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MSID retreat, and more educational adventures!

September 5, 2010

Everyone is here, finally! I guess that’s a little misleading; people actually got in on Monday night, but we didn’t have too many chances to really hang out until the retreat we went on this weekend. A couple of the Cimas staff took us to the aptly named “El Encanto” resort/ecological reserve on the Equator, about 2 ½ hours west of Quito. Mountains + cloud forest = ecstatic David.

The two days we were there were mostly devoted to group bonding. From “structured” events like learning to dance and a hike down to the river, where at one point we inexplicably had to strip down to our bathing suits and climb through the jungle to get to the place we could swim in the freezing cold water, to completely spontaneous moments like making a giant whirlpool in the swimming pool, I think we accomplished that goal pretty well. Awesome people, awesome weekend: this is going to be an awesome semester. [Edit: Retreat photos here.]

The first week of “real” classes was pretty amazing, too. So far they’ve consisted of general, introductory lecture modules. To those of you who may be concerned that university education largely consists of liberal indoctrination: your fears are justified when it comes to this program. I’m in heaven:

Our first lecture was a history review from a sociologist, which really should have been entitled “A Socialist’s History of Ecuador;” he basically wore his ideology on his sleeve. I approved. First thing to make me grin (it probably says something about me that I even found this significant at all) was the casual dismissal of young earth creationism [translated from my notes]: “Humans arrived in the Americas via Alaska circa 40,000-50,000 BCE, reaching Ecuador about 13-14,000 years ago. In 6000 BCE we have the first evidence of agricultural technology.” After a brief obligatory reference to the Conquista, it was basically a review of the major revolutions in Ecuador’s history, and all the great things accomplished by liberal presidents, from Eloy Alfaro, who eliminated el concertaje, the system of indentured servitude in which indigenous people were essentially slaves of the wealthy landowners of Spanish descent, to current president Correa, who drafted the latest constitution (instead of passing amendments, here they just overhaul the whole thing every time they want to make a change), a historic document in its protection of indigenous and minority rights, slapped some international petroleum corporations around to ensure better protection of the environment and make sure Ecuador sees more of the profits from the exploitation of their natural resources, and kicked out the US military base in Manta (take that, US unilateralism), all while maintaining a 65% approval rating (Congratulations on surviving what is likely the longest and most poorly-punctuated sentence on this blog to date). He didn’t spend much time on economics, but he did give us a brief run-down on how neoliberal economic policies have hurt Ecuador.

Then that afternoon we got a lecture on Ecuador’s biodiversity (largest number of species/area of any country in the world) from a bio professor at a local university. Evolution ftw. My favorite part was his description of a major source of speciation in Ecuador. Basically what happened is that climate change converted large areas of the Amazon rainforest into arid savannah. Most organisms became isolated in “Pleistocene refuges,” small pockets of wetland surrounded by the dried out grassland. By the time the whole region turned wet again, the populations had been isolated for long enough that many had changed (by different selection pressures or just genetic drift) enough to become reproductively incompatible (the “biological species definition,” thank you, BIOL 2002). Voila, lots of new species. Me encanta la biología.

Also, llamas and alpacas are the descendents of camels who made it all the way from Africa to South America, and there are 7100 species of orchids here. My head asplode.

After the lecture I asked him about the acceptance of evolution in this country (since we have issues with that in the States). He told me that since the previous Pope released a statement saying that biological evolution and Catholicism were perfectly compatible, it hasn’t been much of an issue in this supposedly 95% Catholic country. At first this made me pretty happy, and then I realized what that implied: the acceptance of a fact about the universe was dependent not on each individual’s understanding of the evidence, but on the decree of an authority figure. Ew.

As if the discussion of socialism and evolution wasn’t enough to make me nearly explode with glee, the lecturer we had the next morning about the cultural history of the Conquista managed to work in references to Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, and the movie Agora, which is practically unheard of in the US but has been on my to-watch list for a long time.

As happy as I’ve been with the flavor of my classes so far, it hasn’t been without little moments of annoyance. As much as I find myself critical of capitalism, I want to see it criticized honestly and given the complex analysis it deserves. I found myself getting really annoyed during one of our discussions of globalization for this reason: the input from the moderator, a really nice and otherwise thoughtful Ecuadorian philosopher, was disappointingly simplistic, and went so far as to create a particularly egregious straw man of capitalism, defining its goal as the “accumulation of capital in fewer and fewer hands.” There are enough valid criticisms out there (no assurance of protection for the vulnerable in society, the injustice of a free-market approach to healthcare, the extremely shaky assumption that humans will make rational economic choices, the lack of a metric for including the costs to the environment in our economic analyses, etc.) that you don’t need to resort to BS; as well as I understand it, capitalism is about the creation and movement of capital, not the Scrooge-like hoarding of it. The result of certain economic policies and cultural decisions may certainly be the accumulation of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, but don’t call that the founding principle of the system. Maybe I shouldn’t let these things get me angry, but nothing is going to change unless we develop an accurate understanding of the world. And that means doing our best to really understand all sides of an issue.

I’m really excited to come back to this blog in a few years when my views have changed on everything, and shake my head at how poorly I understood the world. Please make sure to embarrass me by reminding me how wrong I was, k?

Also, to my dear friends and family who may hold polar opposite views to those expressed on this blog thing: judge me if you’d like, but please take none of this personally. I still love you and think you’re pretty great. Here’s a picture I took just for you to prove it:

3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 8, 2010 12:05 PM

    For me? You shouldn’t have…

    David, do me a favor and stop caring about social justice so much. Stop thinking about the welfare of other people, and think about your welfare. Sure you’ve got food and clothes and an education, but what about that mansion and that car you’ve dreamed about your whole life? Serve yourself. The world will be a much better place.


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  3. September 9, 2013 7:31 PM

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