Waste, (over) Consumption, and Ethics

With all of the other blog writing I am attempting to do this fall (two course blogs: queering desire, feminist pedagogies; a research blog; and a diablog project on feminist pedagogy), I didn’t think that I would (or should) be writing in this blog…at least until the semester ends. But today, as I was looking over a book that I checked out of the library early this fall for an unrelated project, I felt compelled to return here and write briefly about waste, (over)consumption and ethics.

The book: The Ethics of Waste
The author: Gay Hawkins

I haven’t really read much of the book yet, but I am intrigued by his preface and the opening pages of his first chapter. Hawkins is interested “in the ways waste is implicated in the making of a self and particular ethical sensibilities” (ix). He asks: “How does waste feature in our everyday habits and practices” (ix)? He envisions his exploration of waste in terms of ethics, habits and bodies, and aims to think about “how it might be possible to change ecologically destructive practices without recourse to guilt or moralism or despair” (ix). Cool. For me, becoming unchained (specifically in relation to changing habits that involve/encourage overconsumption or unjust consumption) is all about developing ways to break habits that get out of the dangerous cycle of hope then despair then resignation. I see some of this cycle happening in STA’s entry and my response earlier in the summer.

Each of Hawkins’ chapters speaks to a different type of waste and set of accompanying habits: an overflowing bin (ch 1), plastic bags (ch 2), shit (ch 3), a dumped car (ch 4), empty bottles (ch 5), worms (ch 6). I wonder where I might fit in my thoughts about not wanting to waste food and having too many opened bags of tortilla chips?

Here are a few passages that I have read so far that got me thinking:

When waste is noticed something shifts in the mundane landscape of domestic habits (1).


As much as putting out the garbage may feel like one of the most ordinary and tedious aspects of everyday life, it is a cultural performance, an organized sequence of material practices that deploys certain technologies, bodily techniques, and assumptions. And in this performance waste matter is both defined and removed; a sense of order is established and a particular subject is made. Waste, then, isn’t a fixed category of things; it is an effect of classification and relations (2).

Excellent. I can’t wait to read more (and maybe come back to this second passage in order to put it in my words). For now, my computer is almost out of charge and I’m not close to a plug. I’m excited about this book; I imagine bringing it into my graduate seminar on queer ethics next semester–the abject/waste/shit is a central part of queer ethics…maybe a section of the class (a week or two or more) should be devoted to the intersections between queer bodies, habits and waste management?

Addendum (from the evening of 11/13): I read just a little more of the book and found an interesting passage that is critical of linking waste with the abject and disgust:

When I first began work on it [waste] I turned to psychoanalytic explanations of disgust and abjection as an important source. This proved to be of limited use. While psychoanalyses is useful for explaining the visceral power of disgust in relation to bodily waste–the ways contact with shit or blood or pus can horrify and overwhelm us–most of the waste we encounter is not bodily and nor is it experienced as abjecting. The detritus of urban life congealed in gutters or dumped onthe street doesn’t destabilize the self. It just hanges around largely ignored. The centrality of abjection in accounts of the self-waste relation seems too ahistorical and subjectivist; too blind to the social and political frames that mediate how all waste is subject to classification (3).

Hmmm. I’ll need to spend some time thinking about this critique some more….Also, here’s a video of Žižek at a garbage dump from the movie, Examined Life. It seemed fitting to include (especially since we have discussed Žižek before.

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These biscuits look good

So for the past few years, I have wanted to make biscuits; I love biscuits. I craved them all of the time when I was pregnant with FWA and RJP (and right after too. I vaguely recall making STA track down biscuits from around the cities after RJP was born). Anyway, somehow I can’t ever seem to bake them right. But these biscuits look good and I think that they might just inspire me to try again (and perhaps fail…again). Yum…Maybe I can make them tomorrow morning?

This recipe comes from smitten kitchen (which I found through twitter via my new flipboard app for the iPad. Did I mention that I love my iPad?)

Addendum (45 minutes later): I just went to the store with RJP and bought the ingredients. Looks like I’m making them tomorrow!

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Why Bother?

In STA’s last entry he posted an awesome animated lecture by Žižek (did you know that RSAnimate has lots of cool videos on youtube?) and discussed the limits of working for social transformation and developing better ethical consumption practices through consumerism. Then he concluded with a somewhat pessimistic statement (perhaps partly due to the fact that he was writing this way too early in the morning, huh?) about the pointlessness of his own actions:

as ill-defined as my intentions with the blog were at the outset, and have been as it’s evolved, I just find it hard to commit too much to what I see as small, if not completely futile, actions aimed at incremental improvement of a situation, especially when I’m aware of the massive opposing forces counteracting whatever feeble steps I’m taking. It doesn’t mean I won’t keep recycling or turn the water off or buy grass-fed beef. It’s better than nothing. But it’s delusional to think that those things I’m doing, at the scale I’m doing them on, are enough to really make a significant difference in the world.

I agree that it can be overwhelming when we focus our attention on the larger forces that shape us and that severely limit how we can resist and what products/resources we have access to. Once you become aware of how large these problems are and how seemingly inconsequential our own actions are, you can really get bummed out (how’s that for an understatement, eh?). It is precisely at this point of failing, where the models that we have relied on–the charitable model in which we help/care for others in order to feel better about ourselves or the liberal-individual model in which we are motivated by a fervent belief that our individual actions are all that we need to do to affect change–are exposed as failures. Obviously they don’t work; they don’t motivate us to act and they don’t solve our larger problems (exploitation of workers, abusing the land, excessive over-consumption, etc). But, here failure doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Instead, the recognition that our (that is, the dominant model) ethics of consumption is a big failure provides us with the opportunity to rethink why we act and why we should bother.

I know that for me one big part of this unchained project is attempting to get at the root of why I act the way that I do and how I might act differently. That root isn’t just about my own failings or my own inability to care or engage in responsible practices; it’s about how my own actions are connected/related to larger structures and chains of production and consumption. Hmm…that sounds a lot like feminist consciousness-raising? Cool. Anyway, I don’t think my individual actions or choices can make that much of a difference if they aren’t guided by larger visions of the problem and how and why we continue to perpetuate it. And I don’t think I can ever really break my bad habits if I don’t break from some of the larger structures that shape and encourage them.

Now, at this point I really, really want to start talking about Foucault again and this essay that I am slowly reading (too much else to read right now…) about the ethics of consumption. The author has much to say about the problem of pessimism and how Foucault’s later work was about developing a virtue ethics of self-styling that responded to the questions of how we can act in face of such of such pervasive and insidious structures of oppression and why we should even bother. But, I don’t have the energy of time to write it right now. Sigh. I will try to get to it soon; it’s part of my larger project on virtue ethics.

Instead of veering off into more Foucault, I want to conclude this entry with my own assessment of our project (and of STA’s last post). STA’s recognition of failure (his own and that of the ethical models from which he has been drawing) is not a failure at all; it is the beginning of a break from bad habits and a shift towards cultivating new ones from the ruins of the old.

As I read through this entry, I am struck by how much I sound like a teacher-as-authority here. Let me be clear: I am still struggling in my own efforts to break from bad habits. I definitely don’t know what is to be done. What are the chains that bind me to my bad habits? They’re different from STAs. All I know (or maybe feel/experience?) is that acknowledging and reflecting on my failure to break those bad habits is a first step towards a freedom from chains/being chained.

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Žižek says what I’ve failed to…

And not just because of his cool accent.

This short video brings together several strands of thought I’ve been struggling to synthesize in my head, along with bringing worlds together: I know of Slavoj Žižek’s work through SLP, but I found this link on a software developer’s blog that I read regularly.

As for the video itself… well, you just have to see it:

I can’t say that I had fully formulated Žižek’s exact thesis in my head, nor that even if I had I would have been able to express it so effectively, but there are a couple of key points that did nail what I’ve been thinking: first, that there’s a fundamental flaw in the idea of wrapping charity up directly in the act of consumption itself (isn’t there a law of diminishing returns here?), and second, that charity by its very nature perpetuates the situation it is trying to remedy.

How does this fit with “Unchained”? Well, for one thing it lays bare the illusion that we are in some way benefitting the planet through consumption. I think about this problem a lot, especially when I’m in situations like Minnesota Twins games at Target Field. The team is (rightfully, I suppose) proud of the stadium’s LEED certification as the “greenest” stadium in Major League Baseball; they trumpet the multimodal transportation options and the fact that it’s the most bike-friendly stadium in the country. All of which are good things. But they also brag about how many (and the number is truly staggering, even though I can’t remember it off the top of my head) tons of trash from the stadium are recycled every week. Like Žižek’s take on charity, I agree it’s better than nothing — assuming “recycling” doesn’t just mean shipping the waste off to Asia — but wouldn’t it be far better if we weren’t producing so much trash in the first place?

On a more personal level, watching this video also helped to clarify why I’ve been less involved with this blog lately: as ill-defined as my intentions with the blog were at the outset, and have been as it’s evolved, I just find it hard to commit too much to what I see as small, if not completely futile, actions aimed at incremental improvement of a situation, especially when I’m aware of the massive opposing forces counteracting whatever feeble steps I’m taking. It doesn’t mean I won’t keep recycling or turn the water off or buy grass-fed beef. It’s better than nothing. But it’s delusional to think that those things I’m doing, at the scale I’m doing them on, are enough to really make a significant difference in the world. That’s not to say that they don’t make some difference, especially in my own life, but it’s way too easy to get wrapped up in the “warm fuzzy” you get from these small, easy actions, and stop looking for ways to make a real difference.

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One more thing I really don’t like

High-fructose corn syrup. I have never really liked it, yet I find myself (and my kids, FWA and RJP) eating it too much. It’s time to break that habit, especially after checking twitter and seeing STA’s tweet about a study that links cancer (in particular, pancreatic cancer) to consuming fructose. Have I ever mentioned that my mom died a horribly painful and slow death from pancreatic cancer just this past September?

Here’s another reason I really don’t like high fructose corn syrup: their annoying commercials. Like this one:

I do like this spoof, however:

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Now I really don’t like Target

While I don’t think we (me and STA) have explicitly mentioned it on this blog, one of the mega-stores that we are trying to unchain ourselves from is Target. Way back in May we declared that it would be a “Target-free summer” (which made FWA, who hates shopping there, really happy). We have only slipped a few times (I think 3 or 4 total for the entire summer so far) so I guess it has been a relative success. But even though I haven’t missed it and I think we are doing better (with what we aren’t buying/spending) by not going there, I wasn’t convinced that a Target-free year was in our future. That was until I saw this commercial and heard about/read this article. While I haven’t liked Target for a while, now I really don’t like them.

On the surface this advertisement seems great. See, girls can be whatever they want. They can wear pink nail polish or play soccer or be an artist. My question is this: why does their empowerment (their freedom to be whoever they want to be) have to be used to sell products? And, does freedom = consumerism? Apparently that’s the primary vision of freedom (the freedom to shop!) that Target wants to promote. They certainly don’t seem to want other freedoms–like the freedom to love who you want or the freedom to organize and advocate for better working conditions.

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Uh oh STA! Here comes Foucault along with some other sources on ethics and consumption

So way back when we started this project, I suggested that one reason I was doing this blog was to critically reflect on and experiment with virtue ethics in relation to my/our consumption habits. Up until now I haven’t theorized too much about virtue ethics and how it frames my understanding of breaking old habits and making new ones. But last week I did some research on google scholar and found a few really intriguing articles that might help me think through and articulate my ideas. Here they are:

1. “Ethical Consumption, Consumer Self-Governance, and the Later Foucault” by Noah Quastel


This article analyzes the later work of Michel Foucault on ethics, freedom, and self-governance as it applies to the ethics of consumption and to new ethical consumerist movements such as fair-trade coffee. Foucault’s emphasis on practices of the self helps elucidate the virtue ethics involved in consumption choices. Ethical consumption is cast as a set of practices of self-development: through critical activity and the quest for freedom, persons seek to transform themselves to live in reciprocal relationships with other persons and nature. This requires public deliberation and collective action to effect change within ourselves and our practical systems of consumption and production.

One key question that motivates my writing and thinking on this blog (and my practicing off of it) is this: How can changing my habits make me into a better self, one that eats more healthfully and responsibly and that models virtuous behavior for my kids? I can already imagine many different ways in which Foucault’s later work on the care of the self and ethical practices of self-making/self-styling might help me to explore this question.

2. “Vices of Inattention” by Kathie Jenni


Why do we routinely betray moral commitments that, in some sense, we authentically embrace? One explanation involves inattention: failure to attend to morally important aspects of our lives. Inattention ranges from an unmotivated lack of focus, or “simple” inattention, to more purposeful and wilful self-deception. Self-deception has received exhaustive and insightful treatment by philosophers and psychologists; what remains unexamined is the less complex, but more pervasive phenomenon of simple inattention. Since inattention is at least equally important in accounting for our routine moral failures, this gap is an important one to fill.

In this essay I examine moral dimensions of inattention: what makes it problematic, what vices it reflects, what duties we have to overcome it, and how we might try to do that. I argue that inattention obscures responsibilities to prevent harm, erodes autonomy, manifests a lack of virtue, and undermines integrity. For these reasons, we have obligations of attentiveness. I propose that we should attend (at least) to apparent violations of our moral values in which we are personally implicated, which we have power to affect, and to which we have been directed by clues that something is amiss. I end with practical suggestions for enhancing our attentiveness.

While this essay doesn’t seem (at least, at first glance) to talk explicitly about consumption habits, I think the idea of inattention is crucial for breaking old consumption habits and cultivating new ones. I like how Jenni distinguishes between different forms of inattention here. Also, I like her choice of terms; I often write about the value of paying attention (as a form of curiosity) in connection with making and staying in trouble.

3. “The Poison is in the Dose: The French Paradox, the Healthy Drinker and the Medicalization of Virtue” by Jessica Mudry


In this paper I examine the role of wine within the “French Paradox” and the US media and government’s response to that role. I recount the “discovery” of wine’s ability to reduce the incidence of heart disease among a control group of French people, and how scientific research on wine proliferated as scientists attempted to reduce wine to its active ingredients. In this process, discourses of science and quantification create rational and ethical reasons to drink wine. In the process of quantification, wine is defined as a medicalized component of a healthy diet, and those who drink wine become medicalized patients. Knowing the line between “moderate” and “excessive” drinking becomes a mathematical calculation, and this calculation determines whether or not one is healthy. Such a move normalizes a scientific attitude toward public life by making the restrained, rational and numerate drinker into the “healthy” and ethical drinker.

I am excited to read this article. I like her critique of the medicalization of virtue and the idea that being virtuous (as eating moderately and healthfully) should be dictated/determined by scientific studies. At some point (I have very briefly skimmed this essay already), Mudry references Michael Pollan and his critical analysis (and rejection) of nutritionism in In Defense of Food.

Okay, now I need to go read these essays. In an air-conditioned room! It’s hot and sticky here today. I just looked on my weather channel app for my iPad and it is 89 degrees–but feels like 97. Awesome.

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So I just started reading an article about Foucault, virtue ethics and consumption habits (an article that fits extremely well with one of my primary interests in this blog–I hope to write about it more later), when I came across this line: “our favourite chocolate bars may originate from cocoa farmed by West African children in slavery” (26). This line doesn’t surprise me as much as it reminds me that everything I consume involves a complex and often highly problematic bunch of practices and processes that I don’t usually think about. Chocolate–the making, producing, distributing and consuming of it–has an important history that I want to read a little more about. So, I followed that passage and found its source (Chocolate on Trial), along with a few other intriguing books on the subject:

Chocolate on Trial:

At the turn of the twentieth century Cadbury Bros. Ltd. was a successful Quaker-owned chocolate manufacturer in Birmingham, England, celebrated for its model village, modern factory, and concern for employees. In 1901, Cadbury learned that its cocoa beans purchased from Portuguese-owned plantations on the island of Sao Tome off West Africa were produced by slave labor. Chocolate on Trial: Cadbury, Slavery and the Economics of Virtue in Imperial Britain gives a lively and highly readable account of the events surrounding the libel trial in which Cadbury sued the London Standard, following the newspaper’s accusation that the firm was hypocritical in its use of slave-grown cocoa. As compelling now as at the turn of the previous century, the issues probed by Lowell J. Satre give invaluable historical background to contemporary issues of business ethics, corporate social responsibility, and globalization. The story Satre tells illuminates what a stubbornly persistent institution slavery was and shows how Cadbury, a company with a well-regarded brand name and logo, endured ethical dilemmas and challenges to its record for social responsibility. Chocolate on Trial brings to life the age-old conflict between economic interests and the value of human life.

Bitter Chocolate:

Whether it’s part of a Hallowe’en haul, the contents of a heart-shaped box or just a candy bar stashed in a desk drawer, chocolate is synonymous with pleasures both simple and indulgent. But behind the sweet image is a long history of exploitation. In the eighteenth century the European aristocracy went wild for the Aztec delicacy. In later years, colonial territories were ravaged and slaves imported in droves as native populations died out under the strain of feeding the world’s appetite for chocolate.

Carol Off traces the origins of the cocoa craze and follows chocolate’s evolution under such overseers as Hershey, Cadbury and Mars. In Côte d’Ivoire, the West African nation that produces nearly half of the world’s cocoa beans, she follows a dark and dangerous seam of greed. Against a backdrop of civil war and corruption, desperately poor farmers engage in appalling practices such as the indentured servitude of young boys – children who don’t even know what chocolate tastes like.

Off shows that, with the complicity of Western governments and corporations, unethical practices continue to thrive. Bitter Chocolate is a social history, a passionate investigative account and an eye-opening exposé of the workings of a multi-billion dollar industry that has institutionalized misery as it served our pleasures.

The True History of Chocolate:

This delightful and best-selling tale of one of the world’s favorite foods draws upon botany, archaeology, and culinary history to present a complete and accurate history of chocolate. The story begins some 3,000 years ago in the jungles of Mexico and Central America with the chocolate tree, Theobroma Cacao, and the complex processes necessary to transform its bitter seeds into what is now known as chocolate. This was centuries before chocolate was consumed in generally unsweetened liquid form and used as currency by the Maya, and the Aztecs after them. The Spanish conquest of Central America introduced chocolate to Europe, where it first became the drink of kings and aristocrats and then was popularized in coffeehouses. Industrialization in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries made chocolate a food for the masses, and now, in our own time, it has become once again a luxury item. The second edition draws on recent research and genetic analysis to update the information on the origins of the chocolate tree and early use by the Maya and others, and there is a new section on the medical and nutritional benefits of chocolate.

But, I don’t want to just read about chocolate; I want to get some good (as in tasty, responsible, fairly produced, local) chocolate to eat. Thanks to youtube, I found this awesome clip about Rogue Chocolatier, a local, super-cool chocolate manufacturer.

In case you want to buy some of these bars(which I do, now), this article suggests going shopping at the following places: France 44, Surdyk’s, Kopplin’s Coffee and Sugar Sugar By the way, Sugar Sugar’s website is pretty cool. Maybe I need to take FWA and RJP there tomorrow.

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I heart Angry Catfish

This summer I am trying to drink my lattes at home instead of spending $4 a day on them. So far I have been really successful; I rarely ever go out for coffee, especially in the morning. But today I decided to take RJP to Angry Catfish for coffee before her camp (I was partly inspired by the pretty picture STA sent me of his coffee yesterday). Well, here’s my pretty picture:

While I’ve seen my share of hearts (STA even posted a picture of one for his review of this place), I’ve never seen a flower before. And it tasted as good as it looked. I heart Angry Catfish….I just checked out more information about their coffee. Now I really heart Angry Catfish.

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Shopping with FWA

FWA wasn’t feeling well today so he stayed home from camp. By lunchtime he was hungry and was (surprisingly) agreeable to my suggestion that we walk to Nokomis Beach for lunch and then shop for dinner at Oxendales. FWA requested pasta with pesto for dinner (his all-time favorite dinner) so we got some expensive basil. I wish Oxendale’s stocked it in bulk. I had been hoping to go to Midtown Farmer’s Market yesterday to get some, but last night (from 4 PM on) was a big fail–crazy kids, tired adults, pizza from Dominos. Need I say more? In addition to the basil and some farfalle*, I picked up strawberries for dessert, some local squash and fresh corn. I had heard that fresh corn was in on facebook–yes, Oxendales is on facebook! After deciding that we didn’t need any meat for this meal, I remembered that we had some leftover goat cheese so I picked up some roasted peppers. Finally, before heading home (FWA was hitting his limit of shopping), we stopped at 3 Tiers and got a fresh loaf of french bread. As I was paying for the bread I saw this fabulous chocolate cake in the case. So I said to FWA, “Wow, doesn’t that cake look so beautiful?” Naturally his response was, “No, it looks so disgusting that it makes me feel sick.” This, of course, reminds me of FWA’s and RJP’s disdain for coffee (as too stinky!) that I mentioned earlier this summer. Kids just don’t know what they are missing.

I really like our neighborhood and I like taking a break to walk, talk and shop with FWA. Now that he is 7, he won’t usually agree to such a BORING task–especially if I refer to it as an adventure.

*One more thing: Recently I have become enamored with the idea of making my own pasta (sans a pasta machine). They say it’s easy to do. Am I crazy? FWA seems really interested in helping out. Should I try it? Any advice, Anne?

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