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.
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”
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.
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.
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.
The Dessau-Wörlitz Garden Realm is a breathtaking and absolutely unique series of parks and gardens from around 1770 with villas, pavilions and other structures scattered around these two towns in a remote part of eastern Germany, forming what is probably the world’s intact largest assemblage of neoclassical structures, gardens, and designed landscapes. Further, it was an early progenitor of what we now call environmental education and public access to green space. Sadly, it is little known even by Germans and almost not all outside Germany although the name Dessau is world-renowned as the home of the Bauhaus design school after it moved there from the town of Weimar.
A UNESCO World Heritage site since 2000, the Garden Realm is considered to be one of the earliest and most extensive introductions of Enlightenment thinking, values and neoclassical aesthetics into Germany from their origins in France and England. This seismic shift embraced humanistic reasoning, scholarly curiosity, and open-minded exploration. In terms of art and aesthetics, it marked a shift away from the baroque flamboyance and rococo excess of the 17th and early 18th centuries and towards restrained interpretations of classical Greek and Roman styles.
The Garden Realm was just one of a remarkable range of Enlightenment-related endeavors of the duke of Anhalt-Dessau, Leopold III, more commonly known as Fürst Franz (Prince Franz) or Friedrich Franz. He wanted to bring Enlightenment values and education to the general public, and so the parks were open to the public and included demonstration gardens and farms for agricultural education and research.
Merkel’s environment committee is considering changing one word in an environmental protection law – from “involvement” to “agreement” – which could make it nearly impossible to establish protected natural areas, because all the ministries, such as Commerce and Transportation, would have to sign off on them.
Restoring degraded, concrete-encased urban streams is essential for healthy ecosystems and resilience to the coming impacts of climate change. In this area, the eastern German city of Leipzig has been busier than most.
The city of Leipzig, once home to Bach, Wagner and Mendelssohn and in 1989 a crucible of sorts for the Peaceful Revolution that led to the reunification of East and West Germany, has made itself a world leader in urban stream restoration over the last two decades, very much under the radar. Since the late 1990s the city has been reviving streams and canals that have been buried in underground pipes and paved over for the last 50 years, or simply silted up with mud, both in the city center and surrounding countryside. The formerly sooty, crumbling city core is now crisscrossed by tidy canals that, despite their intensely un-natural urban context and industrial history, are intended to provide at least some of the functions of natural streams.
Outside the city, no less than 26 lakes created by the closure of all but one of the area’s open-pit coal mines are being natur-ized (it’s not restoration per se because they were never natural lakes) and connected by natural and artificial waterways and locks to create a region-wide network entirely passable by small recreational boats and, it is hoped, fish.
Two remarkable finds from a flea market last week are fascinating evidence of how the interactions between people and nature were recognized very early on in Germany, at least in comparison to other Western cultures including the United States, despite its early accomplishments in nature protection. (Interesting, this recognition is meagre in Germany nowadays but that’s beyond our scope here.) These are two books for popular audiences, from 1921 and 1939, that combine ecology, geography, botany and cultural history in a way that, to the best of my knowledge, didn’t appear in the U.S. until some decades later.