Growing Green Hearts

World Environment Day has been observed every year since 1974. Which means we’ve known for at least 45 years that the environment needed to be taken seriously rather than taken for granted. This year, China is acting as host country with the theme of #BeatAirPollution, an appropriate choice for a country that faces some of the most extreme air pollution in the world.

Air pollution is implicated in the deaths of 1.1 million people annually in China and over 7 million around the world. Although China has announced tough measures to fight air pollution, it’s hard to reconcile those actions with continued economic growth – which is what contributed to the pollution in the first place.

World Environment Day focuses on what we, as individuals, can do. Every little bit helps. But with 9 out of 10 people in the world breathing polluted air, maybe the best thing we, as individuals, can do is grow hearts of green and demand the same of our policymakers.

Real change has to be as diverse as the environment itself. It has to break through the hard concrete of old habits, at all levels of society and across borders. And it’s something we can do, but we can’t wait for another 45 years.


Growing a Green Heart on my village road in France. Photo: PKR


Divestment Transparency

Lotus (ca. 1930), vintage gelatin silver print. All images are x-rays of single flowers taken by Dr. Dain L. Tasker, radiologist. Photo: Dr. Dain L. Tasker via oseph Bellows Gallery

Lotus (ca. 1930), vintage gelatin silver print. All images are x-rays of single flowers taken by Dr. Dain L. Tasker, radiologist.
Photo: Dr. Dain L. Tasker via Joseph Bellows Gallery

We like to think we can see the true nature of the world around us, or at least, that we have a chance of understanding it. In February, the Irish government took a big step towards revealing how the fossil fuel infrastructure really works. How? By halting all public investment in fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas from the €8 billion (US$8.6 billion) Ireland Strategic Investment Fund.

When it comes to the environment and protecting it for our own health as well as that of the planet, it helps to try and see through the obvious arguments about why we are still using so much fossil fuel, even though we know the damage it does to the climate. After all, Shell Oil made a film about that damage to the climate by fossil fuel use back in 1991, so none of this is new.

So after decades of discussions, why aren’t we further down the road to renewable energy use?

Fuchsia (1938), vintage gelatin silver print. Photo: Dr. Dain L. Tasker via oseph Bellows Gallery

Fuchsia (1938), vintage gelatin silver print.
Photo: Dr. Dain L. Tasker via Joseph Bellows Gallery

One key reason is because some of the largest modern governments are so profoundly intertwined with the fossil fuel industry. Massive subsidies go towards supporting supply security, but also fund environmental protection by reducing emissions. A 2016 report published in World Development estimated that direct fossil fuel subsidies averaged 6.5% of the global GDP in the years 2013-2015, with over half the subsidies going to coal (China is the largest subsidizing country by far).

Subsidies of renewable energies are a small fraction of this amount, particularly if one folds in the indirect subsidies of maintaining fossil-fuel infrastructures, and the lack of holding fossil fuel companies all along the production chain financially accountable for damage done – for example, clean-ups of damaged water systems or land polluted in oil spills, or ecosystem rebuilding following mining activities.

These subsidies are public funds that are paid to support what is already one of the most profitable industries on the planet.

By becoming the first country in the world to fully divest from fossil fuel subsidies, Ireland shines a light on how the system really works. Knowing how much any given government is paying to support fossil fuel use instead of more sustainable energies can provide real insight into policy decisions – and if that country is a representative democracy, that knowledge can guide voters’ choices.

This divestment gets down to the hidden structures that keep a dangerous addiction both strong and intact.

Untitled, (lily)  (1932), vintage gelatin silver print. Photo: Dr. Dain L. Tasker via oseph Bellows Gallery

Untitled, (lily) (1932), vintage gelatin silver print.
Photo: Dr. Dain L. Tasker via Joseph Bellows Gallery


Fish and Steel

The image of thousands of fish washing up on a shore is almost never a metaphor for lucky circumstance. It’s almost always a sign that something, somewhere, has gone very wrong.

Back in April, fishermen in four central Vietnamese provinces, mostly outside the main tourist centers, started finding fish washed ashore. Fishing suddenly became easier than ever with countless fish drifting into the nets. Unfortunately, eating the catch was making people sick.

And then the deep sea fish started washing up. And then a small whale. Whatever was killing fish in off the coast of central Vietnam, it was spreading far offshore.

3D scan of Spinyhead Sculpin (Dasycottus setiger).  Source: Mark Riccio, Stacy Farina, and Willy Bemis/Open Science Framework (OSF)

3D scan of Spinyhead Sculpin (Dasycottus setiger).
Source: Mark Riccio, Stacy Farina, and Willy Bemis/Open Science Framework (OSF)

Suspicion fell on a sewage pipe flush carried out on a steel plant by run by the Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Group. A sewage pipe connecting the plant to the ocean was discovered two years ago by divers, but it wasn’t until the Formosa allegedly cleaned this pipe, using 300 tons of imported chemicals described as “extremely toxic” by experts, that the massive fish die-off began.

Even three miles off shore, fishermen are finding entire areas of dead fish and squid. Dead fish are washing ashore by the ton.

Formosa company spokesperson Chou Chunfan didn’t help matters by telling an interview that “the discharge of wastewater will affect the environment to some extent, and it is obvious that the sea will have less fish. Before acquiring the land, (Formosa) already advised local fishermen to change their jobs. Despite our early recommendation, local fishermen kept on fishing in this area. Many times in life, people have to make a choice: either to catch and sell fish, or to develop the steel industry. We cannot have both.”

Formosa has gained a reputation around the world for its disdain when it comes to environmental standards, yet it continues to build factories in numerous countries, including the United States and Cambodia. It has paid millions in fines, but the sums are far too minor to be of any real punitive significance for Taiwan’s largest industrial conglomerate.

3D scan of Sligjaw Wrasse (Epibulus insidiator). Source: Adam P. Summers & Joshua Drew/OSF

3D scan of Sligjaw Wrasse (Epibulus insidiator).
Source: Adam P. Summers & Joshua Drew/OSF

The Vietnamese government has publicly recognized the environmental disaster but refuses to make any direct accusations.

Now the situation has spiralled beyond a regional issue into a much larger confrontation between protesters angry about government corruption and a possible high-level cover-ups. Protesters have attacked mainland Chinese workers employed by the Taiwanese company – a continuation of attacks over the past couple of years against numerous Chinese-owned factories.

Beyond the disastrous environmental and human consequences of this story, it caught my eye because, well, I visited the central coast of Vietnam a couple of years ago. I went to the types of small fishing villages that are being devastated by the Formosa spill. There is little there in the way of business – except for fish.

Fishing is what people do, fish is what people eat, the coastline is the livelihood and life of the area.

3D scan of Black Combtooth Blenny (Ecsenius namiyei) Source: Adam P. Summers/OSF

3D scan of Black Combtooth Blenny (Ecsenius namiyei)
Source: Adam P. Summers/OSF

It’s not clear to me where the choice between catching fish and developing the steel industry (as outlined by the Formosa spokesman, who has since been fired) was ever one to be made by inhabitants affected by the Formosa steel plant. The Vietnamese government belatedly told residents not to eat the toxic fish from their catch, and offered compensation in the form of bags of rice and 50,000 dong (approximately $2.20).

It’s not clear to me how mainland Chinese laborers imported for the steel plant, who were attacked and four of whom were killed during anti-Chinese protests when the steel plant was being built in 2013, are really responsible for the effects of a sweetheart deal between a Taiwanese conglomerate and the Vietnamese government.

Anyway, even if the local fishermen had been given a choice between fish and steel, shouldn’t they have been employed by the factory if they had, like their government, chosen steel over fishing?

Meanwhile, a large stretch the coastline of Vietnam is poisoned, and the dead fish washing ashore signify what some are calling Vietnam’s Chernobyl moment.

I’ll be interested to see how well the economics of this deal really work out for both the Communist Vietnamese government and the company that seem to operate on the notion that we can live without marine life as long as we still have steel.

3D scan of Hogchoker (Trianectes maculatus). Source: Kevin Conway & Adam P. Summers/OSF

3D scan of Hogchoker (Trianectes maculatus).
Source: Kevin Conway & Adam P. Summers/OSF



Making Choices

I was doing some early morning grocery shopping this morning, and I was buying avocados. Above the avocado bin were two types of produce bags: a roll of the thin plastic bags, and a stack of bags made of recycled paper.

This might seem like a tangential story to begin a post about World Pangolin Day with, but bear with me for just a moment.WorldPangolinDay2016-640x729


If you read this blog, you know which one I took. And I only took a paper sack because I’d forgotten to bring along the ones we save for re-use.

A man next to me reached past me and grabbed the end of the plastic roll. He pulled, and fought to separate the bag from the roll.

While I was being very picky about choosing avocados with just the right level of ripeness (we Californians are avocado snobs), he went about trying to get the bag open.

As he struggled, he glanced at me, watching me squeeze all the good avocados before he could even open his produce bag.

In a fit of unsolicited do-gooderism, I used that moment to say not only were paper bags easier, but they didn’t take months or decades or centuries to decompose (depending on the kind of plastic). It’s such a small choice to make in the produce aisle, with such a long-term impact.

Of course he went with the plastic bag. But maybe next time he won’t.

Which brings me to the pangolin, also known as the scaly anteater.

Pangolin in defensive position. Source: Project Pangolin

Pangolin in defensive position.
Source: Project Pangolin

Every year, I mark World Pangolin Day, the third Saturday of February. I’ve written on their natural history, why they are unusual, that they are the most trafficked endangered mammal in the world, and that the medicinal uses for their scales are of little more value than eating one’s own fingernails or hair.

I even invented a cocktail called the Happy Pangolin.

In the end, it comes down to making choices.

Pangolin scales for sale Photo: TRAFFIC

Pangolin scales for sale

Legislative choices that are the underpinning for the protection of any endangered species; personal choices that cut the demand that drives the market for poached animals.

A new smartphone application, Wildlife Witness, allows tourists and locals alike to safely report wildlife crime that involves pangolins and other endangered animals, from trafficking to restaurant sales.

The good news is, choices are being made that could help the pangolin survive, provided those choices are implemented quickly enough.

The choices we make every day add up. Let’s keep making them.

A Stone on the Ledge

I want to talk about a couple of pieces of legislation that seem unrelated, namely new water regulations to deal with drought in California, and new Chinese laws making the purchase of illegal animals parts punishable by jail time.

But first, I’d like to talk about a large white stone that sits atop a window ledge of my neighbor’s house.

Back when we moved to this mountainside French village in the late 1990s, mail was still delivered via bicycle by a certain Madame Pils, who knew everyone and also everyone’s business.

There were no house numbers, but Mme Pils had no trouble finding mail recipients. Gone on vacation, out running errands, or otherwise unavailable for an important bit of mail? No problem. Mme Pils wrote a personal note, and the tiny village post office, knowledgeably staffed, was open for regular business hours, six days a week.

Thus had it been for decades.

Those were the good old days.

Unfortunately, Mme Pils retired many years ago, and things have never been the same.

A fleet of La Poste bicycles. Source: Wikimedia

A fleet of La Poste bicycles.
Source: Wikimedia

House numbers were mandated to keep up with the expanding population, which has tripled since we moved here.

The central post office, located a few miles away from here, is now responsible for distribution. Mail delivery employees have more territory to cover, and more mail boxes to stuff, than ever before. The faces change every few months or weeks as people try the job and then quit.

Which brings me to my neighbor, born and raised here in the village. She is not a happy customer.

For decades, her mail box has been mounted next to her front door, which is down a small walkway and hidden by a stone entryway. Her house number is visible from the street, so deliverers, who now drive small vans, find the house but not the box.

Our little La Poste vans still look mostly like this old-fashioned one. Loud and yellow. Source: Vieilles Voitures Villeneuvoises

Our little La Poste vans still look mostly like this old-fashioned one. Loud and yellow.
Source: Vieilles Voitures Villeneuvoises

Mme Pils knew where to find it, but these whippersnappers have neither the time nor the inclination to seek out her secret mail box. So they take the easy route: they dump her mail on a window ledge that faces our shared driveway. Rain or shine, windy or still, the mail lands on the ledge. Sometimes it stays there, sometimes it doesn’t.

So she put out a stone. And now the mail doesn’t blow away.

I ran into her a couple of days ago and she was outraged: One of the changing faces of La Poste  told her if she wanted her mail delivered to a box, she’d have to put the box out on the street like all the new houses and apartment buildings that carpet what was still forest and meadow when we moved here.

“Why should I have to pretend like I’m some newcomer? Where would I even put a box, out on the street? I don’t own the street!”

The mail stone. Photo: PK Read

The mail stone.
Photo: PK Read

So she refuses. She says she’s been here all her life, and La Poste should find her mail box like they used to back in the day. In the meantime, anything larger than a regular envelope just doesn’t get delivered.*

I said, why not relocate your box to the front of the house, at least? That’s not an option for her, because her box has always been where it’s been, the La Poste should do its damn job and find it.

Business as usual should mean business as usual for her and from her own decades-long perspective.

She’d rather have a stone on a ledge, lose her mail to wind and rain, or not even get it, than move her mail box.

Old ways die hard.

And so to the news items I saw today.

Severe drought conditions reveal more than 600 empty docks sitting on dry, cracked dirt at Folsom Lake Marina, which is one of the largest inland marinas in California. Caption/credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

Severe drought conditions reveal more than 600 empty docks sitting on dry, cracked dirt at Folsom Lake Marina, which is one of the largest inland marinas in California.
Caption/credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

First: California is, four years into an epic drought, finally introducing mandatory limits for the water agencies that distribute water across the state. But the real black hole of water distribution, namely century-old water allocations to agriculture and industry, require more than the introduction of a few new rules.

It requires a legislative rethinking of how water is used, how farming and industry work, and deeper attitudes about abundance and genuine shortfall. The water system is built on assumptions that were probably wrong in the first place, and it’s these assumptions that are due for reexamination.

Second: China has passed new laws meant to protect trade in illegal animals and their parts by allowing for the prosecution of end consumers. Anyone ordering pangolin in a restaurant or buying ground tiger bone could, potentially, face a 10-year prison term.

Tiger bone wine. Photo: Michael Rank

Tiger bone wine.
Photo: Michael Rank

This is certainly a step towards raising awareness among the Chinese populace, currently the largest market for endangered animals, both imported and domestic.

But the new laws don’t get at the long-standing Chinese licensing system that allows for the consumption of species classified as endangered or illegal – as long as the animal in question was ‘bred in captivity’ by a licensed breeder. There are few controls of these ‘breeders’ or their stock once they receive a license, allowing for the sale of illegal stock with almost no oversight.

So, as promising as both these steps are, they amount to little more than my neighbor’s stone on the ledge.

A makeshift solution to completely changed circumstances, an approach based on habit, stubbornness and an unwillingness to alter behaviour to solve current challenges.

And like my neighbor’s damp and windblown letters and bills, until old assumptions are held up against current realities, there won’t be solutions that bring what’s valuable in from the elements.



*Our house doesn’t have the same problem because, well, the mail box is right out in the open next to our front door and under the house number. If they can find the house (not always the case, but usually), they can find the box.

World Wildlife Day 2015

Today is World Wildlife Day 2015, which this year highlights the challenges of the illegal trade in wildlife.

World Wildlife Day, on the 3rd of March, marks the day of the adoption of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The global trade in wild animals and their body parts is estimated by UNEP at US$50-150 billion per year. The global illegal fisheries catch is valued at US$10-23.5 billion a year and illegal logging, including processing, at US$30-100 billion.actionposter_thumb_elephant

These numbers don’t include the costs of fighting poaching, the impact that fight has on local communities, or the indirect costs of border security – after all, 90% of all illegal animals and animal parts are shipped across international borders.

These numbers don’t include issues like the introduction of non-native species in the form of exotic pets and the havoc they can wreak on local eco-systems (not to mention the introduction of foreign pathogens).

They don’t include the cost of fighting the organized crime that is funded via illegal wildlife trade.

What can each individual do besides sign a petition, make a donation or offer support today at #SeriousAboutWildlifeCrime?

As I said in an earlier post on ivory, we can cut of the trade on the consumer end. That saltwater fishtank might be a nice conversation piece, but the fish in it were likely harvested at the cost of an entire coral reef habitat.

Find sustainable alternatives to traditional medicine that calls for endangered species like pangolin or rhino (after all, people have been substituting buffalo horn for rhino for years).

That supposedly antique ivory trinket was probably made from poached elephant tusk. If that hardwood lumber for your floors is being sold at a price too good to be true, chances are its been illegally logged. And so on.

What you buy as a consumer ripples out through the entire environment of the illegal wildlife trade.

I thought I’d repost Farewell, Forest Symphony, something I wrote a couple of years ago on the interconnectivity of one single endangered species, the elephant, on its entire ecosystem.

It’s not a short post – but what is true for this particular animal is true in other ways for all the other endangered animals and plants:

They, and we, are all part of something larger.

Sunset over the Congo rainforestPhoto: David Beaune via

Sunset over the Congo rainforest
Photo: David Beaune via

The fundamental chords that hold a symphony together aren’t always apparent to the untrained ear. The symphony of an ecosystem is often more complex than we comprehend.

A recent study draws a vital connection between elephant poaching, tree reproduction and forest ecosystems. Certain trees – in this case, large bush mango trees – have evolved alongside large animals, in this case, forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis).

The trees have developed seeds which are best dispersed via elephants eating the seeds, walking long distances, and then depositing digested seeds far from the parent tree. The seeds of these trees are too large to be properly digested and dispersed by smaller mammals.

Unfortunately for both the wild trees and the elephants, up to 75% of the elephant population has been killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where this study was carried out, and an estimated 60% of all forest elephants in the world have been killed in the service of the illegal ivory trade – all in the last ten years.

From an interview in an article on

“[The] Congo forest without elephants would certainly lose part of its soul, but elephant extinction with their seed dispersal services would also affect the entire plant community,” lead author David Beaune with the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology told Forest elephants are “important gardeners of the forest,” says Beaune, so important in fact that when elephants go extinct in a part of the forest, important trees are unable to reproduce. “If we can’t replace elephants, then the reproduction of these plant species is hugely compromised.”

Irvingia gabonensis, the African mango, an edible fruit with nutritious nuts at their core. Source: Herbwisdon

Irvingia gabonensis, the African mango, an edible fruit with nutritious nuts at their core.
Source: Herbwisdom

The bush mango tree used in the study, Irvingia gabonensis, happens to be one that is also important to the economy of many African regions, and has been successfully cultivated. Its reproductive patterns are well-known.

It plays a key role in preventing soil erosion as well as being useful as a cash crop.
What of the many other fruits and seeds eaten by forest elephants which are less-studied, with lesser known roles in the ecosystem? Without the massive ‘gardeners of the forest’, what aspects of the ecosystem will crumble?
It puts me in mind of the final movement of Haydn’s Symphony No. 45, in which all the instruments disappear. There is a final song of the remaining violins, but it is thin and lonely without the other melodies.

Ivory Trade Antics

Elephant Eye Artist: Kristan Benson

Elephant Eye
Artist: Kristan Benson

There have been several elephant and ivory-related news items over the past few weeks, including a year-long ban on ivory imports announced by China this week, and the announcement by several Hong Kong retailers that they will no longer be selling elephant products.

New regulations have just come into effect in the United States, one of the leading markets for legal and illegal ivory, that further restricts ivory imports and sales.

New laws that would ban ivory trade outright in New York and California (proposed) reflect findings that in these national markets, the first and second respectively, between 80-90% of all ivory being sold is illegal.

I know I should say they are encouraging, and these developments are good news.

But my real reaction is: Why are people still buying and selling ivory?

This is the issue with legal ivory sales within countries: If people see an item openly for sale, they assume it’s legal.

© WWF-Canon / Folke Wulf

© WWF-Canon / Folke Wulf

Once ivory has entered its destination country, it is extremely difficult to differentiate the illegal stuff (harvested from one of the elephants killed every 15 minutes around the world) from the legal stuff (either antique, or imported before the African elephant was listed in CITES Appendix I in 1990).

I am baffled that the US still allows the importation of hunting trophy tusks. But given the ongoing battles to re-instate permission to allow for the importation of endangered rhino horns even as the rhino population is in steep decline, it shouldn’t be a surprise.

Added to this is a dire lack of awareness among shipping workers and officials as to the methods used for transporting illegal animal parts, even as 90% of the illegal trade crosses international borders.

I’m sure there are many, many dealers who handle only legal ivory, but as a responsible and concerned consumer, would you know the difference?

Origami elephant created by Sipho Mabona Photo by Philipp Schmidli / Mabona

Origami elephant created by Sipho Mabona
Photo by Philipp Schmidli / Mabona

I know I wouldn’t.

There’s an easy solution to that: Don’t buy the stuff.

Stop buying it anywhere until all imports have been stopped, the elephant populations and those of other catastrophically endangered source animals have rebounded, and the illegal market has dried up. If it’s made of ivory, that means no trinkets, no souvenirs, no fancy gifts for business associates, no allegedly legal decorative items for the home. Don’t admire that new ivory bracelet someone shows you, don’t covet that sculpture.

A thriving market in one kind of animal part only supports all the others, and the trade in general.

Sorry, sellers of legal ivory, the stakes are just too high.


Tipping the Scales

21 February is World Pangolin Day, and anyone who follows this blog knows I have a soft spot for the scaly anteater that is being rapidly hunted into extinction.

The ongoing decimation of the slow and strange pangolin is a grim illustration of the long-lasting impact greed and lack of political willpower can have on fellow inhabitants on the planet.

Pangolin in defensive position. Source: Project Pangolin

Pangolin in defensive position.
Source: Project Pangolin

Pangolin scales are used in traditional medicine, mostly in China and Vietnam. I found a site which promises to be a “complete guide to proven herbal remedies.” Note the word ‘proven’.

It lists pangolin scales as being composed of “stearic acid, cholesterol, N-butyl tricosylamide, cyclo (L-seryl-L-tyrosyl), cyclo (D-seryl-L-tyrosyl), and other 18 kinds of microelements” and “16 types of free amino acids.”

This makes it sound like pangolin scales have a chemical composition uniquely suited to medicinal uses. It does not highlight that pangolin scales, along with rhino horn and goat hooves and human fingernails, all have the same basic composition, and are all made of keratin.

I have no doubt that practitioners and adherents of traditional medicines believe in what they are doing with pangolin scales, and by extension, the consumption of pangolin flesh, especially that of unborn pangolins.

However, the same web site volunteers that most practitioners have been substituting buffalo horn for ‘medicinal’ rhino horn since the 1990s due to poaching and legal issues.

Rhino horn.

Rhino horn.

So if one kind of horn can simply be substituted for another, from entirely different animals, why not just substitute human nail cuttings for pangolin scales?

In the end, they all have approximately the same medicinal value beyond that of a placebo, namely, none.

Traditional medicines were born in a time of fewer humans and more animals. Harvesting these animals from the wild until they are all gone is a ridiculous, illegal and shameful undertaking for all concerned, from those who poach to those who consume.

An African tree pangolin (Manis tricuspis) climbs a tree. Source: British Museum

An African tree pangolin climbs a tree.
Source: British Museum

The various species of critically endangered pangolins (and the rhino, and the elephant, and all the other iconic and lesser known animals being hunted to extinction) have a place in the world, but it’s not in a sack, being traded for every-increasing amounts of money to satisfy our own greed for better health or more income.

So on this World Pangolin Day, whip up a Happy Pangolin cocktail, celebrate the pangolins and other animals staying right where they belong, and celebrate all those people who are working hard to achieve that goal, maybe make a donation, and most importantly, maybe have a conversation with someone else about not supporting the illegal trade of any animal or plant.

Save Pangolins

IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group

Tikki Hywood Trust (Africa)

Save Vietnam’s Wildlife

Project Pangolin

Pangorarium (Facebook) – keep up with events and newsWorldPangolinDay2015-640x669

Telling Time

There’s a new chill in the morning air, in spite of unseasonable warmth. Winter is still around the corner, according to the calendar, but it’s still as warm as late summer. We wore shorts yesterday. A few roses shoot another round of late blossoms that might cost the plants dearly, a couple of the tomato plants are pushing out tiny doomed tomatoes even as the leaves turn and fall.

I can see the confusion all around me – I live in an area that, while under heavy construction, still counts as rural. Out my front windows are houses, Geneva in the distance; behind the house are only meadows, forest, a stream and then the Jura mountains. Here, nature and I still interact directly, I can see her changes and moods beyond temperature and precipitation.

Over half of the world’s population now live in cities. That number is expected to rise to between 70-80% by 2050.

World urban population by country. The countries with the most rapidly expanding urban populations are China, India and Nigeria. This infographic is from 2007, but the projections are still considered valid. Source: Guardian/UNFPA Click the image for a full view.

World urban population by country. The countries with the most rapidly expanding urban populations are China, India and Nigeria. This infographic is from 2007, but the projections are still considered valid.
Source: Guardian/UNFPA
Click the image for a full view.

And that means that, even more than today, most people will have a relationship to the natural world that is determined by city planners, landscapers, with human needs and requirements paramount. How are we supposed to understand sustainability when most Earth dwellers won’t be directly confronted with changes to the natural world that still lays outside the cities, but which impacts the cities every day?

We live by our human clocks – nature’s clock runs on its own time.

Bril, a Japanese design collective, has designed a clock that tries to import nature’s time into human homes.

The Coniferous Clock Image: Bril/Dezeen

The Coniferous Clock
Image: Bril/Dezeen

It’s a Coniferous Clock, a time-device made entirely of cedar, with no hands or numbers.

It starts the year green and slowly browns over the course of an entire year.

According to Dezeen, “The Coniferous Clock references traditional sugidama, also known as asakebayashi: boughs of fresh cedar branches tied together, clipped into a sphere and hung up when sake – Japanese rice wine – was pressed following the rice harvest. When the cedar leaves had dried and the sugidama had turned completely brown, it was a signal that the sake was ready to drink.”

Bril co-founder Fumiaki Goto is quoted as saying, “We could feel the seasons in our homes as if we were in forests.”

A Coniferous Clock, later in the year. Image: Bril/Dezeen

A Coniferous Clock, later in the year.
Image: Bril/Dezeen

For the moment, my neighbors and I continue to treat our homes and gardens as if the seasons still follow the regular course we’ve come to know. We are, after all, creatures of habit. It’s in our nature. Even if we don’t move from our old house here in France, if we are still around in 2050, we will live in an urban area.

Our habits have changed those of nature’s, and those changes are only news stories to many people living in cities, the resources all come from elsewhere.

How well and quickly will we be able to adapt our habits to the world that lives beyond city borders, but which affects everything that goes on within those borders?

Anticyclonic Haze

A few hours north of where I live in France, but the haze looks about the same. Photo: AFP

A few hours north of where I live in France, but the haze looks about the same.
Photo: AFP

It’s been a hazy couple of days here on the eastern edge of France, dry and cloudless but when I look out the window, the air above (the currently invisible) Lake Geneva is whitish-yellow.And indeed, checking the news, I find that three-quarters of France is under a high pollution alert. City bikes are free today in Paris, leave the car at home, etc., due to “anticyclonic conditions and cold nights followed by more hot days.” Which means we have a high pressure system settled firmly above the country, and the air pollution isn’t being dispersed.

This week, the Chinese government announced a massive new program to fight pollution and restructure its economy to be more environmentally sustainable. This isn’t due to some newfound altruistic leaning into the green. China is choking on the fruits of its growing economy, and not just because of the almost tangible blankets of smog filling some of its cities. The water is either drying up or polluted and the growing areas of soil are so damaged that they can no longer be farmed.

Tiananmen Square, October 2013 Photo: AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan

Tiananmen Square, October 2013
Photo: AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan

One solution is to import water in the form of food grown elsewhere, to outsource major polluting industries off Chinese soil.

Another is to change course. As of this week, China has said it will “resolutely declare war against pollution as (it) declared war against poverty”. Premier Li Keqiang described smog as “nature’s red-light warning against inefficient and blind development”.

A high pressure weather system makes for warm, sunny days, until it doesn’t anymore and it causes haze and lack of rain instead. Considering China’s long spell of high pressure economic success, if we are measuring success in terms of GDP, it will be interesting to see what the country can do if it truly throws its weight behind wrapping its economy around sustainable development, and what the costs, both financial and human, of this course change will be.