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.
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 it’s safe to assume, 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 assumption is factually incorrect.
Although the climate crisis is well on its way to being the biggest environmental catastrophe in human history, experts have calculated that climate change only modestly increased the intensity of last week’s storm. It was indeed a 400-year storm, that is, the kind that happens on average, without climate change, once in 400 years. The question is, are the 184 deaths and $34 billion in damages in Germany normal for a 400 year storm with a slight climate-induced intensification? (By comparison, Hurricane Sandy caused twice as much damage and one and a half times as many deaths across the entire eastern U.S., Canada and Caribbean over ten days, as occured in about two days in just a few counties in Germany.)
The answer is no, it’s not normal. Even a 400-year storm does not normally cause this much destruction. The primary cause wasn’t climate, as the experts have calculated. It had to be something else and that something was a massive failure of governance and decades of intentional disregard for basic principles of hydrology and ecological land management. The principles have been understood for at least a century and in some cases, such as “don’t build in a flood plain”, millenia. They’re not new or controversial. They’re things everyone learns in mid-level college courses on the topics. And they predict precisely these kind of disasters.
The ecological principles in question are essential to prudent land-use planning and flood and river managment to protect the safety of people and the health of our land, water, soil, flora and fauna. In essence it’s about using the earth’s natural flood defenses instead of fighting them by using concrete as a weapon in an attempt to beat nature into submission.
The clearest explanation of the situation I know of appeared, interestingly, in a book about landscape history from 1956, and it explains perfectly the conditions that enabled last week’s floods, and nearly all urban floods everywhere.
Second in the EYAWTKA series. This post is an annotated and tightly edited list of resources on green infrastructure 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 using nature instead of fighting it. It’s a subset of what is often called Best Management Practices or Low-Impact Development. Sometimes it’s called nature-based-solutions or sponge city because it’s about soaking up rainwater. The term has an entirely different meaning in the US than it does in Europe, by the way, where it refers to any and all parts of the landscape that are not built up – parks, forests, gardens, lawns, fields, everything. In the US it means built structures that use natural processes.
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”
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…
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.
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.
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 <coughberlincough> are often slow to do.
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?
To say that Berlin is lavishly endowed with public spaces that are manifestly unused despite being paved is an understatement. I’m pretty sure Berlin has more unused paved space relative to the amount of functioning space than any other major city. (If you can think of one, let me know in the comments.) I am not even talking about vacant lots that could hold buildings, or any place with significant foot traffic, or squares or plazas that are actually used, or even the parking lots that exacerbate climate change by incentivizing car travel. I refer instead to the inexplicable empty stretches along buildings and at streetcorners that go unused 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”
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”
Despite its plentiful lakes, rivers and canals, and 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 parts of Spain, Italy, and pretty much all of the United States including Texas and Florida, apart from the deserts. Berlin has a negative water balance, which means more water is leaving the city than is coming in. The climate crisis did not cause any of this, but it’s making everything worse.
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.
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.
After 26 years of hemming and hawing, the Berlin city council recently decided for good that the central focal point of the federal government district, where a “citizens’ forum” was supposed to be built, will remain a street with car traffic and an empty span of concrete and lawn on either side. The original plans from the time of Germany’s reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall called for this focal point to have public spaces and facilities where citizens and government would interact, the governed and the governors, a democracy lab.
This is a “new low for city planning in Berlin”, said a former Berlin Planning Commissioner. The media has been unanimous in deploring the decision, calling it a betrayal of the people and abdication of civic duty. I was unable to find even one statement in the media in support of abandoning the forum. I will argue that the decision has the hallmarks of being fuel for hard-right racist populism.
Finally, some good environmental news from Germany, whose status as environmental leader has dwindled in recent years from its peak in the 90s and 00s when it made great strides in areas such as renewable energy, green roofs and recycling. Since that time, the country has been “jeopardizing its reputation as a global leader” and “spectacularly missing its 2020 climate target” as the state news network put it – so imagine what others are saying. However, there is at least one large sign of improvement. Last week the environment minister introduced a strong and decisive climate action bill which is the country’s first-ever specific legislation for greenhouse gas reductions with quantitative targets and penalties for noncompliance. Continue reading “After a lull, signs of movement on climate change in Germany”