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It was my first year at the Cultural Studies Association

Date: April 19, 2007

Today I went to hear the first plenary (“Ethics and Environment”) of the Cultural Studies Association annual conference, which conveniently is happening in my home town, Portland. Panelists were: Jill Casid of University of Wisconsin; Andrew Ross of New York University; and Devon Peña of University of Washington.

Casid introduced me to a subject entirely foreign to me, which is the burgeoning industry of Caribbean cruse ships. Tourism’s relationship to colonialism has been heavily theorized and critiqued, but this particular subsection of the tourism industry seems to go extreme length to Give Customers What They Want: tropical wonderland away from cold rainy North American cities, while keeping tourists completely safe and protected from potentially dangerous terrain of the actual, unfiltered Caribbean world. Tourists are taken to various ports across the Caribbean, complete with duty-free shopping malls that have been specifically built for the cruise ship travelers; in some places entire ports are being built just for them. Of course, these mega-Disneylands are built by the same companies that bring the customers there to maximize the profit for the Western tourism industry.

Comparison can be made between these tourist honey-pots to the colonial plantation of the past (and present) but I almost feel that it’s better that the tourists are kept in their own ports and shopping malls instead of invading where locals live: it’s less disruptive, even after accounting for the land being taken away to make room for them. One of the concerns is that the money spent at the tourists-only shopping malls don’t benefit the local economies, but I would think that reliance on tourist dollars would weaken the local economy, rather than strengthening it.

Ross spoke about the contradiction and unintended consequences of urban sprawl policies and how it impacts housing problems (especially, lack of low income housing), as well as its relationship to anti-immigrant rhetoric. Years ago I was part of this “task force” on gentrification, which was a huge concern for me since I’ve had to move out of house four separate times due to the change of ownership, but the politics of urban development continues to confuse me. I suppose that the reason it’s so confusing is because we are largely talking about unintended consequences of well-intentioned policies (e.g. rent control laws resulting in lack of low-income housing, or development to enrich communities of color resulting in higher rent, which in turn push many people of color out) and innocent individual choices.

As Ross mentioned, Portland is often cited as one of the most successful of the “smart growth” cities–that is, a city that limits urban sprawl through land-use regulations. At the same time, it is more expensive to rent than “dumber” cities, which pushes low-income households out. One of the very convincing argument against sprawl had been that it would segregate residents by race, class and income levels–and yet, anti-sprawl measures may also have the same consequence! No wonder it’s so confusing…

Last but not least, Peña presented about the 14-acre community farm in South Central, Los Angeles, which was started shortly after the Rodney King riot and closed down last year by the land owner (they raised money to purchase the land, but the landlord refused to sell and evicted them). The story was truly remarkable–so much so that I sort of became a little bit suspicious that he might be glorifying it too much. Of course even if there were some problems that he chose not to discuss in this presentation, that doesn’t mean that their attempt to build an environmentally-aware, democratic, self-sustaining collective farm for indigenous Mesoamerican people isn’t valid or crucial (ooo, double negative!)…

Someone from the audience asked Peña in the question and answer time what the difference between someone from Mexico bringing in seeds from Mexico to grow food they are familiar with and the colonialists transporting sheep or tea or coffee or whatever to plantation in the global South was. Huh? Well, a collective farm is not a plantation, Mexicans are not foreign to the land, and they are making food that they themselves eat. In other words: they are very very different, period. How superficial must someone be? But I was also weary of Peña’s response: for example, he mentioned that the seeds are for the species that are native to North America so farmers weren’t introducing any new species, just “different alleles”–but that different allele may cause a huge impact in the surrounding environment, and is a valid environmental concern.

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