It’s impossible

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report (August 2019, “Climate Change and Land”) doesn’t come right out and say it, but the authors make a great show of dancing around the ethical mandate of the vegan lifestyle. Like the documentaries that pushed a wave of Americans into a new diet and new way of thinking about, e.g., carbon footprints and water conservation, this new IPCC report serves the purposes of laying bare what most of know is the underlying truth: It’s meat and dairy—and the attendant industry—that’s blocking the road to a harmonious future on this planet. I mean that on an individual level and in the sense that our self-aware species needs to consider the long game. I point to Americans in the specific here only because that’s where I’m coming from and—who are we kidding?—the U.S. marketplace is the scaffolding around our scourge. America’s diet is a calamity.

There’s more to it than that, but what a simple target! What a clear shot at a clarion call!

And yet.

“We don’t want to tell people what to eat,” says Hans-Otto Pörtner, an ecologist who co-chairs the IPCC’s working group on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. “But it would indeed be beneficial, for both climate and human health, if people in many rich countries consumed less meat, and if politics would create appropriate incentives to that effect.”

It’s impossible now to debate the social and environmental merits of a vegan diet. You take away the demand for meat, and you dismantle the livestock industry. You take away the demand for cheese, and you dismantle the dairy industry. (Being a bit reductive here.) Then, suddenly, you free up an immense amount of land, worldwide, that was once used for soybean and corn cultivation to feed those animals that we’d been ravenously eating. At that point, moving along now, in the perceivable future, you can set about a new mode of agriculture. Diminish the overall necessity for farmland, and let the natural Earth get back to growing itself. Let food chains revitalize themselves. We’ll have more than we’ll need for our ongoing crisis of world hunger among us humans; let the plants and the plains grow back to feed our animal neighbors.

Only then, as this line of thinking goes, will we have done anything meaningful to restore the health of the environment on a global scale. It all starts with letting go of the tired idea of “animals as food,” of “animals as lesser than humans.” Real novel shit.

Why is this so hard? That is one of the great and mindless questions of the 21st century, now that we’re forced through our own ignorance to reckon with it.

…The other reason that the animals-as-food debate is impossible is because it isn’t happening anywhere in mainstream civilized society. Nowhere! You ever notice that? So, with this opportunity, why does the IPCC report not just put its foot down with all the weight of scientific authority and say: Stop eating animals! Stop eating animals!

Burger King added the Impossible Burger to its menus across the U.S. last week. I follow a lot of vegan and vegetarian blogs/Facebook groups, unfortunately, and I was simply astonished at the rapacious obsession that this news engendered among the very crowd that would seem like the most receptive audience for the IPCC report. It’s a move toward the very direction I’m getting at here, but the ejaculatory praise seemed misplaced, right? People were falling over themselves to get in line at the nearest Burger King drive-thru (after calling ahead, of course, and making a great production of it online, or asking inane questions on Facebook to make sure that certain locations hadn’t yet sold out of this precious nectar). People who’d seemingly committed themselves already—done the hard mental gymnastics!—were going apeshit over soy-protein concentrate fashioned into the old, familiar friend to all: the Whopper. The Impossible Whopper.

“Getting mine now!!” gushed one Northeast Ohio resident in the “Vegans and Vegetarians of Cleveland, Ohio” Facebook group. “Had mine with a nice 2007 Bordeaux,” wrote another, improbably.

At a Midtown Burger King, an “Impossible Whopper-themed photo booth” beckoned satisfied defenders of the planet.

The real event, then, seems not part of a grander narrative about food security and environmental health. No, the plant-based meat story, which stretches far beyond Burger King, has more to do with the stories we tell ourselves about who we are in relation to others. Much like the act of photography has become the more visceral goal than the photography itself, the idea of the vegan identity has become more visceral than the ethos behind it. It’s important to be seen ordering and eating plant-based meat products. It’s vital to tell others that you’ve had that experience.

For the fast food and grocery conglomerates? It is something to be co-opted, something outside of the present moment. A story. It can be taken up for specific purposes by a fast food business or a thirty-something looking for some way to explain what it’s like to live in a society with other human beings who also like hamburgers. It’s a device, in other words.

“Save some for all of us!!!”

“So jealous mine aren’t starting until tomorrow :(”

On face value, yes, it is an important mass media step toward the solution that many have suggested when confronting irredeemable climate change. But doesn’t the viral success of the Impossible Whopper and the regular-ass Impossible Burger (sold at select grocers) presuppose profits for multi-billion-dollar companies that otherwise dish out unhealthy fries and carb-rich Caesar salads at best? Burger King and its contemporaries are the villains in the climate change narrative—or, at least, a glaring and obvious portion of the horrific enemy of the planetary environment. Burger King is not to be celebrated for this savvy marketing move. Hasn’t the company’s stance been clear for the past few decades?

Well, I got myself an Impossible Whopper one night. Had to. For journalistic purposes. Of course, it was a clumsier moment that it would seem. Asking for an item called “The Impossible Whopper” through a funky speaker system is not an enjoyable process. Syllables get mangled. You’ve got to ask for a branded product, rather than a particular kind of food, and you’ve got to yell it at a disembodied voice. That said, I’d just seen Chuck Klosterman talk about the downfall of rock ‘n’ roll at a suburban library. There might not have been a more perfect moment to experiment with the 21st century’s cuisine.

Taste-wise, it was… fine. I’d picked up a few of these plant-based burgers from Whole Foods back in 2017 when they started really getting batshit popular with the social media crowd. Whether it was the Impossible Burger itself, I’ve got no clue. But I’d eaten the stuff before, and I just can’t say I was impressed then or now. It’s an odd behavioral tic to want the taste and texture of a burger so bad that you’ve got to resort to pea protein isolate. If you’re in the headspace of environmental sanctity or animal rights protection or whatever, what’s there to like in a burger simulacrum? Whether it tastes like a burger or not (and, sure, the Impossible Whopper mimics the regular-ass Whopper pretty well) doesn’t seem like an argument that’s relevant in the first place. It’s a cop-out. A distraction from the conversation that first got us talking about plant-based “meat,” the sort of global public discourse the IPCC is tickling in 2019. But being seeing having that conversation isn’t as important as partaking in the sensation of the day, the impossible ecstasy of corporate braggadocio.


There and gone again

There are as many as 22 (and as few as six) vaquitas left in the world, according to the Porpoise Conservation Society back in May. By the end of the year⁠—who knows?

Pacific Standard, which published this 2018 feature on vaquita extinction and which until yesterday was one of the most vibrant spaces for longform narrative, well, Pacific Standard is apparently being forced to shut down.

I didn’t know anything about vaquitas before I read this story, and, suddenly, they’re out the door, piling into the family car and cruising off to the mournful, ethereal past.

We had a lot to do with it. The great, collapsing entirety of it.

From Russia with love

He used FaceApp, sure. It seemed harmless enough. And it was fun to see an older version of himself staring back from the screen. He felt in touch with some deeper layer of his identity. He felt that he could see mistakes he hadn’t yet made—and learn from them.

Then he FaceApp’d his elder image. He FaceApp’d himself again and again, producing contorted carbon copies of great-grandfatherly incarnations. His face disappeared into folds of time and liver spots. His silver eyes drooped below the crag of his nose. The computer began to sag under the pressure of it all. He continued the overlapping FaceApp experiment through the night and realized with a start that a whole week had passed by. He was starving. The face was detached from written history, a blur of centuries and atavistic yearning.

“If this is really me in there,” he thought, “then who am I?”

When his boss sent the summer interns over to make sure everything was alright, he was gone. They found the computer toppled on its side in the dining room, belching infinite lines of binary code on a cracked screen. The room stunk of sulfur and rotting kudzu vines.

One kid, a junior from Ball State, snapped a picture of the strange tableau for his Instagram followers. They need to see this, he told the others. I need to show them how the story begins.


Believe it or not, 311 has a new album out today. Whether it’s any good is hard to say at this point; the apparent “Crossfire” scandal has pretty much ruined the event for me.

But what makes an album “any good”?

Why is it important to write about 311?

The band rests at the very gravitational core of my life, intrinsically linked to my zig-zag conception of what it means to build a world. I’ve gone here, I’ve gone there. Chapters in a story. The future emerges from an unknowable ether. All along, 311’s been with me.

I remember listening to Soundsystem in my friend’s mom’s van, trundling between Little League baseball and Tangletown. Developing the strands of hazy memory that make a childhood. The local pool. A Fender Strat propped up against the wall. CKY videos on a loop, forever.

Why write about music at all?

Maybe it’s a different band in your universe. Maybe it’s Shania Twain. Hopefully you’ve got a few whose music walks with you. Hopefully you’re not lonely.

The band is not infallible, no, obviously. That would be a lie. (One of the lyrics on the new album is actually, “Smoking that good weed, getting high, we are stoners on a highway with all of our friends.”) But it’s like watching the ripples made by a rock thrown into the lake. In a certain light, you wouldn’t consider it to be poorly rippling water, right?

If you look fast—don’t miss it!—you’ll see how much can happen in the course of a life, a cosmic splash, growing from a babbling/wriggling baby in the crib, walking from here to there and stumbling serenely onto the joy of it all with every passing moment.


Down on Willey Avenue

You can always say you were “just going to look.” You can even tell yourself that this was the case, years later, only half-joking, but you know that the plan was set in motion long before you and your girlfriend, now your fiancée, got in the car and trundled down to the Animal Protective League to see about a dog. It was a Saturday morning. Partly cloudy.

He perches watchfully on the windowsill. He tracks the afternoon traffic of West 6th Street down below, birds alighting on lampposts and tall pedestrians skittering between work and play. Clouds hang thinly at eye level. A broad windowsill decorated with houseplants and pillows and the hound himself. Forrest. You named him after another dog, the Forrest you read about in the paper. He’s part of a lineage of something you’ll never completely understand.

You walk into the howling den of wiry cages, the both of you, and look each dog in the eye. They’re afraid, angry, unsettled, anxiety-ridden and scattered. Gawky, furry. Canine psyches stretched to an uneasy breaking point in a low-slung building on Willey Avenue. It’s clamorous in here, and they keep running up against thin steel bars and jutting great jaws against the possibilities of a future with you. Maybe today’s the day! Maybe we’re going home!

He’s waiting one aisle over. Alone.

There’s a spot at the dog park, right beneath the ramp, where he digs a little hole each time you bring him to play. He contributes his ideas, puts in his time at the shop; every dog sort of takes his or her turn, digging, scraping at the pebbles and the dirt, tossing debris to the wind. It is an ongoing project. The project is the ongoingness of the thing. The goal is the continuation of something that never ends.

When another dog walks by, down along the crooked riverbank, he stands at the fence, alert. He sees a friend. Everyone’s a friend.

He whimpers. Head down. He paws gently at the cage. Whether it’s shame or not, you can’t tell. Boy’s got the blues, alright. He was adopted by a family three months back, you learn, later, when you’re out in the lobby asking about him. The name on the card is Capone. The family called him Chance. They brought him back three days ago. Returned to the shelter. What if the two of you had come last week?

What if you’d waited to go have a look?

Sleeps in your bed. Of course he sleeps in your bed. Most nights, he’ll start out on the couch in the living room. Toys everywhere. He loves the ones that squeak. The louder the better, frankly. Always ends up in the bed, though.

Stretching. Curling. Paws and limbs arranged at odd angles. He snores, too. Barks in his sleep. Runs in his sleep. Stretching. Curling.

They bring him out to you and your girlfriend. You’re in a little room off to the side of the place. A few tennis balls and ropes on the floor. How’s this gonna go? What are we doing here?

He likes the postal carrier, the sparrows, the denim-clad herd that rides motorcycles through the city. He likes the movement of life. He likes the sun. He likes walking with you two. The park around the corner, the one with the statue of Jesse Owens. He barks at the statue. Why’s that man standing so still? Shouldn’t he be moving like me?

Everything moves.

He loves car rides. There’s always a past and a future, and isn’t that the point? Sunbathing in the backseat.

You’re waiting, but you already know how the stories goes. The narrative advances. The projector clicks.

There’s the park down by the lake, the one with the big willow tree and the rocks. Low waves crashing. Gulls overhead. He loves the gulls. And the fish in the sand. The smells. The atmospheric spray. You walk along the beach together, you and her and him. The family.

“He loves love,” you say to her.

He’s bounding into the room now, proceeds to sniff the walls, the corners, the chairs. He’s casing the joint. Getting a read on you. Could be another false start.

You pick up a red tennis ball.

Back at the dog park, another day. Click. He’s running with his friends. Playing a game, playing at something unseen. A ballet of dogs. You get the sense that this is what freedom looks like, if it looks like anything at all.

He’s feeling you out. He chases the ball, sniffs the floor, comes back and sniffs your shoes.

The only direction in life is forward. Flowing forward into the present, a verdant river emerging from the unknown fog before you. Time collapses in reverse.

There’s a picture of you and him. Smiling. He’s looking up at you. Just a Saturday morning in a little room at the animal shelter. Down on Willey Avenue. Partly cloudy, the morning charged with brisk energy. Smiling. You only went to look. Sure, but this was always the plan.

Running in circles now. Doggy grin a mile wide.

The state of the state

“People had hoped to be caught up in something bigger than themselves. They thought it would be a shared crisis. They would feel a sense of shared purpose, shared destiny. Like a snowstorm that blankets a large city – but lasting months, lasting years, carrying everyone along, creating fellow feeling where there was only suspicion and fear. The war would ennoble everything we say and do. What was impersonal would become personal. What was solitary would be shared. But what happens when the sense of shared crisis begins to dwindle much sooner than anyone expected? We begin to think the feeling lasts longer in snowstorms.”

Don DeLillo, “Human Moments in World War III”