Scholar among Romantics, Romantic among scholars: the multiple lives of poet-explorer-botanist Adalbert von Chamisso

French expat in Germany, Romantic poet, early anti-racist and Pacific-Arctic explorer, he wrote the first-ever book on Hawaiian grammar in 1837, figured out how coral atolls are formed, and Deforest Kelley – Star Trek’s Dr. McCoy – starred in an American TV adaptation of his magical realist novel. Adalbert von Chamisso led one of the most extraordinary lives of all time. His astonshing discoveries in ecology have never been discussed in English until now.

A digression into the history of ecology and colonialism. Usually this blog covers current environmental issues in Germany that should be of interest in any country. But recently I asked Germany’s largest conservation organization for examples of anything good the Berlin administration is doing to protect its rivers and water supply and they said there aren’t any. Hence a look back.

In 2019, when the Moet Hennessey Louis Vuitton conglomerate bought the building housing the Waikiki branch of the First Hawaiian Bank, they were intending to demolish a 100-foot-long mural in it that was painted in 1951 by a French-Mexican artist from the circle of Diego Rivera.

The mural, titled Early Cultural Exchanges Between Hawaii and the Outer World, depicted among other events another French artist in Hawaii, in 1816, painting the only existing portrait from life of King Kamehameha I, the first to unify the Hawaiian islands and Hawaii’s “national” hero. Continue reading “Scholar among Romantics, Romantic among scholars: the multiple lives of poet-explorer-botanist Adalbert von Chamisso”

1982: The climate alarm was sounded in a small German town. Andy Warhol was involved, tangentially – along with the man he thought should be the U.S. president.

(The German version of this post is here.)

On October 20 came the bombshell-but-utterly-unsurprising news that Total, a French oil and gas company similar to Exxon, Shell and BP, has known about the climate crisis since 1971, and covered it up, just like the others did.

A smaller bombshell is my recent discovery, buried in a book from 1982, that an art museum in a small German town was addressing the climate crisis in that year, in a small but substantial way. The story involves Joseph Beuys, arguably the most important European artist since World War II and, oddly enough, Andy Warhol, the closest there is to an American equivalent of Beuys.

Campaign poster by Warhol for the Green Party in Germany (“for the Greens”, 1980); explanation of climate change from a German art museum (1982)

Continue reading “1982: The climate alarm was sounded in a small German town. Andy Warhol was involved, tangentially – along with the man he thought should be the U.S. president.”

No, climate change didn’t “cause 242 deaths” in Europe’s floods

Can we say “we told you so” now? Ignoring ecologists’ warnings about bad land management – along with poor governance and costcutting – caused those deaths at least as much as the climate crisis did.

Last week twice as many people died in floods in one small area in rural Germany than die in the entire U.S. in an average year of floods and hurricanes combined. In the media and the general public the climate crisis is taken to be a primary cause of the disaster and its 242 deaths, 184 of them in Germany. This is factually incorrect.

Although the climate crisis is well on its way to being the biggest environmental catastrophe in human history, in this case it’s being used as a scapegoat to deflect attention away from decades of bad land management, flood planning and disaster preparedness. Germany flagrantly and consistently ignored the most basic principles in these areas, defying the urgent pleas of experts in many disciplines. This left the region vulnerable to a degree most people can’t imagine could even exist in a modern country.

Here’s how we know this. Hurricane Sandy, the largest in North American history, affected the entire eastern U.S. and Canada and the Caribbean over ten days, whereas the European storm affected a region with a tiny fraction of the area and population (maybe 1/1,000th?) over just two days. But Sandy only caused twice as much damage and two and a half times as many deaths.

The 2021 floods explained – in a book from 1956

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In Berlin the toilets flush directly into the river (but it’s not just Berlin)

Raw sewage flows into the waterways in Berlin and many other cities on a regular basis. Some are doing more about it than others.

When you flush a toilet anywhere in central Berlin during a moderate-to-heavy rainstorm, much of the waste goes directly into the Spree river that runs through the city, or into one of its several canals. This happens on 30 to 40 days each year, sometimes as many as 60. This post is a documentation of just a few of the 120-odd outlets where the untreated sewage enters the waterways. Continue reading “In Berlin the toilets flush directly into the river (but it’s not just Berlin)”

Everything you always wanted to know about green infrastructure but were afraid to ask

Second in the EYAWTKA series. This post is an annotated and tightly edited list of resources on green infrastructure for managing stormwater, water pollution and urban climate adaptation that I don’t think you can find all in one place anywhere else. It began just as some reminders to myself and then I figured maybe others might find it useful. It’s far from comprehensive but it is highly selective – for every link here, many less optimal ones were weeded out.  Specialists may want to skip to the BMP tools and databases farther down.

Green infrastructure is a set of methods for cities to prevent flooding and water pollution by incorporating nature in built structures instead of fighting it by just building ever bigger structures with ever more concrete. It’s a subset of what is often called nature-based solutions, best management practices (BPM) or low-impact development(LID). These terms aren’t identical but they overlap considerably, and further, they don’t have standardized definitions, although green infrastructure itself arguably has a more specific and distinct definition than the others. That being said, green infrastructure has an entirely different meaning in the US than it does in Europe, where it refers to any and all parts of the landscape that are not built – forests, parks, meadows, gardens, lawns, everything. In the US it means built structures that use natural processes.

Continue reading “Everything you always wanted to know about green infrastructure but were afraid to ask”

High modernism at the coal mine

A sprawling and little-known masterpiece of 1920s-modernist architecture deep in Germany’s rust belt narrowly escaped demolition – and still looks like it came from the future. A must-see for Bauhaus fans.

My birthday present this year was a surprise trip to a disused coal mine. Which was perfect because I’d been dying to go and that’s because this particular mine is not only located in a former rust belt with a fascinating history of environmental destruction and recovery, it’s also the world’s largest assemblage of architecture in the 1920s- and 30s-modernist style (often inaccurately called Bauhaus) outside of – oddly enough – Tel-Aviv. Continue reading “High modernism at the coal mine”

Everything you always wanted to know about degrowth but were afraid to ask

Recently I was asked for recommendations of books on degrowth, which is the socio-economic transformation that will have to take place to due planetary limits on the amount of water, land, energy and materials.  If everyone used as much of these things as Americans we would need five earths in order to meet the demand. So something will have to give. Technology and efficiency won’t solve the problem because it’s been shown that when you make things more efficient people just increase their consumption and so the total use – of electricity or raw materials or whatever – doesn’t actually go down.

Degrowth will mean separating human well-being from the notion of infinitely eternally expanding economic growth and effiency, which is such a ridiculous concept I can’t believe anyone ever bought into it. It’s been demonstrated that this simply can’t work, from economic and physical standpoints. I was specifically asked for books rather than websites or articles so here you go…

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The tree that smells like cake

A much shorter post than usual – just a quick note to say that yesterday I had the good fortune to experience the tree that smells like cake, which is something few people ever encounter, and in fact for many it’s physically impossible. The tree, called katsura in English and Japanese – its native habitat is Japan and China -, releases the scent for just a couple of weeks in the fall, and although the species is not rare it is uncommon, being used occasionally in parks and gardens. But many people are unable to detect the scent, for genetic reasons, so a lot of factors have to fall into place in order for the extraordinary scent to be experienced.

The leaves smell distinctly like cake – some say caramel or cotton candy – and indeed the German word for it, Kuchenbaum, translates as caketree . Scientifically, it’s Cercidiphyllum japonicum. The scent is due to maltol, a compound also present in breads, warmed butter, uncured smoked pork, chicory, milk, cocoa, coffee and roasted malt. I saw it on October 31 and I believe this was towards the end of the scent-releasing period.

Finding a katsura may be easier than you think, because a great many cities now have interactive maps of all their street trees where you can search for whatever species you want to find. Just search the internet for  “urban forest map” and the name of your city, or check the (very incomplete) lists here and here. You’re out of luck if you’re in Berlin, though. In theory Berlin has an online tree map but, bizarrely, it doesn’t have a way to simply search for a species and see it on the map.

Welcome to stuffy, uptight, downtown Munich. Don’t forget your swimsuit. Or surfboard. Or skis.

This is the river Isar in the middle of Munich, just blocks from the city center. Today it looks like a wild natural river but until a few years ago much of the greenspace along the shores was orderly and park-like, the banks straightened and stabilized with stone, concrete and earthworks. This is the story of how a city with a stuffy, uptight reputation (whose accuracy I neither verify nor refute) tore out the orderly, linear shores and restored the river to about as wild a state as possible in an urban center, embracing nature in all its wildness and messy, ecologically healthy vitality – something which even places that are said to be the opposite of stuffy (ahem, Berlin?) are often slow to do.

Continue reading “Welcome to stuffy, uptight, downtown Munich. Don’t forget your swimsuit. Or surfboard. Or skis.”

“Usage Conflicts”: Berlin debates whether it has enough space to adapt to climate change

While green infrastructure has been booming for two decades in cities around the world – big, small, “green”, not green – it’s barely on the radar at all in Berlin. How could the capital of one of the world’s most prosperous countries not have gotten the memo?
This post is available in German here.

Berlin’s been talking about the necessity of stormwater-capturing raingardens for twenty years but has none to speak of except for a few isolated exceptions, primarily in outer suburbs. By contrast, New York City, to name just one example among many, began building nearly a thousand of them every year starting around 2014 and continues to do so. Other cities started ten years earlier. I wanted to understand what’s going on and began by observing whether Berlin would have space for them.

To say that Berlin is lavishly endowed with public space that is manifestly unused despite being paved is an understatement. I’m pretty sure Berlin has higher proportion of unused paved space than any other major city. (If you can think of one, let me know in the comments.) I am not talking about parking lots, plazas that are actually used, any areas with significant foot traffic, or vacant lots suitable for buildings. I mean inexplicable empty stretches along buildings and at streetcorners that aren’t used by pedestrians; sidewalks extravagantly and desolately out of proportion to their foot-traffic load; and large traffic islands and medians. Continue reading ““Usage Conflicts”: Berlin debates whether it has enough space to adapt to climate change”

De-paving with Operation Stonebreak

Water in cities has a critical role in climate adaptation, from bathrooms to backyards to sewer lines. An engaging exhibit in the Netherlands shows how.

Here’s a detour to the Netherlands, where I saw an excellent exhibit in Haarlem, at an architecture and urban design museum called the ABC Architecture Center, on how the region is confronting the challenges of urban water pollution and the extreme weather caused by the climate crisis. Continue reading “De-paving with Operation Stonebreak”

Mythbusting the weather: Berlin’s rainy reputation belies a grave lack of water

Despite its plentiful lakes, rivers and canals and its reputation for rainy weather, Berlin is in many ways as dry as Spain or Texas. Yet it uses more water than is refilled to its supplies every year, and hundreds of millions in fines are looming due to ongoing violations of E.U. water protection laws. Solutions will be tough: Berlin has 13 mayors and a bizarre water supply system, the only one of its kind in the world.

Berlin is always seen as a watery place: everyone loves the abundant waterways and lakes and hates the grey damp winter; panic – most of it without basis in fact – over basements being flooded by a high water table is something of a municipal religion. They say it has more bridges than Venice (hardly an accomplishment given that the whole city of Venice could fit inside Berlin’s airport alone and Berlin has 14 times as many people ). The surprising truth, though, is that Berlin is a very dry place with dried-up forests, shortages of water, and extremely low rainfall, in fact less rain than pretty much all of the United States including Texas and Florida apart from the deserts, and less than many parts of Spain and Italy. Berlin probably a has negative water balance, which means more water is leaving the city than is coming in – in other words, the supply is dwindling and will someday run out if drastic action is not taken, although we can’t be sure because the authorities themselves have neither the data needed to find out nor the staff or funding to collect it. The climate crisis is not the main cause of any of this and the problems existed before climate change became severe, although this fact is known mainly among scientists and almost completely ignored by the media and the administration.

Drought risk. Note that Berlin is red which means medium-high (4 on a scale of 1 to 5) along with Cuba, Haiti and eastern Mexico. Drought risk factors in the demand for water in proportion to the available supply as well as population density.

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Green Party in 2nd place in Germany – and why yesterday’s European Parliament election has worldwide impacts

On May 26, Europe had its elections for the European Parliament, which will have massive implications on issues such as climate and nationalism. Here is what you need to know, in 60 seconds:

Why should I care about this election?

The results will have a large impact on how the whole world deals with the climate crisis, inequality (via global trade agreements), human rights (ditto), refugees and other issues that affect everyone.

Just give me the take-home message in ONE SENTENCE.

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Conservative, religious Bavaria has just passed some of the world’s strongest environmental protections

One of the greatest victories for environmental protection in decades recently took place in the German state of Bavaria, and went nearly unmentioned in the English-language media: an extraordinarily strong people’s referendum was approved by a wide margin and has become law. It beggars belief in both the strength of its protections and the overwhelming popular support it received in a famously conservative part of Germany. It flat-out mandates organic farming, ecology education in schools, and stream conservation, among many other things, and stands in stark contrast to the surprising environmental laggardness of Berlin and other parts of the country.

Equally astonishing is the way it became law. Bavarian law prohibits referenda from appearing on election ballots, and it prohibits the gathering of signatures in public. Instead, signers must each make a special trip to their city hall, which is the only place where the petition may be signed, during a two-week signature-gathering period. Eighteen percent of all registered voters in the state did this – double the minimum threshold of 10%. Many signers had long waits in lines stretching down the street in freezing temperatures – more than 11,000 on the first day at Munich city hall alone. The mayor was the first in line.


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