Alex Palmer's Natural History Notes and Thoughts

Thoughts and reflections on various social and environmental issues, as well as naturalist observations from the great outdoors.

Environmental Ethics: Should we care on a fun night out?

This past weekend I went to visit some friends in Cleveland, Ohio.  We decided to do something different for a Friday night and go to a new restaurant in the Warehouse District, a night-life hot-spot in downtown with numerous upscale restaurants and bars.

The place we went to was called the Brasa Grill Brazilian Streak, one of many upscale “businesses-casual” restaurants in this ‘up-and-coming’ city district.

The atmosphere was lavish, with a large buffet filled with the highest grade vegetables and dressings.  The restaurant’s key feature were their tall and handsome chefs that would bring out large hunks of freshly cooked meet on a skewer and slice some of the buttery, savory, juice meats onto your plate.  In the meantime, customers could help themselves to soup, salad, and appetizers of the absolute finest quality.  All of this (not including the shiny metallic wine and spirits bar with fine imports) was all-you-can-eat for around $35 per person.  Finally, the crowd was mainly businesses men and women.   I also observed what appeared to be a politician sitting around a large table with everyone squeamishly laughing at his jokes and comments.

As a recent college grad who is used to rowdy bars and lower key coffee shops, this was indeed extraordinary.  Yet as I watched scores of people devour the sliced meat and fish on their plates as they talk about fashion and financial success, I could not help but feel an alarming feeling in my gut.

As I walked around salad buffet encased in spotless class underneath a glimering chandelier, I realized that I did not belong here.   In summary, one could say that this sort of scene was just “not for me.” But my reasons for not liking this place go beyond mere aesthetics and the people present.  Nope, my reasons are more complicated that (much to the dismay of my friends and acquaintances who get to hear me lecture about why I don’t like a place).

I’m thinking that Brasa Grill has two main underlying issues:  (1) a gentrified business approach; and (2) environmentally unfriendly food options.  Allow me to lecture you on each.

I believe that the Brasa Grill is not meant to be a unique restaurant.   Rather, it is a product of urban gentrification, where degraded city neighborhoods are redeveloped to attract middle and upper income people, often at the expense and alienation of lower income residents (Figure 1).  A gentrified restaurant such as Brasa Grill is meant to be high-class, elitist, well furnished, and pricey.  The quality of the food is generally very good, and the service staff is friendly, but overall the establishment as a whole is somewhat austere.  Everything is essentially set up to cater to and “spoil” a higher income crowd with luxuries of all sorts.

 

Figure 1: This neighboorhood in Indianapolis was for a long time run down and dilapidated, occupied mainly by low income people. Recent urban revitalizations here are well intentioned, but follow a model of gentrification by creating expensive shoppes and restaurants inaccessible to most area residents.

Yet by creating an atmosphere that only welcomes upper white-collar people can create a sense of alienation among many other people.  It is well know that most people in the United States fall into a working or middle class income range, and that only a small percentage of American citizens can be truely considered wealthy (if you want to verify my claim, check the U.S. Census Website).  Upscale restaurants in redeveloped urban areas should attempt to diversity their patrons  by appealing to people of all incomes and class.    While this might not seem like the “profitable” way to do businesses, it would be wise to think outside the box and put good ethics to work.

Another consideration, especially for high-end steak houses, is to reexamine the very food they serve.  As the cost and distribution of food increases, foods that take lots of energy and resources to produce are becoming less available and more controversial.  A good example of what I am talking about is meat (pork and beef are common foods at steakhouses).  Meat, in a post 5 billion human population era, is very costly to produce.  Besides looking at dollar signs, a good illustration of the cost of producing large quantities of meat is well illustrated by a fundamental concept in ecology:  the ecosystem energy pyramid.  In order for your fillet mignon (or your McDonald’s double bacon cheeseburger) to reach your plate, it must be distributed to the restaurant or local butcher, which uses many fossil fuels (environmentalists aren’t trying to be obsessive in this manner.  Transportation does use TONS of energy) (see Figure 2C).    This meat is shipped from large cattle and pork farms that must be operating 24 hours per day to maintain sanitation, to give medical care to animals, and to operate machines and buildings (Figure 2B).  In order to feed these animals, thousands (perhaps millions) of corn and other animal feed must be grown, along with irrigation systems, fertilizer, pesticides, soil erosion control, and just general manpower (Figure 2A)  Much energy is used, and sometimes outrightly wasted, to make this all happen (Figure 2D).

 

Figure 2: A simplified energy pyramid for the steak or burger that ends up on your plate, with some of the associated financial, social, and environmental costs. In this hypothetical scenario, (A) it takes 100,000 pounds of goods and products needed to produce (B) 10,000 pounds of goods and products to produce (C)1,000 pounds of goods and products for our consumption. (D) Some of the energy that was wasted is lost as unharvestable heat that escapes into the atmosphere or into space.

Therefore, restaurants and patrons alike should use their brain…yes even on a fun night out.

Unlike most of modern human society, natural ecosystems create and reuse all of its energy with little or no waste heat lost. Ferns growing in the understory of a Northern Hardwood Forest in the Allegheny National Forest. Photo by Andrii Cherniak. July 2010.

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