The ‘Unhappy Truth’ About Montreal Bagels

Re “Canadian Bagel Rivals Unite Against Environmentalists” (Montreal Dispatch, Nov. 27):

The story of two rival bagel makers in Montreal who have joined forces to oppose the demands of “anti-bagel radicals” — those local residents and policymakers who want to ban their wood-burning ovens because of the environmental risks they pose — sounds like something straight out of an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” or “Seinfeld.” But it’s no laughing matter.

While wood-burning ovens help make Montreal bagels the best in the world (sorry, New York), the scientific consensus is demonstrably clear: Wood smoke, whether from an industrial oven or a home fireplace, is a major health hazard and contributor to urban air pollution.

Because of this unhappy truth, I now know what it must feel like for religious people to be told that their cherished beliefs collide with reality. The alternative — in this case, making Montreal bagels in non-wood-burning ovens — is sacrilege.

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Note: This appeared as a letter to the editor in The New York Times.

Photo by Chris Wattie for The New York Times

Plant based is anti-human

Re: The end of meat

I was vegetarian/pescatarian for almost a decade for ethical reasons. However, I started to eat meat again from a growing recognition that the act of eating involves more than just reflexively labelling entire groups of foods as “good” or “bad,” or reductively calculating a food’s associated carbon emissions. It’s much more complicated than that.

Eating is a social and joyful act that carries with it cultural and aesthetic values that cannot be as easily dismissed as many plant-based advocates would have you believe. It’s undeniable that the treatment of animals in the industrial agriculture system is inhumane and efforts should be made to improve their welfare. But I think a plant-based diet is anti-human: it is a denial of the fact that we are creatures embedded within a complex (and messy) social and environmental ecosystem.

Like most issues worthy of deeper reflection and consideration, deciding what to eat isn’t so black and white.

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Note: This appeared as a letter to the editor in the National Post

(Mis)understanding sustainability

Re Skip Work, Save Jobs: The Climate Strike Is Also About Economic Stability (Sept. 25): It seems obvious that economic and social stability isn’t just linked to ecological stability, it’s embedded within it. It’s not as if the economy exists outside of an environment in some hypothetical Platonic sense.

Part of the problem is public perception and cultural myths. Sustainability is often misunderstood – even among those with the best of environmental intentions – as the centre of an overlapping Venn diagram, where people-planet-profit meet. But this is an incorrect model of reality: People and profit can’t exist independently of the planet.

Rather than a Venn diagram, we should think of concentric circles. In the centre, you have economics (profit), embedded within society (people), embedded within a global ecology (planet). How on Earth could it be otherwise?

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Note: This appeared as a letter to the editor in The Globe & Mail.

The Map is Not the Territory

“I have rivers but no water; forests but no trees; cities but no buildings. What am I?”

It took a few seconds to realize that the question being asked of me was actually a riddle.

I was in Hong Kong, dining at a cha chaan teng. Literally translated as “tea restaurant,” these humble, retro diners have been serving no-nonsense comfort food since the 1950s. To the uninitiated or unprepared, eating at a cha chaan teng can be a jarring experience. You are made to share an impossibly small table with complete strangers. Servers can be a bit too brisk, too impersonal. Upon entering, one immediately feels the pressure to quickly sit, order, eat, pay and leave. Servers have no time to engage customers in idle chit-chat, let alone issue existential challenges. The fact that this server was bending these unwritten rules to ask me a riddle — so calmly and so nicely — was a surprise.

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You Are Now Disconnected: Smartphones and the City

Smartphones are all-consuming vampires, sucking our mental energy and leaving city dwellers disoriented and alienated. But they’re here to stay — so how can urban designers use their immense power for good?

We are living in a time of unprecedented visual distraction. In the modern urban environment, our attention has to battle with myriad layers of signage and communication — some useful, some not — from billboard advertisements to traffic lights. At the same time, an even more pervasive source of visual pollution can be found in our own hands. The constant drip, drip, drip of digital diversions originating from our smartphones and other devices is reshaping how our minds behave and function, and how we perceive the world around us.

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Is Travel Ethical Amid Climate Change?

Re “Travel’s Climate Problem,” by Andy Newman (Travel, June 9):

The “tragedy of the commons” — the term used to describe a situation in which individuals act in accordance with their own self-interest at the expense of the common good — is often used to explain the persistence of modern environmental problems. If only we had more data, facts and knowledge of the unintended consequences of our actions, the thinking goes, we would make better choices that would benefit everyone.

I’ve come to realize that this is wishful thinking. Even with a clear understanding of the consequences of our actions, a vast majority of people will still seek to have their desires satisfied rather than extinguished. The desire for travel is no different.

In his “Confessions,” St. Augustine prayed to be delivered from his lustful desires. “Grant me chastity and continence,” he pleads with God, “but not yet.”

To put this into modern terms, most environmentally minded people (me included) are living as if to say, “I want to reduce my carbon footprint, but not yet.”

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Note: This appeared as a letter to the editor in The New York Times.

Image by Antoine Maillard

Slow Data in the Age of the Smart City

Cities stand to benefit from ever-increasing technological advances. Digital information is helping solve our most pressing urban challenges. Yet the rising level of data we are now capable of generating can obscure the original intention and purpose of this work if we don’t stay mindful of the social dynamics at play by engaging with the people that are meant to benefit from it.

Smart and connected technologies embedded across city infrastructures can help monitor, anticipate and manage urban issues in new and effective ways. From spotting economic trends and improving health to combating crime and optimizing traffic flows, intelligent infrastructure has the potential to help us make more informed decisions for solving some of the greatest issues that cities face.

Much of the optimism surrounding intelligent infrastructure, however, relies on concepts that can be easily misunderstood or overhyped, particularly those related to smart buildings and smart cities such as the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), and Big Data. “Smart” should be understood not as something that you simply install as an add-on; rather, it is an enabler of larger outcomes, something that requires human intervention and implementation. To really get the most out of these technologies, in other words, we first need to take a step back — and maybe even slow down.

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