On Carbon Ethics, Individual action, and the Value of Slow Travel

In a recent post, I tried to start a deeper discussion with Milan about what it means to act ethically in these needful times with respect to climate change.

I’m not sure if he meant this post as a response to my post, or as a response to the ongoing discussion on carbon ethics – but either way, it really does not does not “bring about any clarity to the many discussions we’ve had here about carbon ethics”. It really just repeats what we already know – action must begin collectively and immediately – and from there re-makes the assumption that it is desirable that, in full knowledge that collective action will not begin immediately, that still “we individually [should] want to mirror what the world as a whole needs to do”.

I’ll repeat the argument I’ve made before, and again, I’ll give reasons for my position. (While it makes me sound like a liberal, giving reasons for arguments is a central requirement to dialogue. Without reason-giving, it is not really possible to hold others responsible for what they’ve said.) I do not think it is not desirable that we individually, as individuals, want to mirror what the world needs to do. In fact, I think the notion that we should do as individuals what the world as a whole should do while the world isn’t doing it is deeply misguided. The fact the world isn’t doing it means the actual cuts needed are deeper and sharper – so what justifies someone personally cutting their carbon more slowly when the world’s inaction produces a requirement for even sharper cuts?

In fact, I would not advocate any carbon ethics that remains on the level of individually setting an example where that example is “what is required of everyone”, rather than attempting to demonstrate what is desirable about acting socially, together as a society, to mitigate climate change. However, I would not recommend amending your position to give a different curve of carbon cut-back because cutting back on carbon emissions is largely not something we can do as individuals – it requires investment on the societal level.

Taking into account the importance of the societal, my claim is that it is desirable that we “mirror what the world needs to do” – together. The emphasis needs to be on the “we”, not on the “as individuals”. Rather than acting “individually” – any action to be effective must foster social movements, activism, political pressure, and so on. I don’t think it is particularly virtuous to live a “moral” (pious), personally low carbon life – the relevant virtue here is in spurring and organizing the social transformation we so desperately need if we want our children not to live in a much more violent and hostile place than we. Of course, I do not mean to construct a false opposition between personal and social action. Rather, what I mean to show is that a personal action can either be individualizing or fostering of a social movement.

I think the bus/train decision is an example of where these values diverge in an individual’s choice. I don’t mean to criticize your decision – just some of the logic you stated with regards to the issue. There are lots of reasons to take the bus that are good reasons. However, specifically looking at a comment responding to my post on high speed, overnight, and trans continental rail travel you wrote:

“Arguably, there is little point in getting people onto cross-country trains, until they have a significant climate advantage over air travel.”

I think this is misguided. The real effects of our actions are not only their immediate release of carbon, but also the extent to which they contribute to the societal will to spend to mitigate, to build a world appropriate for a carbon neutral future. Whether you like it or not, taking the bus cross country appears to others as embracing a low-carbon asceticism. In my experience, people seem deeply hostile to this.

We could debate whether it’s good or it’s bad that there is a hostility to asceticism – but the fact is there is a deep and longstanding hostility to it, and having one’s actions spur social movement building means being sensitive to which values one can shift and which ones one cannot shift. There is room for movement, for example, on the value of working 40 hours a week, or 46 to 50 weeks a year – look at the idealization of German Vacation time in Canada (especially our immediate experience of it in the West in the form of RV tourism), and also the strength of the work-less party with their extremely sensible policies.

Looking at the long term ramifications of social choice, I come to the conclusion that the right value to shift towards with respect to travel is slow travel – accessible, utilitarian and comfortable. We should pressure Via to shift away from tourism service towards useful travel service for all Canadians, which means, for transcontinental service, daily departures and restoring the Montreal – Ottawa – Sudbury connection.

Slow travel also endorses more travel by bicycle. There is no reason why trips of less than 100km, when time is not the primary issue, can not be made increasingly by bicycle. What is required to open this up to more of the population is investment in bicycle routes, even dedicated tracks. Despite my love of road bikes, maybe the right value here is unpaved maintained trails, since they can simply be grated when a paved trail would need resurfacing.

Slow travel requires more time than plane travel – so this goes hand in hand with becoming more mindful, more aware, more intentional of our actions. Milan is right that we need to ditch flagrantly needless trips – and switching from air to rail means it is no longer possible to have that quick weekend in Paris, or a day trip to New York for a business meeting. But it also means increasing the value of a visit we do choose to make – since it will not be as quick and easy to move from place to place, we will value those visits we do make that much more greatly.

On Topics for Writing: “Hot Cognition” and Play

Earlier this term I wrote a list of ten topics that I need to write on. These are not topics on which I have complete expertise, but they are issues on which I have opinions which ought be communicated. I thought I could write on one a day, or one every few days, and that this practice of writing would help ground me, help preserve what had already been achieved in my thinking, and keep me on the path towards thinking new thoughts.

However, as it turns out, it is far easier to come up with a topic, and to talk about it in class or at a bar, than it is to actually write a short piece (i.e. 500 to 1000 words). What I envisioned were a set of blog articles, written in a conversational style. And, I have written some (for example, “Carbon Ethics and Future Worlds“, and “Chic-ness and Cheapness – the materiality of the modern aesthetic”). These entries, and “the list”, were inspired by what I felt was a strength developing in my writing/thinking – a strength at communicating difficult ideas to a general audience by remaining alongside examples that are poignant and contemporary (i.e. “Time and Engagement in the Present“). However, those entries were written while I was gripped by a certain situation, a concern, a need to preserve and communicate a thought.

Many years ago in my first year of University studies, Dennis Danielson spoke to my foundations class on the topic of “hot cognition” – the state of mind you are in when your existence is held by concern for a topic, when you literally “need” to find something out, and express it. It’s what makes people enjoy school, enjoy writing papers and presentations and teaching. Like marital love, it isn’t always “simply there”, but must be continually fostered, cherished, nourished. Treating “topics” as a list mistakes concernful engagement for either “work” or “play” or “enjoyable pastime”.

Writing, which is work, is not a pass-time. It is not “play” in the sense of “a way to unwind”. But it is play in the sense of imaginative engagement! Do adults any longer play? Not when “play” is opposed to work – for as any child knows, play is hard work! On “Play” see Derrida’s “Structure Sign and Play“, or James May’s television series “Toy Stories“.

Of course writing, at least philosophical writing, is play. It is a play of concepts, of ideas. But, like building an entire english garden out of plasticine, it is hard work. Topics therefore cannot be treated as something to be completed “at one’s leisure”, but rather must be actively pursued, chased after, struggled with. They can not be “completed”, “in order”, but rather in the order by which they engage the author. Writers do not choose topics – they are chosen by them.

That all said, I still intend on pursuing this “list of topics”, because preserving what was attempted is an essential value for moving forward.

Carbon Ethics and Future Worlds

The Walt Disney company calls some of its imagineers “futureologists”, specifically if they work on Tommorowland or on the Future Worlds Pavilion at Epcot Centre. They are charged with visioning and representing futures. Futures are aspects of the present that project forward in time rather than space, so that we can anticipate what is to-come. We prepare for the future, and we are often wrong about it. Dropping the Disney reference, Futurology is also a study in its own right – an interdisciplinary discipline charged with predicting and helping us prepare for the time that is always arriving.

Climate change is an ethical issue which is particularly characterized by a relationship with the future. The logic of reducing one’s own carbon emmissions is that the carbon we produce literally warms the climate, if only a tiny amount, and contributes to the future devastation which climate warming will have on millions of people, mostly the poor.  So, according to this logic, it might make sense to take a bus across Canada rather than an airplane – since the bus produces less Co2 to do the same journey. Milan has made this argument here, and backed it up with a decision to actually travel between Ottawa and Vancouver by bus. I respect him highly for making this decision.

However, there is another way to look at climate change ethics. One can easily point out that my individual actions, if they remain merely the actions of one individual, will not have much effect on the future. The reason why lone voices can have power in history is only because they do not remain lone voices, but create organizing effects, popular movements, etc… Thus, carbon ethics must be not only about my personal actions and the damage they produce or don’t produce, but how my personal actions are part of a larger community of actors and actions. In other words, how my choice to travel in a certain way will encourage others to make similar choices. Put yet another way, (and I think this is more elegant), we need to choose with our actions the world we want to live in, and in such a way that our actions help bring that world around.

Not to say that Milan is somehow unfamiliar or ignorant of this argument. He has stated that his reasoning in taking the Bus includes “to show that there really are low-carbon, cross-country options – even for those with full time jobs”. He believes this demonstration will have a psychological effect on others making decisions about how to get across Canada, because the “concrete action of someone you know has more psychological potency than the hypothetical action of a stranger”. I agree with him on both of these point – taking the bus absolutely is a way to encourage others to make low carbon choices in situations where they previously might have dismissed the bus as too unpleasant and slow.

Personally, however, I think the train is the best option for slower, lower carbon intensive transportation in a future low or zero carbon economy. Milan has repeatedly pointed out that the existing trans-Continental rail service is more carbon intensive than a Bus. Also, it is much less convenient since it leaves every 3 days rather than daily, and does not travel directly from Ottawa to Sudbury. On these points, he is of course correct.

However, thinking about the future, it is possible to conceive of a future where rail travel in Canada is more convenient – I have recently talked about how in the 1980s when The Canadian and the Super Continental were both still running running, there were daily departures east and west from every Major Canadian city between Montreal and Vancouver, travelling through both the northern and southern prairies. Also in those days the transcontinental rail trip took the same 3 days as the bus trip takes now (the schedule has recently been revised to 3 days 12 hours so it includes an extra night and more cushion time so as to run on time more often). On the other hand, it’s impossible to imagine a future where bus travel is much nicer than it is now. The food could be improved, there could be wireless internet and TV consoles, perhaps there could even be slightly more legroom. But for multi day journeys, you need showers, beds, a coffee shop, dome cars, lounges, bars – the kind of thing a long distance train offers, but a bus never could.

Furthermore, it’s possible to electrify rail, or to build engines that run on hydrogen fuel cells – such as Japan is currently working on. It is of course possible to make a fuel cell bus also – I believe Translink already has some in experimental service. However, since trains have lower rolling resistance than trucks, they will always be more efficient for hauling heavy freight. And even if rail travel is always more energy intensive than bus travel for passengers, we can not only consider “how little energy can you consume”, but also “how great a proportion of the population can you get to switch” (from private automobiles). I believe that encourage train travel reaches out to many more people than encouraging bus travel. To some extent efficiency is less important than adoption because a zero-carbon transportation system is zero carbon whether it is high efficiency or not. Thus, I would say the more important value is encouraging more people to adopt into a system which is potentially carbon-neutral, rather than encouraging some people to adopt into a system which is slightly less carbon intensive at present.

This is really the fundamental point of futurology and ethics – how to we weigh “how good a choice is right now” with “how good a choice might it enable in the future”. My question explicitly is “is it right to do more damage now if you are encouraging something which in the future can do less damage?” Certainly the question, however it is parsed, is about being strategic – I don’t think Milan and I disagree about this. However, we disagree with whether each other is being strategic in the right way.

What I hope we are both opposed to is the blind utilitarian calculus which tries to minimize the damage my actions cause looking only at the effects of my actions insofar as I am an individual, and not affecting the actions of others. In other words, an ethics that ignores the fact our actions msut be directed towards a future world we’d like to live in, and be strategic with respect to producing that world. British Television presenter Jeremy Clarkson rightly points out that the logic of merely reducing the amount of violence I do (in the direction towards zero) logically results in the “I ought commit suicide” conclusion (at the zero point) – because, insofar as I ignore every social aspect of my life, the best way to do the least violence is simply to stop existing. This is of course based on an absurd assumption – that we are individuals and not social beings. In fact, the logic includes a fallacious contradiction, because it is only because we are social beings that we have any moral requirement to care about the violence we do to others implicitly in my actions.



High Speed Rail in Canada

High Speed Rail in Canada is characterized by being in the past. It’s something that was (the Turbo, the Bombardier LRC), or never was but perhaps could one day be (the JetTrain). It’s also characterized by existing, but not really existing (many Via trains hit 100mph in normal service, but their overall schedules are hardly “high speed”). It could also be part of the future, if certain lobbying groups get their way. It is not the only option, however, for a future, expanded vision of passenger rail in Canada.

The UAC TurboTrain was an extension of 50’s optimism. When development began, private automobiles had not yet achieved their car-culture dominance which, seen retrospectively, appears inevitable. The watchword was “faster without any infrastructure modifications” – in other words, to achieve an average 100mph running speed with the same track and station configurations which limited previous trains to 60 or 70mph. The main obstacles to running faster on existing track was the weight of the train, and the tightness of the corners. The impact a train has on the rail-bed and tracks is a function of its weight and its speed, so to run faster, diesel engines were replaced by turbines which produced the same power but weighed only 300lbs. Also, individual train cars were replaced by a system of permanently connected cars which share boogies (wheel-sets), so as to reduce weight and rolling resistance. Unfortunately, however, this meant that train sets could not be lengthened or shortened as per customer demand – the size of each train was fixed. As for the corners, the Turbo employed a tilting mechanism so the train would lean into the corners, increasing both the safe speed turns could be taken at, and passenger comfort.

The Turbo ran between 1968 and 1982. Plagued by technical difficulties at its outset, it developed a reputation for unreliability. This was somewhat unfair – after their 1973 rebuilds the the Turbos were available 97% of the time.

It’s commonly asserted that when the Turbos were scrapped, this was the end of high speed rail in Canada. This is completely untrue – the Turbo was actually replaced by a Bombardier product called the LRC, which stands for “Light, Rapid, Comfortable”. The name was literally a set of values, the same values emphasized in their advertising of the time. The LRC was initially meant to be faster than the Turbo at up to 125mph. This never happened, however, since the LRC engine’s conventional diesels proved too heavy, and track wear at over 100mph too costly, so the LRC trains remained restricted to the same 95mph service speed as the Turbo. Like the Turbo’s, they employed active-tilt, so both the engine and train cars leaned into corners. Unlike the turbo, however, the cars had their own wheels, so the length of trains was not fixed. Unlike the Turbo, LRC trains could be lengthened or shortened taking into account passenger demand.
The LRC is in a sense a thing of the past, since the engines have been scrapped, sold off, or are still for sale on Via rail’s website. The LRC passenger carriages remain in service, but most have had their tilting permanently de-activated. On straight track, however, they still reach 100mph in normal service when pulled by Via’s new P42DC GE diesels. I’ve actually clocked a Toront0-Montreal train at 165km/h with my GPS, although it reached that speed only briefly and cruised mostly at 130-140km/h.

The JetTrain was the third, last, and most complete failure of high speed rail in Canada. It never went into service, and was never built. It was in essence a continuation of Bombardier’s LRC system which addressed the issue of heavy engines by reverting to turbines, specifically a proven Pratt and Whitney unit which had been in service, mostly aeronautical, since 1984. In the JetTrain the Turbines turn generators to power electric traction motors which are the same as used in Bombardier’s high speed electric train, the Acela. In fact, the JetTrain is really just a diesel-electric version of the all-electric Acela. Train cars would have been the same as on the Acela, which are an evolution of the LRC series. Twin engined JetTrains were to have service speeds of 150mph, with 165mph top speed (still lower than the record set by a US turbotrain of 170.8 mph). Since the Acela is a reality and uses much of the same Bombardier equipment a JetTrain would, it cannot be ruled out as impossible in the future.

High speed rail, however, is only one possible form of time-efficient rail travel. Another is night trains, which take advantage of the sleeping hours to cover distances while using up less daylight, less time where we’d like to be out doing other things. Rather than build a train which can travel between Windsor and Montreal very quickly in the daytime, it’s also logically possible, for example, to leave Windsor at 9pm and arrive in Montreal in the mid morning. By spending the night hours on a train, the voyage need not be as fast to maximize the number of daylight hours at your destination.  Such a service is absolutely a possibility for Via, since they actually purchased the entire railset of the “Nightstar“, a planned sleeper version of the London to Paris “Eurostar“, but which never went into service. Via rail purchased 139 pieces of Nightstar rolling stock for 130 million, a significant discount over it’s original price of 500 million. 29 sleepers remain inactive according to Via’s own website, and are sitting in a Thunder Bay facility. These railcars are also capable of high speed travel, since they would have been required to move at 186mph in European service.

Another option is to simply disregard speed and time efficiency entirely and focus on comfort. This is the route take by Via’s trans-continental train named “The Canadian“, when it recently increased its schedule form 3 days to 3 days, 12 hours. This combined with the fact the Canadian travels only 3 times a week, is priced for rail-destination tourists (the cheapest sleeper fare is almost 1000$), and leaves only from Toronto in the East, means it is hardly a convenient travel option for most Canadians.

This has not always been the case – up until 1990 the Canadian operated in two sections east of Sudbury – one to Toronto, and another to Montreal via Ottawa, and with Daily departures heading both East and West. Furthermore, when CN’s Super Continental was still in service (which also split into two sections in Sudbury to serve Toronto and Montreal), there were actually two trains continental passenger trains in Canada, providing service across Canada though the lower and higher prairies. The Canadian took the Canadian Pacific route through Banff, Calgary and Regina, and the Continental took the northerly CN line through Jasper, Edmonton and Saskatoon. With such breadth of service, one can firmly say the rail travel was a real transportation option for most urban Canadians East of Montreal.

One day it will be time to replace The Canadian’s railset (although the old heavy cars are so durable, this likely won’t be for 25 years or more). At that point, but hopefully before it, we could start building a modern rail system in Canada that meets the needs we need to have as the automobile loses its dominance. Such a rail system would need to take advantage of many possibilities for improved service in Canada – higher average speeds, more night trains, daily departures, and pricing competitive enough to get people out of their cars.

The Canadian

I’ve just booked passage on the Canadian to travel from Vancouver and Toronto, and I’m quite excited about the journey. Having taken Amtrak across America, it will be nice to experience the Canadian equivalent.

I was able to get quite a good deal. While I was happy with taking Amtrak from Bellingham and Toronto for 303$, I’m even happier with the discount I’ve procured on Via. I’ve actually booked a sleeper class ticket, because through the via-express deals website the price was only 331$ plus tax. That means a bed, and all meals included. I encourage everyone to take advantage of this, it’s a truly ridiculous deal, and a chance to experience the luxury of yesteryear at below modern economy prices. (For comparison’s sake, the regular discounted economy fare is 442$ plus tax).
Traveling Sleeper Class is an experience all its own, and one I have not experienced since I was a small boy when we took the Canadian to Calgary to visit relatives. When we took it then, the Canadian was on its traditional CP route through Banff and Calgary – soon before the switch to its current route through Jasper and Edmonton, which is generally considered less scenic.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the thing that excites me most about taking the Canadian, specifically taking it sleeper class, is the Park car. The Park car sits at the end of the train, and has a curved end which is really more for style than aerodynamics. It houses a bar, two lounges, and a dome. Mostly, it is excessive – the train doesn’t need it to function. However, it provides space to move around, space for people to socialize in after the berths have been converted to night mode and the children have gone to bed. And, in the early hours of the morning, according to Stuart Maclean it is a place of peace, of tranquility – where you can watch the prairies go by illuminated by the moon. The prairies are largely what I’m looking forward to on this trip – I believe they will look different from a train than from a car. Especially at night when the car’s headlights prevent your eyes from adjusting to the soft light of the moon.

The Canadian is a train with some history: it is the “Train of Tommorow” of 1953 – a time when the old was being replaced with the new, and everything was chrome and a new Chevrolet. Unlike the Chevy, however, the train still looks new. Not a modern new, more the new of the Avro Arrow – from the fifties, but still fresh and clean. The fact that some things from the fifties don’t yet look retro has to do with the fact modernity itself has positive content.

Maybe I can say the Canadian is like John Locke – factually old, but whose ideas don’t seem dated, whereas the Chevy from the same year is Bach – approximately the same period, but much more dated and explicitly from the past. Or maybe you don’t like this analogy.

Still, I think the Canadian looks new, and that it will mean something when it doesn’t anymore. As for that, there is a Park car at the Exporail museum in Montreal now, and although it is outside with a tarp wrapped over it, its even being there indicates that the Canadian’s railset – most of it a solid 54 years old – will eventually all be consigned the museum and scrap heap. It will undoubtedly be replaced by something new and European. But, will it live up to the iconic status of these cars? It is hard to imagine calling any other trainset “The Canadian”.


“Chic-ness” and Cheapness – the materiality of the modern aesthetic

We find today everywhere examples of mass produced luxury. Sitting in a coffee house atop dark wood chairs, next to a floor to ceiling fireplace adorned with an exotic artwork, I am both everywhere and nowhere. Starbucks, or Second-Cup, even the new-look Macdonalds embrace an architecture of bare wood, rock and leather wingback chairs alongside glass panel windows, bare metal, intricate lighting and world music. “Comfort” “Nostalgia”, “Modern”, “Chic” are the values put forth in such a decor – these are “3rd spaces”, like homes (who of us have these anymore in a world of rental housing, difficult roommates, distant parents) without the intimacy. We revel in them, we feel at home in the intimacy of anonymity. Critiquing this modern form of intimacy is a study unto itself, but not the one I pursue here. Rather, I wish to concentrate on the materiality of these places – the role materials play, the way they show up, and the way they might be emblematic of a relationship to matter that is dominant in the present.

The first thing to say about the materials in coffee shop architecture is that they are cheap. The brick and grout in the fireplace have a superficial look – the grout doesn’t sit nicely between the bricks, and though I’ve seen worse bricklaying than this, it feels very much like it’s been built to have a certain appearance (old, nostalgic), rather than with any kind of function or service length in mind. The wood around the the hearth is more explicitly cheap – a place where the finish is flaked off reveals particle board beneath. Of the screws attaching the board to the brick, 3 fit flush, but the fourth sticks out – a telling sign of a job carelessly done.

The seats on first inspection look better – a dark mahogany, and surprisingly solid for coffee shop chairs. But a well used seat betrays the dark finish – it is of course a cheaper, lighter toned wood (possibly Alder), stained to appear like rich, dark mahogany. I could go on and give the same analysis of the drapes, the tables, the lighting, the floor, etc… but it serves no further purpose – the point is already made.

But what is the point? So the materials are cheap, the workmanship a bit shoddy – but isn’t this what we should expect from something like an infinitely reproduced coffee shop? Of course we should – it is not my intention to criticize the coffee shop for not being something I would like it to be. It can be criticized only because it is not something it feigns to be, because its materials show up as one thing immediately, and then quite another upon reflection. The reason I bring this issue to the forefront is I wish to claim this is becoming a basic characteristic of our relationship with materials in capitalism more generally.

It is a cliche now to say capitalism is characterized by turning everything into a commodity – this is to say something infinitely reproducible and exchangeable. This inclines us to think of matter as the raw resources which are tapped, processed and formed into these commodities On this account, matter has no positive characteristics – the only things we “see”, we buy, we come into contact with, are forms – objects, their quality having to do with how they are put together rather than anything inherent about the matter. However, in situations like the fireplace, the “dark” wood chairs, we encounter commodities in their material aspect as false appearances. Traditionally speaking matter can never “appear” – anything that shows up must show up as an image, as something formed, usually something built by a machine that put an order into some disorderly matter. However, what we “see” in the mahogany chair is the false appearance of a matter which isn’t there – we see the mahogany (in a certain sense), and we also see the absence of the mahogany (when we recognize that it is only a cheap finish). W see the absencing of the appearance, the becoming-mere of the mere-appearence of the mahogany. Or with respect to the fireplace, we first see the fireplace “as” old, worldworn – and then immediately that is revealed as mere appearance, we recall we are in a new Second Cup in the JCC at Bloor and Spadina, and that this piece of exotic african art is nothing but a piece of Second Cup, second rate mass produced kitch?

But why is it interesting that we see the matter in this particular way in coffee shops? Is this not a hipster’s hubris to believe coffee shops will reveal the nature of contemporary reality? Perhaps, but this architectural aesthetic, or better this interior design modality, is not limited to coffee shops. We see the same fake rock, false mahogany and photocopied exotic art at restaurants like the Keg, the Olive Garden, the current generation of fake brewpubs, and other examples. What is common to all these locations is a rejection of the old plastic-fantastic Macdonalds model of interior design, and a look to the Whistler post and beam style, and the modern European coffee shop for inspiration. But the problem with simply replicating any of those styles is simply that they are inherently against mass production because they employ local, high quality materials, and sight-specific interior design to create spaces appropriate for the place the space takes in the community. In order to mass produce these styles it could not have been otherwise than to empty the materials of their quality, to use cheap alternatives with thin varnish surfaces. The result of this is a chic-ness characterized by cheapness, an aesthetic of mere appearance, of materials that devalue themselves in front of your eyes, of spaces which appear comforting but then spit you out. Perhaps we should not be surprised that a commodification, a reproduction and replication of particularity, turned out to produce its own reversal.

Announcement of Food Politics Conference

crunchy-quinoa-biscuitMy housemates and I, who make up the Toad Lane Vegan Cooperative, will host a conference on March 20th, 2010 entitled “Free Food! Interrogating Perception, Choice and Progress in the Liberation of our Food Supply”. What we hope to achieve by this is a kind of cultural mixing between the vegan and academic community, to bring up food ethics issues in academia, and to bring more rigorous argument to the vegan community. Everyone is welcome to submit abstracts or presentation proposals (approx 20 min in length) – and since we are hosting it at home, you can feel free to make use of a real kitchen in your presentation. The due date for proposals is January 15th, and you can send them to toad.lane.vegan.cooperative@gmail.com, or directly to me at tristan.laing@gmail.com

I’ve started a blog specifically dedicated to the conference here, where you can view the call for papers in its entirety, including suggested topics.

On Rememberance Day

On Remembrance Day we are expected to honour soldiers. Soldiers who made individual sacrifices, for the sake of us – so that we can partake in the value(s) they defended. This is what is asked of us “in return” for their “gift”.

But is this demand without political, contemporary interest? Are we expected to value the soldier’s sacrifice for the soldier’s sake – or is there another purpose, another goal in step with this demand to honour individual sacrifice?

First, what is it exactly that we valourize in a soldier’s sacrifice? We honour the following of orders, the putting-oneself-in-harms-way which is demanded by officers, generals – who do not (or only contingently) put themselves in harms way. This is certainly something expected of soldiers – but is something being hidden, something essential about soldiering covered over by this kind of honour?

soldiers-marchesWe expect soldiers to use their personal private reason to evaluate the moral status of their actions. This is the consequence of the Nuremberg decision – in order to prosecute Nazi’s for participating in war crimes, they must be held responsible for their actions – one’s responsibility cannot be eluded by the argument that one was simply “following orders”.

We could valourize soldiers for this personal decision – for the ability of soldiers in the Second World War to see the rightness of their cause, and the potential soldiers in the Vietnam war to see the wrongness of it. If we honoured soldiers for their personal decision, we would respect draft dodgers as much as war heroes – because they gave up their rights (their right to citizenship – ironically the same right deprived of Jews in the 3rd Reich and which contributed to the rightness of the war against that empire), Remembrance day could not be used as a ceremony that glorifies war, the army, and the inherent rightness of whatever cause our State endorses.

cadetsLast year on Remembrance day I saw the military parade marching along Bloor street. In the front, the Canadian Scottish honour guard, complete with kilts and pipes. They marched in perfect harmony. Behind, the “real army” – adult troops, battle hardened. Marching in unison, but not the perfect unison of the honour guard – more a pragmatic, useful unison. Behind them – the cadets. Behind the other regiments both in age and discipline, their not-having-been-to-basic-training was apparent – they could not approximate the order – either perfect or pragmatic – of the first two regiments. What was the symbolic order of this march? On one level at least: the perfection of the symbolic army (honour guard) brings along, justifies, glorifies, the real army (destruction, murder, blood), and inspires the future army (children, the Hitler Youth, etc…) The amazing thing about this march is how literal the representation allowed itself to be: you could actually see the lives to be given up, straggling on behind, while they are dragged along by the iconic perfection of the kilts and pipes.

It is interesting that the only value the soldier’s are thanked for fighting for is “freedom”. Freedom, one could argue, means something quite different now as it meant during the 2nd war – freedom now means not so much freedom to choose your political affiliation, or your way of life, so much as your freedom to choose between the products capitalism gives you to select. There are other values people flight for, such as self-determination. Self-determination is an interesting value since it is key to Woodrow Wilson’s rhetorical intervention in conclusion to the first Great war, and it continuous to be selectively applied to American foreign policy as a justification when convenient, and ignored when inconvenient (such as America’s consistent voting record against U.N. general assembly resolutions in favour of self-determination for the Palestinian people).

I wonder how a society without hypocrisy would celebrate remembrance day? I believe Obama’s Remembrance day speech, in which he has (apparently) said that “If there is a God, he does not celebrate today” can be a clue for us here. Perhaps we, like Obama’s God, would not celebrate. What do I mean by this? Certainly not that we forget the veterans, that we not mourn their passing or thank them for their personal sacrifice for those who went to war, and their courage in the face of officers who would have them commit war crimes in the case of those who in their situation chose rightly not to. Rather that we would find no cause for celebration in this mourning, no way of turning this mourning, this thanks, into a celebration of the state or a glorification of the politics of their struggle. A society without hypocrisy would honour, but not glorify their courage, lest that glorification be used to justify needless conflicts, needless bloodshed, needless sacrifice.

Obscure Band Showcase: Part 3 of 3 – Emilie Mover


Emilie Mover is a singer songwriter in Toronto, Ontario. I met her in 2004 when I first moved to Toronto, and was immediately enraptured by her sad, magical songs. I was at the Tranzac for the release of her first record, Good Shake Nice Gloves. Since then she’s released a new album – also entitled Good Shake Nice Gloves. She’s big and famous now – she even has one of her songs in a Sears Commercial! But the real proof that she’s hit the big time – when you search her name on youtube you get clips of young girls covering her songs!

Last night I was lucky enough to see Emilie play the Drake Hotel on Queen Street in Toronto. She played beautifully, but unfortunately it was only a short set. If you become a fan of her on facebook you will hear about her shows.

People in Toronto can catch her at the Tranzac tommorow at 8pm.