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. There’s only one possible explanation, which is that Germany was more vulnerable. In other words, a given amount of rain per hour per square mile caused many times the death and destruction as it did with Sandy – and this was entirely in a rural area.
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.
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.
From 2010 to 2015, over 100 engaging and innovative land-art installations in Indianapolis raised public awareness of river ecology and water infrastructure. But the once-prestigious museum behind them has since pivoted to crass marketing gimmicks – yoga, craft beer – and the “greatest travesty in the art world in 2017”.
There’s a famous story by Borges about a map that’s so detailed, it’s as big as the territory it describes. A few years ago, the artist Mary Miss made something very similar with oversized map pins installed around Indianapolis as a way to build thoughtful and meaningful connections between its residents and their rivers, streams, lakes and wetlands.
It was actually two projects, FLOW – Can You See The River? (2011) and StreamLines (2015). They consisted of over 100 giant map pins with bright red basketball-size pinheads placed throughout the city to mark various features of the local urban waterways such as small dams and sewer outlets. Further, every site had an ingenious interactive installation that not only provided multimedia information about the water features, but also physically engaged the viewers by involving bodily movement and play. A world’s-first phone app called Track a Raindrop provided user-friendly visualizations of how stormwater travels through the city infrastructure.
I recently visited the Döberitzer Heath, a twenty-square-mile nature reserve on a former military training ground outside of Berlin. Like many military bases, it served as an unintended nature reserve for many decades before decommissioning because manoeuvres don’t disturb the ecosystem all that much – you need a lot of empty space for firing weapons – and the land was strictly off-limits to visitors and every other possible use. (Click to enlarge)