A book review in action (part II): The Vegetarian Myth, by Lierre Keith

April 2nd, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink


2. Not all death is created equal. Now, given that humans are omnivores (I’m not going to bother justifying the assumption; talk to or read anyone who has had to leave vegetarianism for health reasons), why might we be expected to behave differently than bears or chickens or any of the others? Well, we simply aren’t like all other animals. For one, our awareness of the lives and experiences of others makes us unique. That has to be honoured. When I was a vegetarian I believed it was required of me because my humanness gave me a responsibility for the animals whose lives were sacrificed for me, and I saw no other way to prevent their unnecessary suffering. When I gave up vegetarianism I still only indulged in meat when it was offered at others’ houses. When I bought meat to keep up my iron levels or to feed to my young and rapidly growing child I was surprised to find “organic” meat was becoming readily available, but not confident in what it actually entailed, to be safe I bought bison meat. And when I heard that a friend’s brother had started hunting and had a freezer full of moose, I had an epiphany and gleefully, somewhat-less-than-legally, obtained about ten pounds of it.
Hunting! Now why hadn’t I thought of that before? When I started seeing, and quickly got engaged to, my partner, our lengthy conversations about meat and animal ethics quickly led us back to that point, and in between planning our wedding we swiftly obtained our hunting licenses. What I and my partner had recognized was that our most ethical source of meat was from animals that had lived free and fulfilling lives and that had died in fair chase (one of the basic principles of hunting, in fact even written into hunting legislation).

3. But this begs the question that I applaud Keith for also addressing: Can’t we just avoid all that animal suffering and live solely off of plant-death? I answer with some of Keith’s points, and some of my own:
-Prey need predators. Ecology 101 (I actually took this) teaches that, as with snowshoe hares and lynxes, when predator populations drop, prey populations boom to the point of hyper-competition for resources that results in mass starvation and vulnerability to predators. As it is, humans have already screwed up the balances of so many ecosystems that many animals are stuck in “boom” without enough predators to break it, and they are destroying their own habitats, often eating other species to local extinction before they bust themselves. The tragic result is loss of biodiversity, animal suffering, and in desperation, government culls, as we have seen or have been threatened just in recent and local history for snow geese, bears, rabbits, beavers and deer. It would be better for them not to boom and therefore not to bust – to maintain a steady population. Humans are in the unique position of possessing the intelligence to monitor animal populations and harvest accordingly.
-Humans are capable of being humane. Unlike other predators, human hunting technology gives us the ability to kill animals very quickly and, if done well, sometimes painlessly. We also have the intellect to choose and use animals responsibly (ex: nobody is actually allowed to kill Bambi’s mom). Unlike bears, who like to eat prey’s stomachs before they’re quite dead, or who, when the salmon run is plentiful, will only eat the brain and roe of dozens of fish at a time, or unlike wolves who will kill and inexplicably leave entire healthy animals to rot — humans are capable of creating and adhering to codes of ethics regarding which animals to kill, how to kill them, and how to use them.
-Grown plants are no less destructive, and perhaps even more destructive, than raised or hunted meat. In spite of the hype, the amount of land currently dedicated to crops, especially crops that are eaten for protein (legumes and grains), has been far more abused than the land under animals. Grazing or wild animals (ex: beef cattle, which are all grass-fed until they get “finished” in CAFOs) obviously allow for great biodiversity, and are constantly “giving back to the land” with their waste. (Nobody is advocating for animals living in CAFOs or battery cages or concrete-floored warehouses, but even the production of industrially-raised pork and chicken emits comparable greenhouse gases to vegan alternatives.) In sharp contrast, the foods that feeds vegetarians — corn, soybeans, wheat, chickpeas — are produced in vast monoculture, often surrounded by more great swaths of monoculture, as far as the eye can see. These farms are not only destructive in their exclusion of other life forms (even when they’re organic and can’t be accused of additionally poisoning everything else), but their creation required the death of an indefinable number of animal lives and destruction of stable and unique ecosystems, exerting a negative influence that extends miles beyond their fence lines.

Keith explores the above ideas further, and continues with fascinating and compelling ideas about domestication, the human relationship to annual grasses, the blurry distinction between animals and plants, and also all the political implications of vegetarianism, but I think these suffice for my scope. (She also follows with a lengthy foray into the questionability of the health of vegetarian diets, but that chapter hardly contributes to her argument.)

For all her foibles, I salute Keith for a passionate and engaging book, and an intelligent exploration of such a personal and controversial subject. I defy a vegetarian rebuttal!

A book review in action (part I): The Vegetarian Myth, by Lierre Keith

March 11th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Interestingly, given my previous post here regarding vegetarianism, a book called The Vegetarian Myth has been assigned for LFS 450, and as a former vegetarian (who isn’t?), I was intrigued from the start. My experience was this: around grade eight I started to become aware of the inhumanities of our food system, although the idea of becoming a vegetarian never occurred to me. In grades eleven and twelve I had a classmate, naturally one of the brightest and best students, and who I admired greatly, who was a vegetarian. When I asked her the standard question I’d heard, “What effect can one person possibly have?”, she answered that if she saved one cow it would be worth it. When I graduated high school I went straight into university where I immediately picked up that university attitude of “I must be smart because I’m here, and I’m learning things that other people don’t know, so clearly I know more than anyone else around me” etc. etc. etc. and within a year I declared myself a vegetarian. My motivation was, as I flippantly declared at the time, primarily selfish: I didn’t want to consume what I believed they were putting into meat. (I have since come to fuller understanding of what they put into and onto plants, but of course many vegetarians simply deal with that by becoming organicoivores. I also failed to check which animals “they” actually put chemicals into; in Canada, chickens and milk are not sold with any content of hormones or antibiotics.) But my other reason was that the conditions in which animals are raised for food are cruel.
Becoming a vegetarian was easy because I also moved to another province to attend a different school, and a) I didn’t know how to cook or even buy meat, b) I couldn’t afford meat, especially not at restaurants, and c) being vegetarian in a new crowd made me edgy and interesting. I didn’t have trouble sticking to my guns because my vegetarianism made me (feel) superior every where I went.
Lierre Keith got this. Now that I’m out of vegetarianism (farmer’s sausage combined with pregnancy converted me without so much as a fight), and now that I am married to an ardent omnivore, while living with a pair of what I’d call weak militant vegetarians, my perspective has shifted rather dramatically, to the point where I actually reveled in how much Keith agreed with what I’d already, albeit relatively recently, come to see. I’ll outline the most significant of these here. (Apologies for redundancies from my previous post.)

1. To sustain one life inescapably requires the end of others; life is death. Every living thing from a dandelion to a pig eats to live, and its nutrients come from something that was previously alive (except minerals from rocks but even these, such as iron, are for many living things most accessible via the flesh of animals). The cycle of life and death (yes, think The Lion King) is the very one that promotes and maintains balance and biodiversity in this crazy, entropic world.
That all life requires death is not obvious to everyone: The last time I talked to him about it (which was a few years ago, to be fair), one of the vegetarians I live with (the motivator of the two, who are a couple) actually made the same incredible claim that Keith encountered: That it is evil for any animal to kill another one, and that it would be ideal if all animals would stop killing each other and all become vegetarians. This is insane. Not having been what Keith calls a moral vegetarian myself, this thought had never crossed my mind. I’d always figured: cougars eat other animals. They developed (or were made, if you prefer) that way. In fact, their biology is directed toward that function above all else, to the point where if you take one of their distant relatives, a house cat, and whisk a flashlight’s beam across the floor like some small glowing prey, it will do its darndest to kill it.
Trying to remove humans from this cycle is a strange thing to do. Keith’s extremist example seems to have been simply from a radical vegan, but my own specimen had a particular motivation: a divine decree. The phenomenon of religion-based belief in a division between humans and the rest of the “natural” world is now centuries, if not millennia, old, and it is as crazy and dangerous as the suggestion that eagles shouldn’t eat mice. To deny human participation in the cycles and patterns of nature is to make us into aliens with no business on this earth — our effect is clearly currently detrimental — and to cut us off from any hope of reintegration. It is to see us as a cancer, or a virus. This is not what we are. We may be a strange animal, but animal we are. Our life comes from the same soil as everything else that is alive, and like them we return to it. Our desires and our fears are predominantly identical to those of all other life on this planet, even as our hope for a better world rests in our governance of those drives.

[To be continued…]

The escape hatch of democracy has been welded shut.

January 18th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

From the final chapter of Spaces of Hope, “The insurgent architect at work” by David Harvey (2000):

9. The right to the production of space
The ability of individuals and collectivities to ‘vote with their feet’ and perpetually seek the fulfillments of their needs and desires elsewhere is probably the most radical of all proposals. Yet without it there is nothing to stop the relative incarceration of captive populations within particular territories. If, for example, labor had the same right of mobility as capital, if political persecution could be resisted (as the affluent and privileged have proven) by geographical movement, and if individuals and collectivities had the right to change their locations at will, then the kind of world we live in would change dramatically (this principle is stated in Article 14 of the UN Declaration). But the production of space means more than merely the ability to circulate within a pre-ordained spatially structured world. It also means the right to reconstruct spatial relations (territorial forms, communicative capacities, and rules) in ways that turn space from an absolute framework of action into a more malleable relative and relational aspect of social life.

While various rights are readily advocated by any average leftist, and many more by any average conservative, and all of these contribute to the responsibilities of states to take care of the people within them while also keeping a respectful distance, one right, one that seems so basic as to be overlooked or even taken for granted, remains undeclared: The right to leave.
This is vital. States succeed and states fail and every one of them is really just an experiment (in despotism or democracy), and the freedom to leave a failed experiment in order to try a new one is actually fundamental to the continuing development of human politics. We can see how difficult – I hesitate to say impossible – it is to change political structures once they are established. For dissidents or dreamers, leaving a given structure behind often remains the only possible way to express dissatisfaction (let alone outrage) with a particular system of governance. Take a political science or political philosophy course and you will realize how difficult it is to claim the righteousness of one political structure over another; it’s why every country in the world has a unique system of governance, and why governments that sometimes even seem bizarre to one culture actually function reasonably well in another. People need to be free to form the kind of government that they believe to be fair and effective; one state imposing its political structure on another state is itself a form of colonization and homogenization of political culture. This is why on the international scale what is supposedly practiced is a kind of libertarianism, where states decline to get involved in each other’s affairs so long as they don’t concern them (usually economically).
Now, any rational person will stop me here and say, But not all governments are created equal. This is why states do gather together to define a set of rules that can be imposed, inalienable human rights that are so important that no matter what else is going on, it is agreed that everyone should have them. Maintaining – and yes, enforcing – this set of rights is absolutely vital to maintaining (well, at least establishing) the freedoms and responsibilities all humans should have. But so long as these are kept, why should it concern me that somewhere else, all property is held by the state, or no one is allowed to have more than one child, or everyone must fight two years in the military, or the democratically-elected government is subject to a hereditary monarch (or, being taxpayers and having only one monopolistic insurance agency, everyone must pitch in to repay someone’s $110 million goof-up)?
You may feel somewhat uncomfortable with these propositions, and that is perfectly fair. The question is whether these laws, which do not violate basic human rights but do impose deeply upon one’s freedoms, should be inescapable.
I was born in a country. Everyone is. (Except the very few number of people whose countries get changed within their lifetimes, rendering them “stateless”.) We don’t have a choice about what country we are born into. But from the moment we are born, we are literally subjects of that country’s government, often inescapably so. Sure, wealthy and well-educated people might get to change citizenships, but they’re a pretty small minority, and even then they are not allowed to renounce their citizenship but must “get traded” – switch sides to some other allegiance.
So, what if you don’t have the means to move, or – more interesting – what if no political structure out there (that will take you) is operated under what you believe to be a just and fulfilling politics? Why shouldn’t such a person, perhaps someone who has been oppressed, exploited or abandoned by their state, go find some little corner of the world and start something new? That was exactly what happened when religious and political outcasts risked a dangerous transoceanic journey and laboured for a lifetime to establish something new – in the Americas. It has also happened for millennia wherever people mustered courage and resources to escape political regimes to make a new way for themselves in unclaimed lands. It is a relatively recent phenomenon that all habitable land (and even most of what is uninhabitable) has been parsed between competing global dominators and the upstart nations that resist them. Italy, of all places, was a rough collection of states until 1861! Perhaps in “failing” to colonize the entire world, the biggest nations of the earth did succeed in something that benefitted them: forcing every state to form clear and unmovable boundaries, lines that they intended to use to establish their territories but which effectively trapped their citizens within.

The inability to “leave” is a gag on political freedom to the utmost degree. It prevents people from living according to their political convictions, trying out new and very potentially more just structures of governance, perhaps the next millennia’s “birthplace of democracy” as I have heard people refer to the USA.
It also prevents people from communicating effectively to their states when they fail in a fundamental, systemic way. Just as “voting with your dollars” is meaningless if there is no worthy purchase, we cannot “vote with our feet” when there is nowhere to go.

Re: Development – a community project?

December 18th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Talking about development in GRS has gotten me thinking that I need to figure out my perspective on that a little better – especially since it’s in the title of my resource, “Sustainable Community Development”! In the Urban Planning course I’ve been taking this semester we spent a long section on community engagement, how to get citizens involved in city planning projects in a way that does justice to their voices while also improving their abilities to understanding problems and potential solutions in their complexity. I’m curious whether there’s a similar movement in international aid.

From research I conducted for PLAN 425, here are some of the challenges I would predict would come from the differences between community consultation in international aid, and a typical urban planning project:
-Urban planners have a personal history in a city, or at least in a culture, while community consultants come from a different culture and may have spent extremely little time in a place.
-Urban planners have an inherent authority in a city and can take initiative to start projects they think are needed, while outside development professionals must ask community members what they would like help with, or wait until community members take the initiative.
-Urban planners have the authority to access a huge amount of monetary resources, which consist of taxes from citizens, while community consultants must either convince community members to put their own resources towards a project (including asking governments for tax money), or seek outside funds, which carry with them all kinds of political and social baggage.
-Urban planners in cities deal with a relatively highly educated population, where citizens can feel on equal footing with the planner, while community community members might be intimidated by consultants and be hesitant to speak their minds or challenge consultants’ perspectives.
-Urban planners have a long commitment to a community, either personally or as part of a council, and so can watch the long-term outcomes of their projects and citizens can hold them accountable, while community consultants have a limited commitment.

Needless to say, I’ve been questioning the role of consultants in any community. The only community I’ve particularly intended to consult in is the one my partner and I are hoping to build. Beyond that … at this point I’m really unsure!

Treatise Against Vegetarianism

November 5th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

(Albeit not a complete one!)

I was a vegetarian for about two years after I moved away from home, between the ages of 17 and 19, while a university student in a small town in Ontario. I had been conscious of several concerns regarding the eating of meat – ethical, environmental, health, and more – but it wasn’t until I moved out on my own that I took the initiative to cut meat products out of my diet – although perhaps this makes me sound too active in the role. Really I just simply never bought them. (I wasn’t great at ensuring I was having complete proteins or anything else proactive.) I was clear from the start that my motives were primarily selfish. I didn’t have problem with the killing of animals for food, but didn’t want to ingest said animal products if they contained antibiotics, hormones, GMO feed, etc. I was also critical of some practices of people who called themselves vegetarians. Eating fish or gelatin, for example, seemed entirely inconsistent if the goal, whatever the motivation, was to not require the deaths of animals.

I returned to eating meat occasionally about halfway through my pregnancy, when eating well was hard to come by and the consequences less individual. I only ate meat on a few occasions in the few years that followed, though without a strict set of principles guiding me. I was trying to debate the implications of several things I had come to understand:
1. Animals that are raised for meat are not treated well.
2. Animals raised for meat are not healthy, and therefore not healthy for me to eat.
3. There is something wrong with animals being slaughtered en masse by faceless representatives of corporations, their flesh being wrapped up in plastic and styrofoam, and being sold under fluorescent lights alongside a million other products from hardly-dairy ice cream to hydrolized-cornstarch-god-knows-what.

My mostly-vegetarianism got challenged more than once in that time in a small semi-rural community in BC. The first was the opportunity to eat a chicken that had been raised on the property and had been slaughtered and cleaned that very morning. That seemed right. I think I still didn’t eat any because I couldn’t pin down why that was OK and other meat wasn’t, but it raised some questions. The second experience was the opportunity to actually help in the slaughter of a sheep.

Her name was Sheepie. She was getting old and lonely since she lost her goat companion, and there was a young woman in the community struggling with Lyme Disease, who badly needed sources of easily digestible iron, i.e. red meat. I help Harry, who had kept Sheepie on his property for many years now, to give her some feed to munch contentedly while he shot her in the back of the head. We cut the throat to drain the blood, dragged the carcass into the back of a pick-up, and drove over to the woman’s house. Harry was choked up as we drove, but when we arrived he was all business again. On a big sheet of plastic, we laid out the carcass and set to work. We used our hands to get between the skin and the warm muscle to remove it, and an exacto knife to open the belly and disconnect the organs from the walls of the cavity. Things were smelly, like you might expect the inside of a sheep to be, but hardly messy. There was no blood. In an hour or two we had cleaned the carcass up and were able to leave the butchering to the young woman, who was excited to try her hand at it, as well as to make use of several of the organs we’d saved including the brain.

The entire process was shocking for a single reason: it wasn’t shocking. Sheepie’s death was sad, and I probably wouldn’t have been able to pull the trigger myself then, but it was also clear that her painless death was literally saving someone else’s life. And then watching living muscles turn into meat turned out to be an amazing process, one that didn’t elicit disgust, sorrow, or even confusion. It just made sense. I had seen it a million times in the supermarket fridges or on a dinner plate, and had never truly understood what I was looking at.

This video I encountered last year depicts it best: (Not for the faint of heart.)

Why is causing the death of another animal difficult if it isn’t wrong? Why doesn’t it feel wrong?
I don’t think these are questions that challenge the legitimacy of eating other animals; I think these are questions that define us as humans. A huge part of being human is being challenged emotionally and intellectually by the struggle between life and death in a way that other animals don’t seem to be. So why does it still “just make sense” for our food to have to die? The answer is that it is unavoidable. In fact, it is intrinsic. It is a fact of life that life must end for another life to continue. It is possibly the most stunning fact of our existence. I can’t even call it a paradox because it makes so much sense; nothing comes from nothing, so the continuation of one life must require the end of another life. I don’t mean this in a philosophical way. Vegetarians’ diets require death as much as omnivores. But what I realized in my experience with the sheep was that industrialized meat production is not intrinsic to meat-eating, and my three points above were all entirely based on the industrial system of meat “production”. My experience directly addressed the third by teaching me: There is not something wrong with an animal being slaughtered and meat being eaten in a right way.

Unfortunately this answer raised its own questions for me. Perhaps most surprisingly I had to decline packaged organic meat. Organically-raised animals are slaughtered in just as industrial of processes as any other meat, especially because all retail meat in the Lower Mainland is legally required to have been “processed” in a provincially-approved industrial slaughterhouse. You’re also not allowed to slaughter your own animals on your own property unless your property has farm status or you’re outside of any municipalities (as far as I know).

The solution was easy and obvious; even your average animal-loving vegetarian hesitates to pass judgment on aboriginal peoples who hunted their own meat. So I got my hunting license with my partner in one summer, and last fall was our first adventure in stalking some of BC’s abundant wildlife!

1. Wild animals live the freest life you could wish for any animal – freer than your dog, I’ll add.
2. Wild animals are as healthy as you’ll ever find, due mostly to #1.
3. We conducted the entire process ourselves, from killing to gutting and skinning to grinding up all the scraps by hand. If you said to yourself, Well, aboriginal people used every part and that’s why it was OK, then first of all you’re being romantic, and second of all, when you butcher a carcass yourself you might be able to accomplish that.

The deer we got last year, lovingly posthumously nicknamed Phillip, wasn’t enough to supply our meat for the entire year, so we’ve been rationing it, only eating about a pound per week between three people (one of them three years old). We eat vegetarian the rest of the time (with a few exceptions such as when we are guests). We’re down to one roast now – this weekend we take to the hills!

Biomimicry II: Organic Farming

December 17th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Reading Masanobu Fukuoka’s “The Natural Way of Farming”, it has occurred to me that biomimicry is not only nothing new, but nothing uncommon. It’s nothing new because, as I think I mentioned, it’s the only way humans have ever ‘invented’ anything good, by watching the natural world and imitating its processes. But this book has brought to my attention that this is not only a habit of our inventors and designers, but of all our food production practices as well. Agriculture especially (as opposed to other methods of food-acquisition) has been a story of our attempts to both gain control over a natural function (i.e. cultivation), and learn about the natural processes by which this function operates, in order to imitate them in our controlled environments so that they are now strictly to our advantage. This is biomimicry. And in typical human fashion, this kind of biomimicry is nothing more than appropriation of the natural world according to our limited understanding.
As finite and fallible beings, humans have an incredibly strong drive to simplify and categorize observations and practices. I don’t know if it stems from our hard-wired disposition towards patterns, or vice versa, but it seems to be the only way we are capable of processing the enormous volumes of information we encounter every minute. We have a limited capacity for absorbing such information — I heard recently of studies that show this capacity has not increased for millennia, despite the enormous cultural and technological changes — and so we resort to simplifications, reducing data to recognizable patterns.
But natural patterns are not so constant as we like to believe, and certainly not so comprehendible. Scientific farming methods, those based on scientific discoveries, succeed when they are used in human-made environments; when we have razed an ecosystem, severed it from the larger processes and exterminated the organisms that gave it life, we created a sterilized and isolated human-made environment, and here, unsurprisingly, only human-devised processes of food production can succeed, if at all. So the question is, then, are these human-made food systems an improvement on the natural ones? We are realizing that they fall short of the natural abilities to multitask, as with the multiple functions of every element of a natural process, failing to both ensure that all inputs (especially the free and infinite energy of the sun) are used efficiently and that other elements can compensate if one fails to perform its functions. Thus artificial systems require alternative energy sources (i.e. petroleum), and are less efficient and more vulnerable. They also fail at symbiosis, instead following the parents’ (humans’) example of virus-living, exploiting natural systems without return, making waste instead of resources for other systems.
But this is still not answering the question the economist would be demanding: Are they an improvement over natural systems in their yield?
Fukuoka says no.
Think of it this way: Plants (and animals) have evolved by the laws of self-preservation and self-propagation. They have developed physiological properties that advance these two goals, and while the larger ecosystem must keep an organism in check to prevent total takeover by this organism (which would be suicide), the organism is always operating at maximum capacity towards these goals. It will always grow as tall, as strong, as fat, as fruitful as it can; to fail to do so is death.
Perhaps humans have forgotten this in our ‘advanced’ social and technological evolution, by which we have achieved the opportunity for laziness to be successful.
Science, and scientific farming, cannot by any means (including genetic modification), increase this maximum capacity. At best they can increase one of the functions of an organism, for example the drought-resistance of a strain of corn, but because its capacity is finite, this must detract from another function, perhaps strength of stalk, or resistance to a pest, or ability to produce some chemical that will be of advantage to another organism. As Fukuoka is adamant to point out, the factors are infinite — and incomprehensible.
What happens instead is that yield is measured in the environment of an agribusiness’ field or worse a laboratory, where, as I’ve explained, the sterilized and isolated environment cripples the functions of an organism, and future yields, as they alter nitrogen levels or irrigation, are compared to this measure and believed to be improvements. The reality is that an organism is most productive in the competitive and challenging natural environment, where its success is the difference between life and death. So-called improvements in scientific agriculture are, in reality, only fractional recoveries of yield as artificial processes inch closer to a better imitation of natural processes.

This brings us to organic farming. It’s a sham. Organic farming is the application of science in agribusiness with the use of natural materials. It allows the shipping of algae thousands of miles to be used as a fertilizer on an inland agribusiness operation, or the keeping of countless chickens in a warehouse as long as they have access to outdoors and their all-grain feed is organically grown, itself in enormous swaths of (hand-weeded) monoculture. Organic farming is only one inch closer to a better imitation of the natural world. I buy it because it is that one inch closer. But it is not a solution.

The solution according to Fukuoka is: Just stop. All of it. Impede natural processes as little as you can. Do as little as you can. Nature takes care of itself, and us. This Fukuoka’s “do-nothing” farming and he has been living off of it for decades.

I ultimately find that the best biomimicry we can practice in food production is simply to observe and take advantage of natural processes rather than imitate them — and I’m left wondering if the same applies to architecture.

On Biomimicry

December 15th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Biomimicry. It’s not even a word yet, and it’s hot on the lips of every architect who is With It. Biomimicry.net defines it as “learning from and then emulating natural forms, processes, and ecosystems to create more sustainable designs.” It’s simultaneously brilliant, and stupidly obvious.
(My resources specialization being sustainable community design) I approach it from the perspective of an architect, which means design of functional systems, whether for shelter or food or what-have-you. The natural world is the epitome of efficiency and zero-waste systems, and obviously this is the only place where one can learn how to live in harmony with the rest of the natural world.
But is that what biomimickers do? Well, unfortunately being inspired by nature doesn’t mean that we’ve given up our anthropocentrism (strong anthropocentrism, that is; see “Environmental Ethics and Weak Anthropocentrism” by Bryan G. Norton). We don’t want to learn what the natural world needs us to do; we don’t want to learn what pursuits we have to give up, or what luxuries cost too much. Humans are expert exploiters, and what we like to learn from nature is how to do what we want to do, just better. Cheaper. Quicker. Easier.

David Suzuki (and Faisal Moola):
One of my favourites [of the ideas posted on asknature.org] is simple: “Leaves on a forest floor create aesthetically seamless surfaces by exhibiting organized chaos.” This led one of our board members, Ray Anderson, the founder and chair of the world’s largest carpet tile manufacturer, Interface Inc., to create recyclable carpeting that can be replaced one square at a time without concern for matching the patterns because no two tiles are alike. He says it is the most popular brand.

The question biomimickers ask is, “What would nature do here?”
What they don’t ask is, “Would nature do this?” nor, “Do we want do be like the rest of nature in this?” nor, “How does nature use this?”
A friend of mine framed this most poignantly: A green prison is still a prison.
Which is to say, making a thing more environmentally-friendly cannot precede the challenging of the justification for that thing. If we want to live in harmony with the rest of the natural world, we need to examine the things we do and use in a fundamental way and justify their existence and practice in light of their environmental and human context before we attempt to make them “environmentally-friendly”.
We need to be aware of two separate issues when we try to emulate nature: Whether the approach and the end goal of our project are compatible with existing natural systems (ex: “Ecosystem-inspired cooperative strategies in business” don’t make a business any less exploitative of the environment), and whether the practices of the natural world are worth imitating (ex: Many habits of animals lack the social responsibility that we as self-aware beings must practice), and finally, Whether we are using a technology in an appropriate way.

Let’s see how these can be applied to the aforementioned carpet example.
Would nature create a carpet? Being recycled, it uses less new materials than one of virgin materials. But it still uses some resources, and it uses plenty of energy (recycling is typically very energy-intensive), and its existence in this world has all sorts of health risks. Carpets are usually made fire-retardant with very toxic chemicals (I learned this first hand when I basement I lived in flooded, and then the landlord dried the carpets with a fan, releasing these chemicals into the air and giving everyone in the house head- and stomachaches), as well as trapping dust particles from the air, that contain other toxins. Carpet squares are mass-produced by machines, and lack any human involvement in their production, let alone human creativity. I wouldn’t expect that they contain any raw materials (unless they are wool, but the carpets we’re talking about are not), and certainly nothing the human eye and touch would recognize and understand. I don’t think nature would be very impressed by a square of petroleum-fibre manufactured by robots and dyed in a computer-generated pattern. This question needs to be asked before we can even start to ask what makes the best carpet.
Do we want to be like nature in its “organized chaos” of a forest floor? Well yeah, aesthetically it’s beautiful. But a forest floor is more than aesthetic. And this is a fundamental flaw in a lot of “biomimicry” (let’s coin a new term: “biofakery”), that it imitates the superficial characteristics of a natural system without asking why. This is a really big deal! A carpet floor is anything but aesthetic. It is a system of decomposition, which also happens to insulate, and ultimately disappears and feeds another element of that system. A recycled carpet has nothing to do with this. The fact that a forest floor cushions our feet is totally irrelevant; if it has any relationship to the animals that walk upon it, it is only to condition them to lack the hardy feet and hooves that animals on harsher land (ex: mountain goats) develop. And as for aesthetically, the beautiful random pattern of the forest floor is a) beautiful only because humans perceive it as so, and b) random because it is an element of an ecosystem with a diversity that no human system could ever, ever possibly hope to imitate.
It’s hardly worth even asking the final question by this point, but what the hell: How would nature use a forest floor? Well, that was pretty decently answered above: as a site of decomposition, habitat for decomposers, and nourishment for plants. Probably other things too: one step in the filtration of rainwater, habitat for other life-forms, insulation to protect roots in winter, supplies for nest-making, who knows?! The fact is that the aesthetics of a forest floor miss the point of its “technology”, and the application of it in carpeting is a total failure at biomimicry.

So what is a good example of biomimicry? You’ll just have to stay tooned … indefinitely … because I’d love to write about it but I’m making no promises … OK, alright, fine, here’s one off the top of my head: www.beingsomewhere.net

PS. David Suzuki just got lost serious points in my books.

unknown date in November 2012

December 3rd, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

I dreamt about a present world in which there had been a mysterious string of mass suicides and murders among youth and children.
Walking down a suburban street at night, through the circles of orange of the streetlights, nearly by accident I had reached a boy on the phone who knew what was going on, and, trying to hide my ignorance, I was asking him and he was telling me: The children knew something the adults didn’t. They were organizing huge gatherings with social media, with one purpose: to kill themselves and each other — because there was no hope for them. The world was too far gone. They had no future to live for.
I tried and failed to argue. By now I was inside one of the homes lining this dark street, pacing in a bare upstairs bedroom. Perhaps to help hide myself, I had been wearing sunglasses, and I now took these off. Immediately, the boy on the phone casually commented, Nice sunglasses.
They could see me. With video phones, webcams, digital cameras everywhere in nearly every home in the world, youth could monitor the globe. They knew better than anyone what the state of the world was. And it wasn’t worth living for.

Chris Hedges – Once Again–Death of the Liberal Class

November 12th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

“My loyalty shifted from the state, from any state, to the powerless, to the landless peasants in Latin America, the Palestinians in Gaza or the terrified families in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those who suffer on the outer reaches of empire, as well as in our internal colonies and sacrifice zones, constitute my country. And any action, including voting, that does not unequivocally condemn and denounce their oppressors is a personal as well as a moral betrayal.”



William H Murdy – Anthropocentrism: A Modern Version

October 31st, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

One of the seven assigned readings for LFS250 yesterday was the above-titled article (only available by purchase … though if you contact me it just might *magically* appear in your inbox). I just read it today (and I still have four articles to go before I’m caught up), the way I do most of the assigned readings: having my partner read it aloud, frequently interrupted by his interjections and sarcastic comments. But this was the first for which he had no sarcasm. Murdy gets it right.
I’d like to highlight some of his successes.

Murdy first identifies the need for an understanding and acceptance of humans’ anthropocentric tendencies, as natural as the “arachnocentric” tendencies of spiders. We must care more about our own well-being than that of other life-forms because otherwise we will die. Nature won’t care for us if we don’t; every organism must tend to its own well-being, and does. This avoids all the weird conundrums we put ourselves in, when we realize that our very existence requires that we each take from the world outside of ourselves. It is not inherently wrong to do so. What is wrong is the mentality (called Strong Anthropocentrism by some) that these external organisms, resources, and systems exist solely for our benefit. Murdy is right to point a finger at the Christian (among others) division between humans and nature, the duality that allows for this mentality. It is, in fact, entirely possible for us to see ourselves as a part of nature, while also striving to put its resources to our benefit. I guess the difference is in acknowledging that we have no more a claim to them than any other life-form. We make claim to it by brain or brawn, not by right.

But Murdy goes further, and this is where he really strikes gold. He acknowledges a difference between humans and most other animals, in the presence of a cultural history, by which we pass information from generation to generation, cumulating and developing. Having this resource (which has allowed us to advance technology over generations) comes with a responsibility for the knowledge accumulated. And what we know, what each person in this society and most societies around the world knows, whether we face it or not, is that humans have the power to damage the earth far beyond the power of even all other organisms combined. We know how damaging our mentality to this date has been. At the same time, human culture has a great and unique capacity for creativity, beauty, and grace. These values have evolved faster than our physical bodies, over the tens of thousands of years homo sapiens sapiens have existed in social groups. As the best of the products of our highly evolved intelligence and sociality, this is our greatest product of evolution. “An anthropocentric belief in the value, meaningfulness, and creative potential of the human phenomenon is considered a necessary motivating factor to participatory evolution,” says Murdy. But being the sole producers of these values, we are also the sole keepers of them:

“Our greatest danger is not that the human species will become extinct, which is unlikely…,
but that the cultural values that make us human will become extinct.”

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    I am a student in Global Resource Systems studying Sustainable Community Development in the Americas. I came to this field through my passion for architecture, and out of the dying of a life-long dream to become an architect. I had studied architecture for two years at the University of Waterloo before going on a semi-hiatus while I had my son and got married. I was transferring to UBC's Environmental Design program, and it wasn't until nearly summer that it dawned on me that I was completely disillusioned with the field, and that it actually would not benefit me to be studying a subject whose mere methods of teaching I disagreed with. My problems with the field are deeply rooted, and I have come to the conclusion that if I am to actually contribute to the construction of the kinds of buildings and communities I want to see, then I am better off studying the fields of knowledge that I myself find relevant rather than a series of lectures on "architectonic themes" and "graphic lexicons of place". (OK, I made those up, but you couldn't tell, could you?!) Thus my classes have been in ecology and economics, geography and urban planning, social philosophy and anthropology, and of course, "land, food and community", issues I now recognize as central to discussions of civilization and human development. Technically this is my sixth year of studies by credit, or my eighth consecutive year of being at least a part-time student; in the next year and a half before I graduate I look forward to classes in sociology, community organizing, and natural resource management.

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