art, China, development, environment

Phantom Landscapes: Wherein China’s built environment overtakes the natural one

A few years ago, the China Environmental Protection Foundation worked with advertising firm J Walter Thompson’s Shanghai office on an anti-pollution campaign featuring the work of Shanghai artist Yang Yongliang. Certainly the message here is as relevant today as it was in 2009.

(Click to enlarge)

A couple of the images appear to be from a series Yang calls Phantom Landscape II. While the work here takes off from the old shan shui style of landscape painting (shan means mountain, shui water), I believe these are digital creations. In any case, shan shui is one of the most evocative styles around, and Yang’s take on it is a lot of fun to look at. You can see more at his website.

Below: From a completely different series, A Bowl of Taipei 1
Image of mountains in a bowl by Yang Yongliang.

Photo of Pacifica Pier.
earth, environment

A Coast Process

All of California may not one day fall into the ocean, but right now, parts of it do.

Erosion occurs all along the coast. Every ocean wave pounds on the bluffs and scours the beaches.

Pictured above is the Pacifica Municipal Pier.

It’s shaped like an “L” — you can see that it makes a right turn toward the end. It’s 1,140 feet long. When you’re on the pier, you can look far north or south, depending on the fog. Here’s a view to the north on a clear, windy day.


Along this stretch of Pacifica, there’s a seawall protecting the buildings along the coast. If not for this kind of coastal “armoring” as it’s generally called, the waves you see in this photo would tear up the cliff and the houses would fall in. The wall itself needs some protecting, which is why there are so many rocks—called riprap—piled at the base.

Something that’s missing here is a beach.

There’s a trade-off involved when you armor a coast, and what tends to be lost are things like beaches (by interrupting replenishment from sediments upstream) and coastal access. I learned much of this first-hand, and got a Pacifica tour in the process, from coastal experts Bob Battalio and David Revell at Philip Williams & Associates.

I interviewed them for a feature that’s just come out for Terrain Magazine. The story, A Rising Tide, looks at the potential effects of sea-level rise in Northern California. What’s in store? Increased erosion along some parts of the California coast–which will probably inspire even more armoring–and in some low-lying areas, increased flooding risk. The single hardest hit area? San Francisco Bay.

Here, for example, some of the new flooding risks by 2100 at predicted sea-level-rise rates along San Francisco’s Embarcadero, the baseball park, Mission Bay, and Treasure Island.


You can download the whole report on the Pacific Institute’s web site. If you want to see the technical report covering coastal erosion created by Revell, Battalio, and their colleagues, you can download it from the PWA site.

My thanks to all I talked to for this story. In particular, Battalio and Revell were articulate, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable—in other words, perfect sources. Revell drove a truck and Battalio a mini-van to our meeting in Pacifica; in back were more than enough surfboards to go around.

Story: A RISING TIDE: As sea level creeps higher, what’s next for California’s coasts?
Terrain Magazine
Summer 2009

China, environment, publictransport

The Beijing Underground; and Meltdown Live

Roving China correspondent Josh Chin has filed a brief video report with the Wall Street Journal on Beijing’s growing transit system. It’s done well, and for being just a few minutes long, feels awfully comprehensive. My favorite is this Chinese kid who grew up in Switzerland and in documenting the entire subway system online.

And if you’re online right now, and interested in such things, you can watch a live stream of Meltdown: The Impact of Climate Change on the Tibetan Plateau, hosted by the Asia Society and chinadiaologue, by visiting the society’s main webpage. Here is the day’s schedule, all times Eastern Standard:

8:00 am: Registration and Coffee

8:45 am: Welcome (Webcast begins)

9:00 am: Tibet on Film

* Michael Zhao, Center on US-China Relations
* David Breashears, Arcturus Pictures

10:00 am: Himalayan Meltdown

* Lonnie Thompson, School of Earth Sciences, Ohio State University
* Yao Tandon, Chinese Academy of Sciences

11:30 am: Plateau Survival

* Emily Yeh, University of Colorado, Boulder
* Daniel Miller, US Agency for International Development, New Delhi
* Yonten Nyima, University of Colorado, Boulder
* Julia Klein, Colorado State University

1:00 – 1:45 pm: Break

1:45 pm: A Region at Risk

* Saleemul Huq, Climate Change Group, International Institute for Environment and Development
* Katherine Morton, Department of International Relations, Australian National University
* Lara Hansen, WWF Global Climate Change Program

3:00 pm: Organizer Remarks

* Robert Barnett, Modern Tibetan Studies, Columbia University
* Elizabeth Economy, Council on Foreign Relations
* Isabel Hilton, chinadialogue
* Orville Schell, Asia Society Center on US-China Relations

4:00 pm: Afternoon Keynote Address

* Rajendra Pachauri, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Nobel Laureate

5:00 pm: Closing Reception

(If you have a Mac, you may need to install the latest version of the Flip4Mac plugin to watch the webcast. Check Flip4Mac in your system preferences to see if you need an update, or just click this link to download.)

China, environment, multimedia

China Green

The Asia Society’s Center on U.S.–China Relations recently published China Green, a multimedia site that will highlight stories of China’s environment. Its initial set of videos and images focus on how climate change is affecting the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayas, which host the headwaters of most of Asia’s major rivers.

screenshot of China Green website

The Asia Society took its first leap into multimedia and China’s environment last year with its Clearing the Air website, which introduced viewers to the environmental challenges—especially regarding air pollution—that China faces. The most compelling feature of that site is the calendar showing Beijing’s shifting air quality, Room With A View. The calendar is continually updated, its most recent image being of a clear blue sky on Monday, January 12:

image of beijing air

While visiting China Green, be sure to try using the interactive timelines comparing photos of Himalayan glaciers several decades ago with glaciers today. You’ll see what I mean on the opening page of China Green, as it shows the time-lapse loss of the Rongbuk Glacier. And if you know that you’ll be in New York City on January 16th, check out the Asia Society symposium Meltdown: The Impact of Climate Change on the Tibetan Plateau. [Update] If you can’t make it, the Asia Society will stream a live webcast of the event on its site that day.

Disclosure: China Green was produced by people I consider friends and colleagues. I’d like to especially point out the work of Michael Zhao, who has done a great amount of work in both multimedia and China’s relationship with the environment. A notable example of the combination of those being his look at the importation and processing of electronic waste in China, the first coverage of any depth I’ve seen on the subject.


Remembering Winter

I saw Fargo for the first time this weekend. True.

It reminded me about winter, and snow, and ice, all of which I lived with for many years, in Alaska, New Hampshire, Maine, South Dakota, and Nebraska. Sometimes North Texas.

But here near the coast of California, winter means rain. And there’s even been less of that, recently.

Anyway, hay bales in Decatur County, Kansas. February 2007.
hay in decatur county, kansas

environment, irony

The McDonough Reappraisal

Conversations I’ve had about my work on the Huangbaiyu story almost always include a moment of surprise. In a conversation with a Los Angeles Times technology reporter last winter, for example, I explained the story of the failed attempt to create an eco-village in rural China, and the reporter interrupted me: “Have you ever heard of Bill McDonough? He’s got a lot of really good ideas.”

I explained to her that it was McDonough who inspired and led the effort, putting his name, his philosophy, and his staff to work on the project. She was surprised. It usually takes people a couple of seconds to work through the cognitive dissonance between all the star-studded adulation that surrounds McDonough and the reality that the Huangbaiyu project, at least, is a failure by its own standards.

A couple of months after publishing the piece, I was contacted by Fast Company about working on something related. There was some contractual stuff with Dwell that kept me from moving on this, but staff writer Danielle Sacks went ahead. And she did a remarkable job.

In the new Fast Company, you can read her take-down of McDonough, a sometimes sympathetic corrective to the perception of how he works and what it is, exactly, that he does. The section on Huangbaiyu is a point-by-point reiteration of my report, which was greatly informed by Shannon May’s research. Since this is my own humble blog, I’ll take this opportunity to point out that I’m the one who discovered that Huangbaiyu had been scrubbed from McDonough’s site, one of the fruits of my investigation. [Update: Shannon and I each discovered this independently.]

It should be noted that I had a few conversations about my story in which the people with whom I talked expressed no surprise whatsoever that the project failed, or that McDonough was involved. As a result, I had been keeping tabs on some of McDonough’s questionable endeavors, and a couple made it into her piece. The story is called Green Guru Gone Wrong.

Architecture, environment, international

Speaking in Boston, visiting NYC, NH, next month.

On November 18th, I’ll be one of the featured speakers at GreenBuild’s International Forum. GreenBuild is the US Green Building Council’s annual convention and expo. If you’ve heard of USGBC, it’s probably in relation to its work in administering LEED building standards for sustainable design. This year, Greenbuild is supposed to draw about 25,000 attendees to the Hub of the Universe.

I’ll be talking about my Frontline/World and Dwell pieces on Huangbaiyu, a Chinese village once slated to become a “Cradle to Cradle” village and a model of sustainable design. I’ll be on stage with the editor of Architectural Record and a developer who has created a green community in Victoria, B.C.

The conference is from the 18th to the 21st of November. Before that, I’m hoping to make it back to New Hampshire and Vermont, which I’ve not been to for many years. And after, I plan to head straight to New York City. If you’ll be in any of those places around then, let me know. That is, if you don’t hear from me first as I scrounge for spare rooms and open couches.

Here’s the schedule for the International Forum, which I think is $50 to attend.

Date: Tuesday, November 18, 2008 10:00am – 5:30pm
Location: Boston Convention & Exhibit Center
Theme: Building Tomorrow: New Communities and Cities

Building a sustainable community
Interact with international experts in sustainable development who will showcase projects from both developed and developing countries – from redevelopment of decaying urban areas to the creation of new cities in the desert. These experts will discuss their approaches and lessons learned in design, construction, and operation, in the context of climate change reduction strategies, resource conservation, and the rebuilding of the social fabric of communities.

Hosted by USGBC, WGBC, and iiSBE, the Greenbuild International Forum is a unique opportunity to join a group of international experts and delegates in a discussion of experience and lessons from around the globe and to build contacts for working together after Greenbuild.

Emcee: Tony Arnel, Chairman, World Green Building Council


10:00am – 10:15am: Intro: Rick Fedrizzi, CEO U.S. Green Building Council, and Tony Arnel,
Chairman, World Green Building Council

10:15am – 11:00am: Opening Keynote: Governor Christine Todd Whitman

11:00am – 12:00pm: Session 1, New Community Interview Panel
-Dockside Green, City of Victoria, Canada: Joe VanBelleghem
-Village of Huangbaiyu, China: Timothy Lesle
-Interviewer: Bob Ivy, Editor-In-Chief, Architectural Record and GreenSource

12:00pm – 1:30pm: Lunch

1:30pm – 2:15pm: Session 2, New City Spotlight Interview
-New Songdo City, Korea: John Hynes, CEO Gale International
-Interviewer: Bob Ivy, Editor-In-Chief, Architectural Record and GreenSource

2:15pm – 4:00pm: Session 3, New Cities Panel Presentation
-Beijing Olympic Village, China: Ken Langer
-Nahkeel/Dubai: Dr. Rula Sadik
-Pedra Branca Community (Brazil): Valério Gomes
-Deutsche Bank (Germany): Holger Hagge

4:00pm – 4:30pm: Networking Tea and Coffee Break

4:30pm – 5:30pm: Closing

environment, movies

Watch This Movie: Up the Yangtze

Although the flooding is near completion–the last city to be inundated is going under this fall–the consequences of China’s Three Gorges Dam will shudder through generations.

But that’s a big story, and big stories are hard to tell well. One way is to find a character, a family, a community, and to show how the big story reverberates on the smallest level. The Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang has found Yu Shui, her family, and a floating tourist ship offering Farewell Tours to the gorges, and through them he shows us some of those consequences in Up the Yangtze, his first feature-length documentary.

What we come away with is a multi-layered portrait of modern China, one whose brief moves beyond the dam and, in a series of subtle strokes, illuminates the conflict and paradox that define life for hundreds of millions. The strands are numerous and finely woven together: urban vs. rural, ambition, ownership, education, migration, resource allocation, and the uncomfortable relationship between Westerners and Chinese.

It’s worth noting that the dam has put people in uncomfortable situations since before it was built, such as when the People’s Congress passed a resolution in its favor in 1992. In that vote, fully a third of the congress either voted against or abstained from supporting the already controversial project, notable results from a body that is often dismissed as a rubber stamp.

I’ll grant that my perspective and enthusiasm is colored by my own limited experience in rural China, where many of the same themes I listed earlier are evident. But you can leave behind the political and social lens and enjoy the documentary for any number of other features, including the incredible cinematography, the intimate portrayal of family dynamics, and fleeting moments that are visually stunning and yet heartbreaking or frustrating.

I missed the film when it was in theaters this summer, but was lucky to catch it on PBS, where it screened as part of the POV series. You should now be able to watch it on DVD. In the meantime, here’s the trailer:

[Photo by Jonathan Chang]

anticipation, energy, environment, science

Hydrogen. (What’s not to like?)

This summer I interviewed Kristie Boering, a professor of atmospheric chemistry at UC Berkeley. We talked about the potential environmental side effects of moving to a hydrogen economy. Our discussion, boiled down to about 800 words, is in the current issue of California magazine. Boering is incredibly articulate, and I learned a lot in the process.

If we were to go to a hydrogen fuel cell economy and we produce a lot of hydrogen, and some fraction escapes (because it’s notoriously difficult to contain that small molecule), then we might see emissions equal to or greater than what’s produced naturally. Because it’s such a reactive gas…that could change the balance of chemistry in our atmosphere.

You can read it here.

China, environment, irony

Olympics Preview in Bay Area

Here’s my backyard on Thursday morning.

my backyard june 26, 2008

The roses are blooming. There’s a nice, warm light here. But what is it about this air that’s so familiar?

Take a look at the government’s air forecast map for this weekend:
air quality prediction for united states on june 28, 2008

California doesn’t look too good. All those little fire icons are making the air here “moderate,” at best, “very unhealthy,” at worst.

There are more than a thousand wildfires burning in California, and they are filling the place up with smoke. The smoke makes the light flattering, in its way, diffusing sunlight during the high contrast afternoon hours and making the magic hour light at sunset and sunrise even more attractive. The roses look better than ever.

There is a trade-off, I suppose. The regional air quality management agency is warning us not to do anything outside (here’s a PDF of its latest health advisory). People have irritated eyes and throats. That’s familiar, too.

The air these days seems as bad as Beijing’s. That’s what I’m reminded of. I hope to get back to China, soon. Until then, I guess we’ve got a taste of China here.

Our athletes should consider training out here in California, just to see how they might perform in Beijing. We’ve got an atmospheric preview of what many expect in August, and you don’t even have to cross the Pacific.

If the air quality board is still concerned for our health, they might consider contacting Beijing’s Weather Modification Office for advice.

A couple of blogs help to put Chinese air pollution in context relative to the U.S. and other countries. The Beijing Air Blog notes that air quality indices in China and the U.S. are roughly the same, numerically, but are not categorized similarly on a qualitative level (I’m looking for the SEPA standards to confirm). For example, unhealthy air in the U.S. is “lightly polluted” in China. Another site,, with the charming tagline “living in China despite the pollution,” displays Beijing’s air quality in the header, and you can click a menu to see how that would rate in other cities. A Good air day in Beijing still counts as a Very Bad day in Paris.

I’ve seen a lot of blue skies in China. Maybe I simply noticed them more since my expectations were so grim. During my last couple of days in Beijing in August, everyone noted that we were enjoying unusually clear weather. Driving through Shanxi, full of coal mines and power plants, the gray-blue skies could be oppressive, but one of the locals told us that air quality had improved a great deal over the last five years. The sky, he said, used to be black.

I remember my first few moments in Beijing: the acrid smell and the view, composed mainly of my plane and the soupy gray-brown air that blocked out everything else. It looked like this:

view of air pollution at Beijing airport

China, disaster, earth, environment, international, unfortunate

Heavy Weather in Sichuan

Gray skies are a common feature of many photos coming from Sichuan. Word is that it’s been raining.

The destruction that follows an earthquake’s shaking is often the result of fire. San Francisco in 1906 is the classic example: in much of the city, whatever the shaking didn’t break later went up in flames.  The risk exists today: imagine the consequences of dense development, broken gas mains, and exposed electrical lines or errant sparks (one of the 1906 fires was the “ham and eggs” fire, supposedly started by a family cooking breakfast). Then throw in some broken water mains and a dry season. That’s it.

Right now, it’s not a dry season in Sichuan, and no word of fire has come out. That’s a good thing. The steep-sided topography would tend to promote the spread of fires. If there were fires, it’s possible that the rain could be helpful.

But the rain can also be harmful in sloped regions like this one. An earthquake as large as this would shake a lot of stuff loose, creating landslides–and by all accounts it has. But this can be intensified if the ground is saturated rather than dry. If the rain continues, along with aftershocks, the people of Sichuan are in a precarious position–in danger both from shaking below and landslides above. David Petley, a geography professor at Durham University, predicts a bad landslide summer in Sichuan. He highlights the photo below, from Xinhua, as showing landslides. You can see the evidence, those patches of fresh earth on the mountain sides. More photos at his site.

Xinhua photos indicating extent of landslides.

And now there is talk of another cyclone hitting Burma.

China, corruption, crime, development, disaster, earth, environment, geography, international, life, lost, unfortunate

An Unquiet Earth

Hard times around the globe these days. Earthquake in China. Cyclone in Burma. Tornados in the U.S. An enormous volcano on the verge of collapse in Chile.

Over the past several months, I’ve been working on a story about a possible earthquake here in the Bay Area. One thing I’ve learned is starkly visible in Sichuan right now: When an earthquake strikes, it’s not the earth that kills you. It’s everything else around you.

In the short term, this typically means buildings.* In China, construction quality will be a part of the discussion about what happened. Corrupt developers, local officials, and cut corners should come as no surprise–I’ve seen alleged evidence of it firsthand. The Guardian covers that angle. As one angry parent told a reporter:

“These buildings outside have been here for 20 years and didn’t collapse – the school was only 10 years old. They took the money from investment, so they took the lives of hundreds of kids. They have money for prostitutes and second wives but they don’t have money for our children. This is not a natural disaster – this is done by humans.”

In China, some call it “tofu” building. Or, as Josh Chin notes:

“Toufu dregs”-style construction (豆腐渣工程) has long been a source of public anger in China, and a potent symbol of corruption at the local level. (Witness the fuming controversy over shoddy electric poles during this winter’s freak snow storms in the south.) And now it appears the widespread practice whereby officials and developers profit through architectural corner-cutting may have cost a few extra tens of thousands of lives.

An erupting volcano can kill–namely through a phenomenon known as a pyroclastic flow. Cyclone Nargis was accompanied by a storm surge–this is what caused much of the destruction in the Irrawaddy Delta. But that damage was magnified by the loss of mangrove forests, which provide some resistance to these forces. The mangroves have been cut away to make room for development. This time, the initial round of damage was increased not by what humans have built, but by what they’ve taken away. And in Burma, human intention contributes to the continued suffering.

Boulder in the city of Mianyang, Sichuan. Kyodo News.*Update: Robert Siegel reports that the village of Gui Xi, in a steep-sided valley, was heavily damaged by displaced boulders and large landslides. (The photo at left, by Kyodo News, is from the city of Mianyan, Sichuan.) The most vivid and gripping English-language reporting from Sichuan is coming from NPR. All Things Considered was originally planning to broadcast features from Chengdu next week. When the earthquake struck, they had many resources in place.