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. 

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

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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