Another One Bites the (Coal) Dust

On my way to an Anacostia Riverkeeper event at the unique Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens this morning, I passed by PEPCO's Benning Road power plant in NE DC, which was shut down two months ago. Such closings are part of a national trend: US power generation from coal dropped nearly 20% in just one year, mostly due to cheap natural gas prices (which, unlike "all-of-the-above" boosters, I'm highly ambivelant about, but that's another story).

The plant shut down on June 1, but coal cars are still lined up next to the Minnesota Avenue Metro station:

Burning toxic rocks for energy? How passé.

Of the power plant's lasting legacy, the Sierra Club has this to say:
The big issue is the possible PCB contamination of the soil on this 70-acre site and the leaching of those chemicals into the groundwater and the river it abuts. Many of the homes in this section of the city require sump pumps to remove water from basements flooded by underground creeks. We have recently heard that the water entering these homes comes with odd odors. Though only anecdotal for now, our coalition and local community leaders are beginning to mount an environmental health study to determine if residents are being directly exposed to toxins in the water. 
Via Clean Water Action:
The plant, which only operates ten to fifteen days per year during periods of peak energy demand, will be officially closing in 2012. However, Benning Road will remain a major threat to public health until 100 years of pollutants and toxins are thoroughly mitigated... It will be important for citizens to be active in pressuring the DDOE to complete a timely cleanup. For too long we have accepted that the reality of the Anacostia is pollution and poor health for communities downstream.

Jimmy Stewart Talks Solar Power in 1938

Been on a TCM kick lately. Capra's Oscar-winning 1938 film You Can't Take it With You was on last night. In this clip, Jimmy Stewart's character Tony talks about his longtime dream of harnessing the sun to make energy and his regrets about going into banking. You're ahead of your time, Tony! And with the awesome Jean Arthur, the duo better known for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Book Review: China's Environmental Challenges

China’s environmental story is full of contradictions. What does one make of a country where the government severely limits the freedom of NGOs, yet has some of the most thorough environmental laws and most sustainably-minded leadership in the world? A place where the opening of a nature preserve is celebrated with a banquet that includes endangered animals? A country that builds the most wind turbines—and burns the most coal?

Judith Shapiro’s readable new book, China’s Environmental Challenges, untangles these contradictions and provides a snapshot of China as it teeters on the edge of unprecedented ecological limits. Shapiro was one of the few Americans to enter China before relations between the two countries were normalized in 1978 and now teaches global environmental politics at American University. In the book, she looks at how national identity, government structure and civil society play into China’s approach to environmental issues.

By now, we’re familiar with news of polluted cities and “cancer villages,” enormous factories and contentious dam projects, rapid desertification and a growing middle class eager to model the West’s worst consumerist excesses. With news like this, one gets the impression that Chinese society is a monolithic ogre blindly pulling its people, and the world, toward environmental ruin.

But according to Shapiro, the country’s domestic realities and international relations are complex.
She reveals that China’s leadership under Mao Zedong was just as undeniably brutal to nature as it was to millions of Chinese during the “Great Leap Forward” (1958-1961): swaths of forests were felled for unusable steel smelters, sparrows were systematically killed as “pests” despite their important role in defending crops from insects, and ecologically-sensitive areas throughout the country were converted to  experimental farmland, leading to famine (Shapiro’s 2001 book Mao’s War Against Nature digs further into this period).

But China’s government has become increasingly more fractured and sensitive to environmental issues in the last few decades, just as the stakes have been raised. Echoing Jonathan Watts in When a Billion Chinese Jump, Shapiro writes that it’s not the national government, but an entrenched network of corrupt and uncontrollable developers and local officials, that are driving most of the country’s environmental problems today.  

A Factory on the Yangtze River / Wikimedia Commons
The same rich countries that lament China’s environmental record are far from blameless either. For decades, the US and Europe have displaced environmental harms to China, especially in the textile and electronics industries. Now China, with its rising economic prowess and disgruntled, savvy middle class, is exporting harms itself: to poorer areas domestically, and to Southeast Asia and Africa.

Though they’re hampered by repressive rules about activism and fundraising, Shapiro describes China’s community of environmental groups as large, active and, for the most part, respected. She delves into the contours of this community in what turns out to be the most encouraging part of the book.

Chinese NGOs have attended the last few UN climate negotiations to pressure their government and the global community to take bolder action on climate change. Famous journalists-turned-activists like Liu Jianqiang and the 2012 Goldman Prize winner Ma Jun are well-known for their publicizing environmental harms and challenging corporations and government projects.

Low estimates put the number of environmental protests at 5000 each year, many of them originating from the same middle class that fuels the country’s resource consumption. While the difference between human rights abuses and environmental damage isn’t as distinct as it might be in developed countries, Shapiro says environmental groups enjoy a greater level of freedom than other types of political organizations.

Protesting a Chemical Plant in Dalian, August 2011 (Getty)
Any hope of addressing China’s enormous environmental problems will involve strengthening this mostly feeble civil society sector, giving voice to the rural and minority populations most affected by environmental damage, and tapping into China’s home-grown notions of sustainability found in its religious and cultural traditions. With Western-style consumerism ascendant and free speech still stifled, the prospect of such a shift happening is slim, but the seeds of change do exist. One suspects that US leadership on climate change, which is currently lacking, may also influence China’s actions on the global stage.

Although Shapiro’s book is aimed at students (each chapter ends with discussion questions), general readers will find the book helpful when placing news items like the recent US-China clean technology trade tensions or friction over embassy smog reporting in context. Those wishing for more in-depth discussions on particular issues will need to look elsewhere.

It’s impossible to be a globally-minded environmentalist today without considering the role China plays. Shapiro rightly says that “it is within China that much of the future of the planet will be decided.” 

Enduring Disaster: Reflections on the Anniversary of 3/11

What is it that this disaster wants to teach us? If there's nothing it wants to teach us, then what should I believe in? - Fukushima Poet Ryoichi Wago

March was falling apart. My girlfriend and I had recently broken up and we were to see each other at an academic conference in Montreal where our respective jobs were both sending us. A week before the event, Northeast Japan was hit by domino disasters: a record earthquake followed by a tsunami that would claim over 15,000 lives. Then Fukushima’s coastal reactors blew, turning once bustling cities into ghost towns and sending radiation into the water supply of one of the most populous cities in the world. My girlfriend’s family and friends in Japan were outside the disaster zone but I was rattled. At the conference, I cringed at the banal conversations of the academics who lingered in the hallways, talking about their various job appointments.

I bailed on two colleagues my coworker Jim and I were supposed to meet early one morning when my emotions frayed after too little sleep and too much news coverage of the disaster. One started making small talk about her child’s school party, muffins or something. I turned to Jim with tears in my eyes, shook my head and left the building without a word to our colleagues.

I held onto my former girlfriend like a lifeboat though, as a Japanese citizen, she certainly had more to be concerned about than I did. For her, Fukushima seemed as far away as it did to me, outside her world. Writers from Fukushima would later reflect on the disconnect they felt from the rest of the country, the sacrifice they endured so that places like Tokyo would have a reliable food supply, a reliable energy source.

Despite my initial dismissal of the academics at the conference, I was humbled to discover how many people there were directly affected by the event but still carried themselves upright while I was blubbering and sulking. Our neighbor in the booth next to us, a boisterous, friendly Brit selling books for the UN had felt the earthquake in Tokyo where he lived with his family right before jetting to the conference. Each day the news got worse and worse, the American government was advising citizens to leave the country, yet he continued to affably greet customers at his booth.

Still, there was anxiety under his buoyant demeanor. We talked generally about the disaster but he was mostly preoccupied with Anderson Cooper’s coverage on CNN. “Anderson 360!” he scoffed. “What kind of a name for a show is that!?”. He’d arrive to the exhibit hall in the morning, take a quick glance at his inventory, and ask us, “Hey, did you see Anderson last night? With that Geiger counter around his neck? God! What an ambulance chaser!”. He laughed haughtily at Anderson’s antics, his cowardly jolt when yet another reactor exploded, his war zone-like coverage from a faraway Tokyo rooftop.

On another day, an academic from Hiroshima University revealed before his panel presentation that his family was evacuating from Fukushima Prefecture as we sat there listening to his dry presentation on ASEAN. He sat back down in the sparse audience after his talk where I could see his mussed hair. He took photos of the other panelists as they got up to talk and a small cellophane-wrapped lip balm stamped in Hiragana fell out of his pocket unnoticed onto the floor. This little glimpse of his private life devastated me. What other modest nothings of life were hiding in the folds of these academic posturings? What other secrets were those I walked among hiding?

Jim and I were bewildered when the woman at the other booth next to us, representing a foreign policy think tank, began playing a DVD that featured various horrible things that were occurring in the world: genocide, climate change, global epidemics, and the timely kicker: the threat of nuclear proliferation complete with footage of an atom bomb test and a creepy, wavering robot-voiced countdown: fiihihive, foohorhor, threeheehee, two ooh ooh, wahnnan… BOOM! (She seemed entirely indifferent to the irony). Jim and I commented loudly on the disturbing nature of the clip within her earshot. He even half-jokingly asked if she could change it to the NCAA championships instead. She wasn’t amused. The film played in a loop for the whole four-day event, amplifying our anxieties.

A knot would come and go in the center of my upper back depending on the progress or setbacks crews were having at Fukushima Daiichi. The technologies we created to serve us had gotten much too unwieldy for our moral evolution, it seemed. Watching bold crews scramble to address the smoking reactors with buckets of water showed starkly how much humility we as a species lacked. The monster turning on us with a brush of its tail.

On NPR, Christopher Joyce reiterated the oft-cited national characteristic of gaman (我慢) —“to endure, accept the pain, don't complain," and shikata ganai (仕方がない) or "it can't be helped." The later seemed most useful. After the conference, I would watch Kore Eda’s quiet film Still Walking, an Ozu-esque examination of bittersweet family dynamics and unfulfilled yearnings. Kore Eda shoots at the luminous sky, the bright clear clouds. The family house is in a hilly neighborhood overlooking the ocean where a red train passes by in a regular, peaceful hush.

The train holds a regular schedule despite all the dramas that play out in the household. The mother character tends the grave of a son who commited suicide, says matter-of-factly how impossible it is to lose a child, but regularly huffs and puffs up and down the hill to the graveyard anyway. A younger woman politely endures this new mother-in-law’s cutting comments, a quick flicker of hurt showing on her face before regaining composure. These seams of pain are so unbearably accute, yet they are somehow borne.

"The Most Fully-Realized American Place"

Last month I reviewed Taubman's new photography book Detroit: 138 Square Miles. In it, Jerry Herron describes Detroit as "the most fully-realized American place", a place created by leaving and forgetting, by immigrating "moment by moment to someplace we hadn't dreamed of yet", a place where we sacrificed the past for material plenty.

My friend Anoop (who used to live in Detroit) recently pointed me to this video which illustrates those ideas in a video format. On the one hand, Michigan occasionally seems like a mundane place to me (as the place we grow up often seems to be). On the other hand, stepping away for awhile, it really is an interesting, almost mythic place when viewed through the lens of industrial history:

Environmental News Roundup: Turkey

The controversial Ilısu Dam, currently under construction.
(Photo: Brandon King)
"Rather than view nature as a pool of resources that exist to be used and exploited by humans, the IEC wants Turkey’s environment to be valued as its own subject, with its own set of “rights”. The group wants the constitutional changes to reflect the truth that the rest of human society is impossible without a healthily functioning ecosystem."   Will Turkey’s New Constitution Include Ecological Protections?

"The regulation, approved in late November by Ankara’s Biosecurity Committee and put into effect at the start of 2012, gives the green light to the importation and sale of 13 genetically modified varieties of corn for livestock feed, a sign to activists and biotech lobbyists alike that Turkey’s once bio-technologies adverse climate may be coming to an end."  Genetically modified corn regulation sows seeds of discontent

"The history of wheat goes back a long way in Anatolia -- 8,000 years or so. In fact, the area that is now Turkey is believed to have been where the grain was first domesticated and developed as a crop. Some modern varieties date back to those long-ago ancestors…"These 8,000 year-old varieties can be destroyed if GMOs are allowed in to Turkey," Defne Koryürek of Slow Food Istanbul told TreeHugger recently."  Celebrating Wheat's 8,000-Year-Old History in Turkey

"Turkey’s astonishing amount of biodiversity, especially for a temperate country of its size, is being destroyed rapidly, partially in the past decade during which “Turkey’s Great Leap Forward” has put the country at the risk of “cultural and environmental bankruptcy.”  Turkey’s Conservation Crisis: Global Biodiversity Hotspots Under Threat 

Vietnam, United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and others, are still intent on acquiring civilian nuclear reactors for electricity despite the Fukushima disaster."  Doomsday Clock Ticks Closer to Midnight

"The deputy undersecretary for the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, Sedat Kadıoğlu, evaluated the matter and said, “Turkey is the only member country of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that doesn’t have a nuclear plant and so we have to explain the details of nuclear power to the public in order to prevent information pollution."  Turkey surprises Russian nuclear firm with new conditions

 "Given the magnitude of the Caspian's oil and gas reserves, many energy firms are planning new production operations in the region, along with the pipelines needed to bring the oil and gas to market. The European Union, for example, hopes to build a new natural gas pipeline called Nabucco from Azerbaijan through Turkey to Austria. Russia has proposed a competing conduit called South Stream. All of these efforts involve the geopolitical interests of major powers, ensuring that the Caspian region will remain a potential source of international crisis and conflict."  Fuel duel: Top three energy conflict hot spots

 "Turkish hydro projects along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, for example, have dried up large swathes of former marshland in Iraq and Syria as well as dams that desert communities rely on, forcing entire communities to resettle and severely affecting local plant and animal life. Sadly, the UN report seems to have changed little about Turkey’s hydroelectric plans."  Hydroelectric Dam In Turkey May Cause Environmental Catastrophe In Georgia 

"Turkey, through its own means and domestic resources, has reduced its GHG emissions by 20 percent since 1990,” Rende said of Turkey’s progress on the road to drastic reduction in the emissions of GHG, concentrations of which in the atmosphere are believed to be the main trigger of temperature increase on earth. On the other hand, Rende noted, Turkey has also invested $2 billion in forestry over the past few years, and the positive effects of that are not included in the country’s GHG reduction statistics."  Climate negotiator Rende: Turkey ready to do its part on climate change

"The proposed 1,200 MW coal plant is among the first of over 50 coal plants now being pushed in Turkey. It’s already been a 3 year struggle for heroic local residents to block the project. This year they’ve been camping by the hundreds and protesting by the thousands for weeks and months on end. When over 10,000 people took to the streets together in November, one sign in particular caught my eye. It read: "the people of Gerze do not stand alone.""  Support Turkey Climate Activists Fighting Huge Coal Power Plant

"Greece reaffirmed its support for the Turkey-Greece-Italy (ITGI) natural gas pipeline in a joint announcement issued on Friday by the Greek ministries of foreign affairs and environment, energy and climate change. The announcement, as ANA reported, was made in view of decisions due to be made concerning the pipeline that will supply natural gas from Azerbaijan's Shah Deniz gas field." - Energy: Greece reaffirms support for ITGI gas pipeline

"Groups such as the Istanbul Chamber of Urban Planners argue that previous bridges have eventually increased traffic and boosted the city’s urban sprawl – and that the third bridge would endanger the city’s natural habitat, notably the Belgrade Forest to its north."  Turkey: building bridges regardless

"German utility E.ON wants to invest in the energy sector in Turkey, with a particular focus on power generation, and is seeking Turkish partners."  E.ON considering Turkey investment – minister