Monday, November 3, 2008

Memphis Blues

I’m in Memphis for the National Association of Biology Teachers 70th Anniversary convention (October 17).

I have noticed a dearth of two things here. The first is trees. From my 7th floor downtown hotel window, I can see only a faint scattering of green spots dotting an otherwise gray concrete landscape. I realize that cities are not noted for being like lush jungles, but this one is clearly impoverished compared to most cities I’ve seen. Nevertheless, squadrons of pigeons do aerial circuits and alight on roofs; starlings, house sparrows and mockingbirds are commonplace; and quite remarkably, I watched a Cooper’s hawk land on a church cross as the sun set. Also, there is a loose fairy-ring of large white mushrooms on the lawn in front of the nearby Marriott. And the weeds poking through the cracking seams of run-down lots remind me that nature lies waiting to reclaim her turf when we’re done.

The other dearth is of vegetarian and vegan fare at restaurants. Most menus I’ve perused lack even a single vegetarian option. I went with a colleague for lunch at TGI Fridays. There was no veggie-burger available (unlike their menus in Washington, DC), and the waitress patiently sat down with pen and paper to negotiate our requirements. Five animal ingredients (chicken, bacon, cheddar, blue cheese and egg crumbles) were struck from my cob salad. The waitress recommended fried green beans, which came deep fried in a thick batter that oozed oil. The NABT receptions are no better: meat dishes, no vegetarian options.

I attended a plenary lecture by Dr Steve Running, a climate change expert from the University of Montana, and one of the 450-or-so lead authors on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. As Al Gore did in An Inconvenient Truth (see my blog from Sept 2006,, Running didn’t sugar-coat the crisis, and he mentioned several steps to address rising greenhouse gas emissions, such as biking/walking to work, supporting wind power, and addressing human overpopulation. But dismayingly, Running overlooked the enormous contribution of animal agriculture — estimated at 18 percent by his own Nobel-winning Panel. That contribution exceeds the entire global transportation sector, which the IPCC has estimated at 13.5 percent. Speaking to about 700 biology teachers, he missed a huge opportunity to edify a large body of influential citizens. I was prepared to rise and ask why Running missed the boat, but there was no time for questions. Instead, I sent him an email:

… I feel it is imperative that we not skirt this issue given its central role in the problem of climate change and its potential to empower people to take immediate and personal life-style steps to address a problem of global scope. If we don’t take personal responsibility for climate change, then I see little hope for our reversing the grim trends you presented.

… As you are a person of high influence on this issue, I urge you to add the meat and dairy connection to your lectures. People must be made aware of it, and the time is now. I’m hoping you’ll also remind them of the other benefits of plant-based diets — including benefits to human health, lower health care costs, and the relief of cruelty and violence toward animals.

I await his reply (stay tuned).

All is not lost in Memphis. I did find a spot (Bigfoot’s) with a decent veggie-burger, and most servers at least know what “vegan” means. Nor will I soon forget the sight of five adolescent mallards engaging in a game of chase round their circular marble pond in the ornate lobby of the famous Peabody Hotel.