Passing the buck

Environmental journalist George Monbiot is right: Veganism is not free from the exploitation or killing of other sentient beings — it merely shifts the suffering onto other creatures. (“I shot a deer – and I still believe it was the ethical thing to do“, The Guardian.)

One study from Australia, for example, found that producing wheat and other grains kills up to 25 times more sentient animals (e.g. small mammals, snakes and lizards) per kilogram of useable protein compared to rangelands beef. In the United States, many of the most popular fruits and vegetables could never be harvested without “migratory beekeeping” methods that unnecessary exploit and kill millions of bees.

This isn’t to denigrate anyone’s dietary choices. But it does suggest that the ethics of food is not so black and white. As Monbiot concludes: “Between these poles – kill nothing and kill almost everything – lies the pragmatic aim of maximising the diversity and abundance of non-human life on Earth, while securing our own survival.” We should seek to minimise unnecessary suffering as much as pragmatically possible.

To exist is to eat, and to eat is to inflict suffering (directly or indirectly) on other sentient beings. This is an inconvenient truth — even for vegans. 

A classical style of design stupidity

There are many obvious reasons why the Trump administration’s draft executive order that would impose a rigid classical style of architecture on all new federal buildings is a bad idea. 

For starters, this “war on architectural diversity” is a move reminiscent of the authoritarian regimes in North Korea and former Soviet Union. It is also the height of hypocrisy coming from a political party that pathologically rails against “big government”.  Classical architecture has it’s place (and it isn’t Omaha or El Paso), but it shouldn’t be the only criteria by which all federal buildings be judged. Design inspiration and expertise should come from local communities, architects and urban designers, not bureaucrats in Washington. 

But perhaps the most depressing reason for why this proposal is a bad idea is that it will be approved by the one person who arguably has the worst aesthetic sensibilities. Anywhere. Ever. One need only look at Trump’s grotesque properties, gaudy corporate products, and tasteless campaign merchandise to know that he is perhaps the last person on Earth who should be imposing design guidelines. (Calling Trump’s style “dictator chic” is an insult to dictators.)

Architecture and urban design aren’t luxuries. The built environment is a representation of a culture’s values and aspirations. It shapes the human psyche, both as individuals and as a society. As the American author Joseph Campbell said, “If you want to know what a given society believes in, look at what its largest buildings are devoted to.” I would also add “– and how they were designed.” Good design matters. 

Ungreen green buildings

It’s good to see that urban planners in the Emirates and wider Middle East are starting to embrace an approach to urban sustainability that is appropriate to the local context. (“Urban nature doesn’t have to be green, Abu Dhabi summit hears”, The National)

Ecologically-speaking, there’s nothing inherently “bad” about deserts or arid environments. Although they have lower levels of biodiversity compared to a rainforest, they’re still as natural and resilient an ecosystem – and just as worthy of appreciation.

While trees do provide obvious environmental and health benefits, not all cities need to have a lush forest in order to be “green”. There are many other ways of bringing the benefits of natural systems into our buildings and cities, and that includes in arid environments. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to urban sustainability.

Not-so-radical environmentalism

I take issue with the sentiments in New York Times columnist Charles Blow’s self-proclaimed “journey to radical environmentalism”.

First, none of the efforts that Mr. Blow recommends – composting, using reusable shopping bags, changing light bulbs, buying more produce at the farmers’ market – are even remotely “radical”. They’ve all been adopted and proselytized ad nauseam for decades.

Furthermore, these efforts are woefully inadequate at addressing the scale of our planetary predicament. If anything, they only serve as a distraction from more pragmatic solutions related to policy, investment, planning, and development of new and existing infrastructure – things like decarbonization of the electricity grid, alternative fuels, new modes of transportation and deep energy retrofits of buildings.

These all require governmental and corporate leadership, not a reliance on billions of individuals to suddenly change their behavior. This may not feel as virtuous to the average well-intentioned person who wants to feel as though they’re personally making a difference, but it’s a reality that needs to be contended with. We can ill-afford a continuation of ineffective “feel-good” approaches to global sustainability that actually achieve nothing. 

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.

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.


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?


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