to that. He became a teacher and worked in Ghana, where he was introduced to socialism. I can relate to that. Then, he becomes a paranoid, ethnic cleansing, corrupt dictator…wait, what happened?! I’ll back up. Alright, so Mugabe was a part of a Maoist leaning rebel group called ZANU. This was one of two major Marxist Leninist rebel groups in Rhodesia, the other being ZAPU, a Warsaw Pact, Soviet aligned rebel group. To make things more complex, these parties have armed wings, ZANLA and ZIPRA. Mugabe eventually became the head of ZANLA, the armed wing of ZANU. Now, the author of the book portrays Mugabe’s descent into dictatorship as somewhat of a personal matter. For one, he spent eleven years in prison for his role in ZANLA. During his time in prison, his three year old son died. Ian Smith, the Prime Minister, personally denied his request to leave prison to comfort his wife, even when prison guards believed he could be trusted to return. Besides prison, he fought in a civil war that killed over 10,000 guerillas. The book suggests that going through the experiences of war, prison, and loss contributed to the direction he took after he was elected and became Prime Minister in 1980. It is also suggested that his austere and driven personality traits contributed to his dictatorship. While this may be a welcome explanation compared to the typical “absolute power corrupts” or “socialism always leads to dictatorship” I was not satisfied with this storyline.   Why does a man starve his country to root out opposition? What did he oversee the killing of up to 30,000 political opponents in the early 1980s, killed along ethnic lines? Why the corruption? Why the excess and pilfering of state money? Rather than the question of “what is a Mugabe?,” which I think the book answers by conveying his history, terrible deeds, and persona…I wonder, why Mugabe?


At first I thought that perhaps it was a matter of some ideological flaw. ZANU was aligned with China and sought assistance from North Korea. North Koreans helped Mugabe train his notorious 5th Brigade, which was used to crush political and ethnic opposition. To clarify this, ZANU was mainly supported by Shona people in the north of Zimbabwe, whereas ZAPU was supported by the Ndebele. When someone in Mugabe’s government is quoted as stating that they will bring Zimbabwe back to zero if they must, I couldn’t help but think of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The official believed that it was alright to starve the population if this meant starving out opposition to the government. Thus, food distribution occurred along party lines. Both ZAPU and ZANU were products of their time. Both carried the baggage of the logic, or illogic, of degenerated workers states. That is, their templates or role models were repressive, so why would either be different once in power?


Both of the perspectives are flawed because they keep things within the realm of the personal and the ideological. While wrestling with this, I discussed this with my friend Adam, who added the material. I had some inkling of the material as well, but had not been thinking about the topic long enough to fully flesh out my thoughts on that matter. Adam rightly observed that a socialist revolution would have been fairly impossible in Zimbabwe. Mugabe, as well as anyone else in ZAPU or ZANU were raised in racist Rhodesia. Their consciousness, tactics, world view, way of living, was shaped by racist, classist oppression. The existence of Zimbabwe itself is artificial. South Rhodesia, North Rhodesia, really all countries of Africa, are imperialist constructs. Their borders were decided by Europeans. As a result of colonization, ethnic groups were mashed together or pulled apart haphazardly. Mugabe inherited a colonial construct with an economy geared towards a peripheral role in global capitalism.   Making any sort of socialist reform that challenged global capitalism, without worldwide revolution, would cause the country to become an isolated, embargoed, pariah state. Which is exactly what it is, though for humanitarian and democratic reasons. The cards are stacked against socialism. Even with the best intentions. Machel, the Marxist leader of Mozambique even warned Mugabe against pursuing socialism too aggressively. Can it be expected that there would have been anything different or the country would have had a different fate? Anything is possible. I am a socialist, of course. But, there were many material factors, along with some ideological and personal ones, which directed the course of events.


Having addressed the what and why of Mugabe, there is one critique that I will launch against the book. The book is very sympathetic to white farmers. This raises many questions. Now, the book discusses how his first decade or so in power consisted of consolidating his party with ZAPU, destroying political and ethnic opposition, while enriching the political elite with the profits derived from state owned enterprises/investments. However, as criticisms mount regarding the corruption of the government and misuse of a veteran’s fund, he turned his attention to the white population. In various waves through the 1990s and 2000s, he unleashes bands of veterans to attack white farmers, taking their lands. Eventually almost all of the white farmers are evicted from their lands. The book is very sympathetic to these white farmers, who hide in terror as their land is ransacked and occupied. Throughout this narrative, Mugabe is called a racist. Cowering, courageous white folks flee the country and mourn the losses of their farms. Another part of the narrative is that after the veterans took over the farms, they fell into disrepair and food production plummeted. The author seems to ignore how this narrative is very much like the Rhodesian narrative that black people are not ready to govern themselves, as they will ruin the country. Apparently, black people cannot farm, as they will ruin the farms. This is incredibly racist.


The book portrays white farmers as victims. To backtrack, in 1980, 70% of the land was controlled by less than 5% of the population (whites). To backtrack further, white people were given 3,000 acres of land when they conquered what became Zimbabwe in 1890. For almost 100 years, white people had a monopoly on political and economic power in the country. This raises the question of what rights do colonizers have? Do the white farmers have a right to keep their land? On what basis? If they earned or obtained that land any time during the 100 years of white rule or because an ancestor did, then they have no real right to it. It was not collectively decided that white people should own 70% of the land. The land was taken and maintained through a repressive government atop of a segregated society. And while the white owners must have done a good job overseeing the land and making it productive, this also does not give them a right to keep their land. If someone took your house, but repaired it and kept it cleaner, it does not give them the right to own it. The problem of course is that the land was taken violently and erratically. Much of the land fell into the hands of government cronies. Ideally, a more peaceable, rational, and socially beneficial land distribution should have occurred. But still…what rights do colonizers have? Further, they are called “farmers” but this invokes grandma and grandpa on a 40 acre farm. The farms were mega, corporate, sometimes cash crop farms with hired workers. The whites were wealthy landowners, not farmers in the mom and pop with a few milk cows sense. So, while I don’t want to see any human being suffer, I am uncomfortable for the sympathetic nature in which the whites were portrayed.


In all, I feel that I learned quite a bit about Mugabe. I read the book in about three days, so I found it engaging enough to plow through it. Finally, it raised some questions. As a whole, I enjoyed it and would recommend it, though, it is lacking political analysis and self-awareness of its own narrative.

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