Climate, Sedans, and Bottled Water

17 December 2015

I spent a few days in Beijing last week, the first time since 2005.  I expected to find changes, but I was nonetheless surprised.  Instead of vendors hawking fake Prada bags on the street (they would follow me chanting “Gucci-Prada”), there are now lavish malls selling the real thing.  Christmas trees and Santa Claus are everywhere, and “Jingle Bells” blares along  2015-12-11 23.47.44Wangfujing Street, a pedestrian mall that could be in any American or European city.

To me, the biggest change had to do with cars. From being a city dominated by the bicycle, Beijing has become a city of cars.  I saw very few bicycles, and those were mainly being ridden by older people who were also, judging by their dress and the loads they were carrying, quite poor.

Many have commented on the explosion in the number of cars in Beijing;


in 2012 it passed the 5 million mark, vs. 2.6 million in 2005.  Massive traffic jams are a daily occurrence; it’s as if every freeway is the 405 at rush hour, all the time (Angelenos will get that reference).  But what really struck me were the kinds of cars.  I got off the plane last Wednesday night at the tail end of the latest killer smog, and the acrid air caught at my throat as I walked out of the terminal.

control tower smog
Beijing Airport in the smog

The parking lots were full of Volkswagens and other German cars.  And these were not the Golfs and Polos I saw in Berlin last year, but Jettas and Passats, BMWs and Audis.  We were picked up at the airport by a very nice Audi, and driven back on Sunday in an even nicer Mercedes.  In between I got driven around in a late-model Passat.

This was not a fluke occasioned by our extremely generous hosts from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.  Most of the cars I saw during my four days in Beijing were German, and they were not small.  China must be one of Volkswagen’s biggest markets (and indeed it sold over 3.5 million cars there last year).  I saw few diesels, but I also saw no hybrids.  Although China is said to be making major efforts in developing electric cars in order to deal with the smog problem, I did not see any.  I did see several Buicks and an extremely large and elaborate Cadillac. I saw one Honda Fit.  The ubiquitous yellow and green cabs are all Hyundai Elantras.

Admittedly this is a far from scientific survey, but my impression is that the new wealth in China is being spent on mid-size sedans and bottled water.  At the conference I attended, everyone was provided with evian-bottle4unlimited 500 ml bottles of Evian.  Several of us sneaked some back to our hotel rooms, where, of course, the water coming out of the tap is not drinkable.  Bemused, we pondered a world where bottles of French water were flown thousands of miles for visiting Europeans and Americans to drink.  I don’t think the bottles were recycled.

The smog came back on Saturday afternoon.  Unlike on Wednesday, it smelled strongly of coal, a smell that brought me back to my first trips to Britain in the 1970s.  Christine Corton’s recent book on London’s fogs reminds us that its last “killer fog” took place in 1962 – several years after the enactment of a Clean Air Act.  Owing to the number of cars, London’s air is again unhealthful, mainly owing to diesel combustion.  Despite a certain optimism after the successful conclusion of the Paris Climate Summit, we still have a long way to go.

More on GMOs

25 May 2015

An update: the Benton County anti-GMO ballot measure 2-89 went down to a resounding defeat in last week’s election: you can read an account in the Corvallis newspaper here.  It was not clear to voters that the measure would not ban genetically-related research at Oregon State University (its language indicated a blanket ban on all genetically modified organisms in the county), and supporters were in addition thoroughly outspent.

Food historian Rachel Laudan brought to my attention this blog by Marc Brazeau on GM foods that came out last year.  It makes some good points about plant breeding in general, and notes that genetic modification is an extension of that age-old practice.

photo by Andy Cripe, Corvallis Gazette-Times

The anti-GMO group say they will try again.

Local Food and GMOs

12 May 2015

A field near Adair Village, Benton County, Oregon. Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

Benton County, Oregon, where I live, has a controversial measure on the ballot for next week’s local elections that would ban all GMO organisms in the county as well as establishing a legal right to a local food system, and allowing citizens to sue on behalf of local land and water systems.  You can read it here.  And here’s some pro and con.

Oregon State University, where I work, is vehemently opposed to this measure, claiming it would interfere with all kinds of genetic research, not just agriculture.  I don’t know if this is true or not, but I expect if the measure passes it will be immediately tied up in courts for a while.  An Oregon ballot measure last year to require GMO labeling was defeated, and many OSU scientists spoke out against that too, which leads me to believe that their opposition is not solely on the basis of the threat to research.

Meanwhile, philosopher of science Roberta Millstein of the University of California, Davis has written a brilliant examination of the GMO problem (or is it?) — here it is.  Stay tuned.

Living in the Anthropocene

26 October 2014, Berlin

Last weekend I went to a public forum of the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG).  This is a group, mostly of geologists, who propose that the Anthropocene is a new geological era, “an official unit amending the Geological Time Scale.”  The working group also includes some ecologists and climate scientists.  The AWG will report in 2016 to the International Commission of Stratigraphy, the official body that determines geological periods, for the official verdict on whether the Anthropocene exists and when it began.  This was the AWG’s first joint meeting.

The public forum took place at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (House of World Cultures) in Berlin. Now a center for modern art, the building is one of many Cold War-era American contributions to what used to be West Berlin.  Commissioned by the Benjamin Franklin Foundation (spearheaded by Eleanor Dulles, wife of Eisenhower’s Secretary of State) and designed by Hugh Stubbins, it opened in 1957.Haus_der_Kulturen_der_Welt_Nachtaufnahme  Its sweeping roof line overlooks John-Foster-Dulles Allee.  It is sponsoring a number of programs on the Anthropocene.

The public forum began with a keynote the previous evening by historian of science Naomi Oreskes, who shared the stage with a large tank of turtles.  She gave a characteristically brisk and straightforward analysis of the “Great Disruption” (the many  anthropogenic disruptions of natural processes since 1950) and a history of the idea of the Anthropocene, pinpointing the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius and particularly the British geologist R.L. Sherlock, whose Man as a Geological Agent (1922) proposed a new science of “anthropography.”  If we’ve known this for so long, why haven’t we done anything?  Oreskes pointed to politics, faith in the free market, and scientists’ belief that the truth will ultimately win.  But as she and Erik Conway showed in Merchants of Doubt, being right is no longer enough.

The scientists the next day posited various markers and signatures that might indicate the origins of a new geological era. Jan Zalasiewicz, chair of the AWC, pointed out new strata:  we’ve deposited enough aluminum foil, plastic, concrete, bricks, and tungsten pen points to constitute new geological materials, and undersea trawling creates new strata under the sea.  The transfer of carbon and nitrogen (through widespread fertilizer use) creates new chemical signals, and buildings and cities are creating new trace fossils.  (I thought of this when I read this story about Cecil B. De Mille’s movie sets from the 1920s).

Subsequent speakers expanded on these themes, with different emphases depending on their disciplines.  Geologist Colin Waters dated the beginning of the Anthropocene to the Trinity atomic tests in July 1945, arguing that radiometric isotopes, particularly of Plutonium 239, provide the most suitable marker for the new era.  Others argued for the industrial revolution or even the Neolithic revolution as the beginning of human impact.  Another geologist, Michael Ellis, looked for connections between climate change and the Anthropocene and found surprisingly little direct impact.  He argued that climate lags behind its forcing – in other words that the impacts of CO2 buildup will take years to emerge fully.  But carbon itself, he added, has left definitive signals in the atmosphere.  James Syvitski explained the impact of dams, agriculture, and mining on rivers and sediment flows, with the surprising conclusion that deltas are sinking four times faster than sea levels are rising.

The scientists did a good job of “documenting the spectacle” as one audience member put it.  But after three hours of science, audience questions were becoming increasingly pointed: so, what do we do?  The final session, titled “Consequences,” let the social scientists and humanists have a say.  Unfortunately it was not inspiring.  This session included the only women at the forum (two out of 12) and the only person of color (who was also one of the women; to be fair, there are a few more women on the scientific committee).  Joyeeta Gupta did more documenting of the spectacle from a political point of view, and concluded that we need a world government and more taxes on the rich.  Oreskes offered the best quotation of the day, from Adlai Stevenson: “The trouble with Americans is that they haven’t read the minutes of the previous meeting.”  Facts, she reiterated, are not going to save us without action.  Historian of science Jürgen Renn gave a wonderful talk on the ephemeral nature of disciplines, the connections of norms and facts, and the need for epistemic communities that are not composed only of experts.  Unfortunately I think it went right over the heads of most of his audience.  The journalist Andrew Revkin, who spoke last, had been referred to all morning as the person who would tell us where the solutions are, although why a journalist would have this knowledge above anyone else was not clear.  His talk was in the event mostly about himself, with covers of 25-year-old magazine articles and even a song he had written about carbon.

I left the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, after wandering through some of the many art installations on climate change themes (more documenting the spectacle?), feeling better informed but not terribly optimistic. Revkin forcefully asserted that next summer’s climate meetings in Paris would once more have little to no result.  He is probably right, but I want to do more than sing songs about it.

John Evelyn meets Raymond Chandler

800px-Eucalyptus_tereticornis_flowers,_capsules,_buds_and_foliageYou could smell them before you saw them, what Raymond Chandler called “that peculiar tomcat smell,” so evocative of southern California.  I did not expect to smell them in a forest in Galicia, in northwestern Spain, where I spent a week last September walking the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela.  But there they were, eucalyptus planted in neat rows.  Trained to worship old growth, I viewed the eucalyptus as an abomination: non-native, highly flammable, unsustainable.  The forests of Galicia are very far from old growth (what would that even mean in Europe?  Neolithic?) .  They have been planted and replanted for generations.   Eucalyptus entered the scene, as it did in north Africa and California, in the nineteenth century.  Imported from Australia, its rapid growth and hard wood made it a favored tree for plantation forestry.  Moreover, the oil obtained from the leaves had medicinal uses.  But that oil also makes the trees easy to burn: they explode when flames come close, as I knew too well after living twenty years in southern California.  The frequent and devastating fires during Galicia’s hot summers are a consequence of a century and more of eucalyptus cultivation.

I recently began working on the history of the H.J. Andrews Forest Long-term Ecological Research site in Oregon.  So when I was asked to give a talk on the “deep history” of ecological restoration for the Society for Ecological Restoration, I decided to look at forests, and started in the era I know best, the seventeenth century, and the inimitable John Evelyn (1620-1706), whose Sylva, first published in 1664, became a bible for foresters in Europe and in the new colonies in North America.  What follows is a shorter version of that talk.JohnEvelyn 1687

Restoration, to Evelyn,implied the return of the monarch to his rightful place as head of state and also had profound implications for the English landscape. Human damage to the land could be reversed and its hills and valleys once more made to bloom. Two widespread beliefs made such restoration possible: that history was cyclic rather than linear, and that an anthropomorphic God had originally made the earth in the image of a garden.

That original garden, Eden, was lost forever, but the garden or park had long been considered a means to approach it on earth.  Evelyn envisioned a multi-pronged project he called the Elysium Britannicum“Elysium” in classical mythology was a place of perfect happiness, the abode of the blessed after death.  It would take the form of a garden, the “place of all terrestriall enjoyments the most resembling Heaven, and the best representation of our lost felicitie.” Evelyn’s idea of restoration as a human and spiritual exercise as well as a scientific one has, I believe, much to teach us.  Caught between a notion of history as eternal cycles and one of inevitable progress, Evelyn employed the profoundly conservative notion of restoration to promote some radical ideas about the human role in nature.  The notion that human actions could undo the malign impacts of earlier humans and bring nature back to a newly sustainable state is therefore neither as new nor as unique as many environmental historians believe.

Although England had been heavily forested in early medieval times – historians estimate that 60% of the land was forested at one time – even before the depredations of the Civil Wars, the forests of Britain had been seriously depleted.  By the early sixteenth century, the only extensive forests in the south of England were those owned by the king: the Forest of Dean and the New Forest.  In tough financial times in the early seventeenth century, kings cut down their trees and sold the timber.  Many more trees were cut down during the Civil Wars to outfit Navies on both sides of the conflict.  In addition, those loyal to the king paid heavy fines to the victorious Parliament in order to retain their estates, and they often paid them in timber.

The newly formed Royal Society considered the restoration of the nation’s trees in the early 1660s.  Evelyn headed a committee on forests that resulted in the publication of Sylva Sylva, or a discourse of forest-trees. He wrote,  “May such Woods as do yet remain intire be carefully Preserv’d, and such as are destroy’d, sedulously Repair’d.”  This was a duty to God, to the state, and to past and future generations.

Evelyn recognized that, left to its own devices, nature could repair itself.  If agriculture were abandoned for “some entire Ages” the forests could return.  But what humans destroyed, humans could and should replace.  It was better to plant trees than to wait for them to reappear.   Oaks, the most useful of trees and laden with symbolism in British culture, were the most prominent but not the only trees that Evelyn recommended planting.  Each tree had its particular place in the landscape, and each its particular use.  oak2

Evelyn did not restore for the sake of nature.  The trees he planted would eventually be cut down, or their fruits harvested, or they would contribute to pleasing landscapes.  He encouraged the ancient practice of coppicing – of managing the sprouts, shoots, and regrowth of cut trees – as a way of providing fuel and other wood products without cutting large trees. Yet he recognized that forests were not static, but dynamic; that old trees died and fell and rotted into earth.  In this pre-evolutionary era, everything followed cycles: even stones could disintegrate and new ones formed.

Evelyn advocated a mixed landscape of many kinds of trees.  He paid little attention to the young forest as a habitat for wild or domesticated animals; he saw many if not most of these as destructive to young trees and advised ways to repel mice, deer, and cattle. But a mature forest included these animals as well as pigs that fed on acorns and other nuts.

Evelyn clearly distinguished native from non-native trees, and he planted them alongside each other.  His baseline, if we can call it that, was classical antiquity, which, before the age of exploration, was undoubtedly the era of greatest species dispersal.  Educated in the classics, Evelyn turned to ancient naturalists to discover the variety and range of European trees, but found, as had many of his generation, that the ancients were not always right.  Pliny had found the cypress to be too tender to grow in Britain, and to him, peaches and cherries were exotic delicacies from north Africa.  Evelyn found that all of these grew quite well in Britain, as well as cedars and myrtles and even a cork tree.  He argued, “Methinks it should rather encourage our Country-men to add yet to their Plantations other Forreign and useful Trees, and not in the least deter them, because many of them are not as yet become endenizon’d amongst us.”

Evelyn and his contemporaries did not view foreign species as invasive.  Britain was part of Europe, its island status insufficient for biological isolation.  But Britain was also part of a greater world; Evelyn also wished to “endenizon” the increasing flood of trees from the new world.  He mentioned the acacia and the arbutus in Sylva, and more American trees appeared in subsequent editions.  The distinctiveness of American flora and fauna evidenced the creativity and fecundity of God, and redistributing this evidence acknowledged that fecundity.

According to the cycles of nature and history, trees reached a peak of maturity and then declined and decayed.  Therefore determining the time for harvest was critical.  Oaks, for example,  could take more than a century to mature.  Evelyn devoted several chapters of Sylva to cutting trees down and forest products.  Humans were not separate from this landscape, but integral to it, and cutting down trees was a much a part of the cycle of nature and husbandry as planting them.  By the time Evelyn published the third edition of Sylva in 1679, he could claim that millions of trees had been planted in the intervening 15 years, owing to new laws promulgated by Charles II.

This edition included tables to calculate the board-feet of timber in a given tree as well as a lengthy discourse on sacred groves and the spiritual significance of trees.  Eden, said Evelyn, was a forest, and so too is Paradise.  Tree also had other advantages.  His 1661 pamphlet Fumifugium, about air pollution in London (which he rightly attributed to the fumifugiumburning of coal), noted that trees helped to clean the air, and tree-planting might moderate the evils of the London fog.  Sylva pointed out several other benefits of forests, including preserving rainwater, distributing moisture and nutrients, and mitigating the effects of hot climates.  Jamaica and Barbados, he noted, had become hotter and drier since their trees were cut to make way for tobacco and sugar plantations.

Although forests had a clear economic value, Evelyn acknowledged multiple meanings: aesthetic, spiritual, and even what we might call ecological.  He viewed forest restoration as an expression of the cycles of history and a responsibility to future generations.  The “paradise” of the forest was divinely inspired but made by humans.  They could destroy it but they could also re-create it. If we no longer believe in Eden, we still envisage some pristine past landscape without humans that we can aspire to.  Evelyn gives us another way to look at the history of landscape, one in which humans play an inextricable role.  He would see the eucalyptus of Galicia and Los Angeles as part of a global forest.