(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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Take a seat

[This photo was selected as an “Honourable Mention” for the 3rd Annual Philosophical Photography Contest hosted by the Rotman Institute of Philosophy at the University of Western Ontario.]

Philosophers have long had a fascination with contemplating chairs. They are probably so often used in thought experiments because they’re one of the objects closest to the person formulating his or n her philosophical argument.

For example, do chairs actually exist?

As material objects in space and time — the “real” world — chairs have a certain physical quality to them. They have a physical structure with a continued existence in an external environment independent of our relationship to them. So argue the Realists. But objects are merely concepts, and concepts are ideas that do not exist independent of the mind. Chairs cannot possibly exist independent of the minds used to contemplate them. Perhaps they don’t actually exist after all. So argue the Idealists.

To complicate the situation, each chair in a set of chairs — all chairs that have ever existed or will ever exist, in fact — no matter how alike they seem, are all in some way dissimilar. Each chair is unique and different from the next.

Why, then, do we classify chairs according to their similarities? If they are in fact all different, what warrants them to be called by the same name, “chair”? Do they possess some kind of mysterious force within them or an immaterial Platonic Form that gives them their “chair-ness”? Or is the only thing that binds one chair to the next human consciousness itself?

I don’t have the answers. But I know that if you want to get to the bottom of these questions, you had better take a seat…

Engineering Eudaimonia

The first three days of 2018 were unlike any I had ever experienced. I was in Laos visiting the town of Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its rich urban character and remarkably well-preserved architectural and cultural heritage. As I wandered the side streets — with its human-scale temples, humble homes, cool cafes, and seamless integration with the local ecosystem — I was struck by just how good this town made me feel. It was a sense of well-being so unique that it was almost palpable, yet difficult to put into words. What I found so striking wasn’t just its visual appearance, but also its acoustic ecology, its friendly residents, and its simple cuisine. As others who have visited Luang Prabang before me have noted, I learned after I returned home, it’s the kind of singular place that can elicit this sort of response for no other reason than just being there.

The experience reminded me of what the acclaimed architect and urban theorist Christopher Alexander described as architecture’s ability to heighten one’s sense of being in the world. Under ideal circumstances, Alexander contends, the built environment could help people “feel their own existence as human beings”; a certain kind of existential experience can arise between building and individual.

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The Dark Green City

Photo by Nicolas Haro

Smart urban technology has the potential to transform our cities — but watch out for unintended consequences.

What would cities look like if they were built from scratch, from the internet up? This is the question being asked by Sidewalk Labs, the urban innovation unit of Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc. What’s emerging from this thought experiment is a new approach to city-building, one that sees urban districts as platforms for testing and refining technologies that improve quality of life. Sidewalk Labs’ mission, it claims, is not to create a city of the future, but to create the future of cities. Continue reading

Qualia

[This photo was selected as winner of the 2nd Annual Philosophical Photography Contest hosted by the Rotman Institute of Philosophy at the University of Western Ontario.]

Consider your visual experience as you look at a royal blue wall. There is something it is like for you subjectively to undergo that experience, some phenomenological character that this experience has. There is a “blueness” to the royal blue. This experience is very different from what it is like to experience the “redness” of a ruby red window shutter. This ineffable, intrinsic, private, non-physical subjective experience is called qualia. While there is still debate about how qualia relate to the physical world both inside and outside our minds, the concept remains central to a proper understanding of the nature of consciousness.