Saturday, 27 July 2019

How Idiocracy was a blueprint for 'Business as Usual' Climate Breakdown

Idiocracy came out 13 years ago, in 2006. Yet it could not be a more scarily prescient depiction of our current shitstorm of climate disaster and impending extinction.

The movie on its own is a piece of sharp-witted genius. Produced by Mike Judge (of Office Space fame, another absolutely classic social commentary), it follows an extraordinarily ordinary guy as he muddles his way through the society he has found himself in 500 years in the future. He's surrounded by karst-trash peaks, spectacular morons with root vegetable-levels of self-awareness, a ubiquitous soda terrifyingly named Brawndo, and an economic, social and political system that is as life-affirming as a handful of shit for Christmas.

In 2016, when Donald Trump became President of the United States of America, many film buffs jokingly but with an edge of nervous concern remarked that the premise of Idiocracy was sure enough coming to light. Even scriptwriter Etan Cohen flippantly weighed in. There are certainly parallels between Trump's and Camacho's (played flawlessly by Terry Crews) presidential campaigns: shrieking nationalism, guns, and meme-worthy lies (who said "it's not corrupt if everyone knows you're doing it"?). You could write a whole thesis on the foresight of Idiocracy on the USA's political mudslide between the years 2015-2020 (and I'm somewhat surprised and disappointed Michael Moore didn't touch on it in Fahrenheit 11/9). Plus, the gradual takeover of entire industries and government departments by extreme corporations like Brawndo and Carl's Jr. is like a modern-day parable. But there's something much more ominous, something terrible you get the slow, agonizing realization the movie was prophesizing.

One of the first shots we see of this brave new world Joe Bowers (Luke Wilson) steps into is the apocalyptically steaming Kilimanjaros of trash that sprout human dwellings, a visual resurrection of the term "crapshack". This is Out-of-Control Solid Waste Pollution whose set location could now easily be the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or Beijing's Plastic Gobi, or the Ganges or Citarum. That's without mentioning microplastics, which are probably now running through our tap water and even our veins. Will we, like Frito Pendejo Esq., the sub-hero of our movie, eventually be so undeterred by living atop a fecal-fragrant topography? Will we be too busy "'batin'" to care?

Before long, Joe the ordinary guy ends up getting recruited as Secretary of the Interior for his relatively astronomical "intelligence" (shout out to David Bernhardt), and is instantly tasked with the near-impossible task of solving the [quote]. This is nothing if not a pointed nod to rampant drought that in the year of the movie's release, ravaged south Australia, parts of England and nearly 40% of the US. Judge couldn't possibly have predicted it, but these dry disasters have been exacer-batin' year on year since then, most notably in the Midwest, southeastern US, California, Mexico, Brazil's main metropolises, the Sahel (twice), East Africa; even arguably catalyzing the Syrian civil war.

The scientific causes may be different, but the oafishness of the human species underlying it is the same. In Idiocracy, plants no longer grow because they have been absorbing Brawndo, which is believed to have "what plants crave. It's got electrolytes". It only takes Joe a swift measure of water ("like, out the toilet?") to encourage a green shoot to appear on the barren landscape. Everyone is saved, he is a hero and is appointed the new Mike Pence.

We too are facing a freshwater crisis right now, albeit not because we are watering plants with a sports drink (yet). As many as 2.1 billion people around the world do not have access to safe drinking water, and 4.5 billion don't have safely managed water for sanitation. By 2050, 5 billion people could have poor access to fresh water. The world (or some of it) has been watching in helpless horror at Cape Town's ongoing water shortage. "Day Zero" is like an unfunny genuine forewarning to "what's killing the crops".

If we reach the worst-case scenario of 8 degrees of global warming by the end of the century, we are coming up against food deficits and land incapable of growing comestibles; namely a replica Idiocracy future. In fact, any amount of warming will make this happen. Lack of rainfall in that millennium drought of Australia meant that rice and cotton production in the region fell 99 and 84% respectively. But unlike in Idiocracy, it won't be a simple case of lack of water, no siree. Deadly heat waves, pests and disease, rising sea levels and unpredictable storms will make growing crops about as effective as teaching a manatee to quickstep. Climate breakdown is like a dick tempest coming at us from all sides.

Even vegans are fucked - many of the plant foods we grow have slowly been declining in nutritional value, a phenomenon known as "nutrient collapse". Plants rely on both light and carbon dioxide to grow, and lately they've been getting way too much of the latter. Rice, barley, wheat and potatoes are all lower in protein, calcium, iron, and vitamin C and higher in carbs than 20 years ago, known as the "junk-food effect". This nutrient deficiency will affect millions of the planet's poorest most severely by 2050. While Judge imagines the fall of "civilization" as a result of dimwits reproducing willy-nilly, it could well be nutrient deficiencies that stunt the global population's brain development - if it's not the increased share of carbon dioxide in the air we breathe.

In the Global North, our diets are slowly degrading in nutritional value as we turn away from plants to processed foods that satiate our imagined need for eNdLeSs pRoTeIn, which we already get too much of. The minerals and vitamins we used to get from our relatively balanced variety of foods is being replaced by this hegemonic idol of nutritionists and Instagrammers, while most of us haven't a clue how much we need, let alone why. Won't be too long before all we crave is "Brawndo... it's got electrolytes."

Other movies and television such as Game of Thrones, Mad Max, Interstellar have in some way or another imagined the climate catastrophe ahead of us. But as David Wallace Wells notes, they have always depicted it as as something that was not our fault, something alien coming at us from the outside. Idiocracy, years ahead of those blockbusters, turns that blamelessness on its head. We are all Frito (unless you happen to be Greta Thunberg). We all let this happen, and are carrying on almost oblivious to the fact that these changes are happening now, rather than in the dim and distant future. Economics takes precedence over growing climate injustice and ecological annihilation - "I can't believe you like money too, we should hang out". Idiocracy has these levels of human ignorance spot on - complete indifference, nay apathy, under what is essentially an ongoing apocalypse. Where intelligence of any form makes you a "tard". You can't help but notice the way the citizens of Idiocracy world treat Joe, vilifying him like many climate truth-sayers have been, and continue to be vilified today.

We should look to the end of the movie to see what Judge prescribes the average Joe who finds himself, confounded, in such a dystopia. After spending the whole movie trying to find a time machine to take him back (aren't we all?), Joe Bowers decides to stay in the land of dunderheads and biodiverse garbage. He gives in. However, he has made a change. Thanks to one man, this world, in spite of its problems, is probably not going to get worse.

We will not be so lucky. If our climate breakdown could be solved by sprinkling toilet water onto a field, we'd be on our knees in a second installing hoses in our water closets. Even if we were able to curb emissions and halt ecological destruction right now, we'd still have to live with decades of the impending effects of the damage we've already wreaked. In a sense, Joe's adventure and his final decision to stay could be read as one straight white man's story of adaptation. But while this lone hero was able to save the citizens of the Idiocracy, we fallible masses must harness his out-of-the-box, obvious, self-preserving initiative.

Thing is, we don't have til 500 years in the future. We have to start yesterday.

Monday, 22 April 2019

Extinction Rebellion in Jalpan, Querétaro

It is April 15th, 2019, 3pm. Finishing up at work, I grab my bag, march to my apartment, pick up some guavas and the crudely painted-in-a-7am-trance cardboard placards, and then walk down the hill then up the hill to Jalpan’s main plaza. I seat myself in the shade of a kind tree opposite the Presidencia Municipal, and unfurl my signs.

Crap placard-maker available for all your placard needs.
Looking shady in a cap and broken sunglasses, I watch passers-by watching me. Doing my best to force a ‘beam’ across my face (how does one even ‘beam’?) I find myself wondering, not for the first time, whether looking happy is appropriate, given the wording of my placard.

Manifestación global contra la inacción de los gobiernos ante la crisis climática. Global protest against government inaction in the face of the climate crisis.
You’ve always got to make it clear what you’re protesting about, because symbols and catchy chants don’t always get the message across. That’s what I was told in London anyway, by a guy holding a sign that read ‘CLIMATE CHANGE’. I did a few actions with Extinction Rebellion there, and since I couldn’t make the nearest action (in Oaxaca some 500 miles away) today, I’ma go it solo. Instagram hashtags have my back, I’m not crazy.
I’m not, despite what the elderly Jehovah’s Witness who approaches me after about half an hour says. People like me don’t get it, apparently. Didn’t I know? God is going to come and save us all, I’ll see. I ask him when. He says God will do it when the time is right. I ask why god hasn’t done anything yet, when people around the world have already been killed and displaced by climate breakdown. He says God will do it when the time is right. I ask him if god cares about those people, or just certain people. He says God will save us when the time is right, gives me a pamphlet and walks away.
God will save us all, apparently.

After he has opened the floodgates, a little paysana lady asks me if I’m asking for money or what. She can’t read my sign. I say no, the message I’m spreading is free, and I read the sign for her. She is from here and has been seeing the changes I describe; rising heat levels and water scarcity.
A teenage-to-twenties girl is after her, apparently from a local news agency, Mensajero de la Sierra. She asks what I’m about and I say preserving life on Earth. Then she videos me on her phone explaining the dire situation this planet is in. She seems nice and invites me to her village someday.
Finally, a guy in shades sits next to me asking the same shit, which I try to explain. He agrees with me. He used to be passionate about stuff too, until he was kicked out of his home in Texas last year after 28 years of illegal residence since he was 12. Now all he wants is to go back and see his kids, who are five, seven and nine. He calls them every day, but they are forgetting his presence. He can’t bring them to Jalpan, or he won’t be able to provide for them with an average daily wage of about five dollars. He’s considering trying Canada, but that would be just as expensive as hiring a coyote to get him into the US, as he is attempting next week. He’s gonna try the same way his parents did. It’s dangerous as hell, but his kids are his everything.
I consider this for a while, and make the link. Lately my obsessive nature has made me link every problem to climate change. I could probably find a link between climate change and butt sweat (which isn't difficult, if you think about it). But climate change and migration is a legit problem. Yes, Mexicans have been migrating northwards for centuries. But now we hear of "caravans" in increasing numbers, despite the growing dangers of attempting to cross. It seems contradictory, given that the Mexican nation is supposed to be far more rich in natural resources than Texas. Colonialism and neocolonialism have snatched that from them, with the legacy of depressed wages, exploited land, and death-defying border sprints. Mexico’s natural defences that would have best equipped them to weather this planetary crisis have been pillaged over hundreds of years, and now the remnants of this bounty are drying up at an even more accelerated rate. Here in the Sierra Gorda, people can barely grow crops anymore. No wonder this guy is prepared to risk his life to go north.
Oh, and his name is Miguel, and he’s glad I’m doing this, because it’s good to have hope, even though people ruin everything and all hope is essentially pointless. During this time I have forgotten about my sign. I suddenly become conscious of the fact that by chatting with him in English, I have exposed myself as a privileged gringa protesting in a foreign developing country, which I can visit and leave at my own leisure. People are looking at us, I’m out of guavas and the sun is setting. I take his number and make him promise to call me next week when he gets to his kids in Texas.

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Thoughts on "Climate Justice" by Mary Robinson

"I felt bad because I knew that the people in developed countries are our friends. We are the same people; we have the same blood. But these people were enjoying their life while we were suffering. I wanted to know why they were doing this to us. I wanted to know whether the people in developed countries could reduce their emissions so we could have our normal seasons back." - Constance Okollet

Image result for climate justice mary robinson

I read these lines with my heart sinking into my intestines, as would anyone with a soul. This, and several accounts from underprivileged people from around the world on the front lines of climate breakdown were platformed in this wonderfully optimistic yellow book by the former President of Ireland. There was Anote Tong, who, post-Copenhagen, was forced to tell his people in Kiribati that their island was essentially doomed. Sharon Hanshaw, who became an accidental activist voicing the rights of the Katrina-devastated in Biloxi, near New Orleans. Vu Thi Hien, who left academia to help preserve Vietnam's biodiversity and indigenous communities through reforestation. Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, who, along with her M'bororo community, 3D-mapped the degradation of their native land to show the Chadian government and the world. These are the stories that need to be heard.

Devouring this 150-or-so-page book in an afternoon, outside in wintry London it quickly became dark in a way that the book did not. I wondered when Mary Robinson would dramatically unveil the morbid struggle of Latin America's environmental activists. As the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and author of such a compellingly titled book, surely she wouldn't overlook the fact that nearly 60% of the murders of land and environmental defenders in 2017 took place in Latin America?

She did. As bad as the stories of the community leaders profiled in the book were, she did not mention the endless denial of justice for the protectors of Latin America's indigenous rights and natural wild, or even murder at all. The only Latina mentioned, of course, was Christiana Figueres. A woman I used to admire so much, but now want to shake by the shoulders and scream 'WAKE UP!! Mission 2020 is not happening!'

Mary Robinson seems trapped in this admirable but frustrating optimism that the world order will 'wake up' on hearing the stories of the world's poorest and most vulnerable to climate degradation. Maybe it's fair enough, for someone who felt the wind change at the Paris Agreement. Like many of her generation, she earnestly believes that continuing on the business-friendly path of renewable energy, economic development, and non-binding corporate and government 'commitments' to net-zero emissions, we will make it. That is why she still has hope in Powerpoint conferences and briefcase groups such as her 'B Team' alongside Richard Branson, a man whose interests lie in maintaining his profits, and not structural, systemic overhaul. This is why CO2 emissions rose sharply in 2018, and will continue to do so.

True, we need to listen to the marginalised. But we can't stick our heads in the sand and pretend we can continue to develop without era-defining disruption to civilization as we know it. We need degrowth, right now - a word she does not mention at all. There is not enough time for optimism, and the truly downtrodden know this.

For these reasons, the book seems mistitled. Should we really hold out for, as the front cover suggests, "hope, resilience, and the fight for a sustainable future"? I hope she comes round to reality sooner rather than later, with a sequel: Climate Injustice.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Who are the guardians of China's last frozen river?

Original by ExploreToConserve here. Click to see the incredible photo series that this written account accompanies.

In the 30 degree summer of New Zealand, each breath is full of sunshine and sandy beaches. Groups of young people ahead wear shorts and flip flops, not missing the opportunity to expose their creamy skin to each ray of sunshine.

The heavy heat on our bodies makes it hard for us to imagine that at the same time, on the other side of endless mountains and seas, stand peaks capped by year-round snow that have been on top of the Tibetan plateau for hundreds of thousands of years, whose melting snow is carried into the giant river of life.

Let us focus in on the Tibetan plateau's eastern part. At an altitude of 5369 metres, Bayan Kala mountain range's highest peak has a special name: Nian Bao Yu Ze.

The name of the mountain god is 'Nian Bao Yu Ze', and the place where this god lives is god's mountain.
At the start of August 2018, myself, Obermann, and several local Tibetan friends undertook the main peak's frozen river annual monitoring mission, run by the Nian Bao Yu Ze Ecological Protection Association. This is a civil society group started up by local monks and herdsmen, which although grassroots, has been protecting Nian Bao Yu Ze for the past 11 years through local ecology and traditional culture. It has invested a lot of energy and seen many achievements.

Every August since 2004, salt-of-the-earth native herdsman Lewan from the valley of Nian Bao Yu Ze chooses two days of good weather. He takes a tent, camera and tripod, and single-handedly hikes to the edge of the peak's frozen river. After noting the GPS coordinates, he writes the year in acrylic paint, and takes a photo from a fixed point to document the river.

Two years ago, the nearly 50 year-old Lewan taught this task to another herder, Bade, who lives on the other side of the ice river. In 2018, with equipment sponsorship from The North Face, we and core members of the association who for a long time had not reached the river's 5000 metre-altitude rode horses together entering from Bade's valley. Then leaving from Lewan's village, we attempted a crossing almost no one had ever tried.

Just like a real adventure, every experience was brand new, which requires full mind-and-body immersion. Since it is not easy to write about the experience, how can it be conveyed to anyone who did not stand atop that mountain? Photos and videos do it much better justice.

Although it was a happy adventure, hearing about the frozen river's historical demise was distressing. Around ten years ago, this place was perhaps unrecognizable. Outdoor explorers had very few grievances; the more pressing question is...

The head of the association Ake Kamakura is a monk proficient in classical Buddhism. Standing in front of the stone used as the fixed point from which to take photos, he says that when he was a small he herded cattle at the foot of the mountain. In the past few decades he has seen with his own eyes the frozen river disappearing at an incredible speed.

"Tibetans believe that water comes from the top of the snow mountain, but in maybe 50 years time, if there is no frozen river, our water source will no longer be guaranteed."

Not just you, this would also be a problem for the thousands of people living downstream of Sanjiangyuan! I think silently.

In the past 50 years, the average annual temperature of Nian Bao Yu Ze's county, Juizhi, has increased by almost 2 degrees Celsius. What about this makes it so bad?

The Paris Agreement three years ago called for all countries to limit the global temperature increase between the years 1850 to 2100 to less than 2 degrees Celsius, the threshold beyond which the world will face irreversible changes. Other plant and animal species may still thrive, but humanity's complex and fragile social structure will be very hard to maintain under even the slightest environmental changes.

In 2009, an article in an authoritative journal summarized the crisis brought by climate change facing the Tibetan Plateau as seen by scientists - the temperature increase on the plateau is three times that of the planet. The frozen river's decline is evident. Will the lives of the herdspeople and villagers who live here be able to withstand the effects of such an upheaval? There are many plants and animals that are not found anywhere else on the planet. While the temperature rises, the mountain's height stays limited; so where will they all go?

We discovered the corpses of at least 20 little birds at the top of the frozen lake. Even locals who regularly climbed here had never observed this before. Was it related to climate change? It's not clear, but the summer of 2018 was abnormally hot.
Our understanding of the plateau's flora and fauna is so limited, so the traditional culture in which local Tibetans live in harmony with nature is very much worth maintaining and sharing. But life there is facing huge uncertainties of the future.

How can we make outsiders aware of the severity of this generation's environmental problems, and have the confidence to make changes?

This is a question I have not yet found an answer to. However, what the association's founder, Tashi Sange, told me gave me hope:

"This planet is my mother. If my mother is sick, I worry she might die tomorrow. So does she still need looking after today? Of course she needs looking after. Our planet is the same. If the planet is exploding tomorrow, we still have to care for it today."

The members of Nian Bao Yu Ze Ecological Protection Association believe that nature is a guesthouse, and humans are just her temporary guests. We have the right to use her, but not to ruin her. All beings should enjoy the guesthouse's clean air, food and water, but if our appetite is too large, we will be stealing resources from other beings.

Leaving Nian Bao Yu Ze, the other association members and I are walking along a dirt path through the middle of the grasslands, when Tashi suddenly stops dead in front of me, both feet apart. I go to stand next to him, curious, and ask "what are you doing?"

"There's an insect on the ground, I'm protecting it," he says with a laugh.

They have already started protecting. Have you?

Having finished reading this article, you can:

1. Make fewer online purchases and deliveries, use fewer plastic bags and other single-use items
2. Use public transport more, or cycle, run or walk
3. Support truly environmentally-friendly businesses (not those just paying lip-service)
4. There is lots more you can do, but the easiest is to scan the QR code below or click 'Read the original article' and share it, like our ME public welfare innovation project application, to help Nian Bao Yu Ze Ecological Protection Association receive 500,000 yuan in charity funding. We hope to present a new balance of coexistence between humans and nature, so that everyone can be a guardian of nature.

Of course, this is a monumental topic of discussion. Will we be able to protect Nian Bao Yu Ze or even China's last frozen river? We hope so, and believe there is still time... because there is you, Tashi!

Saturday, 12 January 2019

Latin America, Where Being An Environmental Activist Is A Death Sentence

Original aquí.

Mexico, Colombia and Brazil are the most dangerous countries in the region for defenders of environmental, land, and indigenous rights, according to several NGOs

In March 2016, the Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres was assassinated, yet justice is still on the trail of the perpetrators.

Cáceres is among the almost 197 environmental advocates who were killed in 2017, according to the NGO Global Witness, the majority of them in Latin America.

The corruption and vast natural resources that the region hosts make it the perfect setting for megaprojects to acquire licences relatively easily.

The head of the Global Witness campaign, Billy Kye, told DW Germany that ‘there are high levels of indigenous populations who have historically been marginalised, so companies enter their lands and plunder their resources.’

Although their protests are acknowledged more each time by the media and are sometimes heard by local authorities, paradoxically this makes them more at risk of assassination.

Front Line Defenders confirms that it is mostly activists who are murdered. The organization registered 312 defenders killed, 212 of them in Latin America. Most alarming is that 156 of these homicides were in Colombia and Brazil.

The report also indicates that 80% of assassinations of human rights advocates occur in Colombia, Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines.

Of the total number of activists killed, according to this investigation, 67% were defenders of land, environmental and indigenous rights.

In almost all cases these advocates fought against the activities of extractive industries or megaprojects that damaged vast ecosystems or the homes of ancient peoples.

Astrid Puentes Riaño, co-executive director of the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA), confirmed that ‘Latin America is the most unequal region on the planet, which means that there are populations in situations of extreme economic, political, and social vulnerability,’ according to DW Germany.

She added that ‘we live in a region with one of the highest rates of impunity and weakest rule of law, where the implementation of norms is also sidelined.’

The Amazonian rainforest has become a particular area of dispute in Brazil. The government, who is at the root of the country’s current economic and political crisis, has searched ‘desperately for quick solutions to access the Amazon, the development and extension of agricultural land, and the ruthless exploitation of natural resources,’ according to Jim Loughran of Front Line Defenders.

Colombia, despite its peace agreements, ‘thousands of Colombians with legal entitlements to their land have been displaced. As they work to reclaim their territory, they become targets for the profiteers who could illegally seize their land, as well as for the new generation of paramilitary succeeding the FARC who want to take control. The defenders of land rights find themselves in critical danger,’ says Loughran.

For Global Witness, the country’s current situation is the result of palm oil agroindustry. This activity, the NGO says, has surpassed mining as the business with most links to activist killings.

Meanwhile, Mexico continues to be embroiled in an escalation of human rights advocates assassinations that has taken it to fourth place of countries with the highest number of such murders, according to Global Witness.

‘The federal and state governments do not sufficiently support the work of defenders and sometimes even ally with the opposition to their work,’ Puentes Riaño argued, denouncing the impunity that she says persists in the country.

The visibility of defenders is also a double-edge sword, exposing them to identification and possible assassination. This occurred with Isidro Baldenegro López, an activist against illegal logging in the ancient forests of Sierra Madre, or Berta Cáceres in Honduras, both who were massacred shortly after each receiving a Goldman Environmental Prize.

According to Front Line Defenders, only 12% of these cases end with the arrest of suspects. The spokeswoman for AIDA says that there are measures that need to be taken urgently. These include ‘adequate investigations and identification of those responsible for attacks and assassinations of activists, as well as authors and intellectuals, and justice in all these cases.’

Global Witness has called for states to rally to the defence of environmental advocates, and to fight ‘root causes’ which are lack of prior consultation of indigenous peoples and other communities who would be affected by industrial projects.

Monday, 24 December 2018

Beijing Isn't Actually That Polluted (...?)

The first time I went for a run in China, I lasted only fifteen minutes before collapsing on the ground, spluttering grey phlegm like a deranged concrete mixer.

This was only a few weeks into my arrival, not a massive amount of time since I had been regularly doing 10ks around the quaint Caversham countryside. But the air is different in Chengdu.

A southwestern second-tier city, Chengdu was the first place I properly lived in in China. A recent analysis has shown that this year, Chengdu's air pollution surpassed that of the capital, Beijing. When you think of Beijing, you picture Tiananmen Square enrobed in a thick grey smog, with mask-wearing passers-by barely visible and Mao's face ominously peeping through the soot. It's the world's poster child for ultimate air-quality mismanagement; the home of the 'airpocalypse'.

Such a classic shot.

Now, Chengdu is even worse.

But what happened? Moving to 'Greyjing' nine months later, I was surprised to find that the summer days were unexpectedly bright and blue. The most fallaciously pretty afternoon was during the National Day celebrations of October 2015 - the previous day had pissed it down, but now it was as if APEC had come round again.

'APEC Blue' was the name given to the highly unusual (and suspiciously) blue skies during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Beijing the previous year (when I was still choking on PM2.5 in Chengdu). Then it became a term used to describe anything beautiful but fleeting - but conversely, it seemed such 'blue heavens' became more and more frequent during my two years in the big BJ.

That very same year, the documentary 'Under the Dome' by the spectacular Chai Jing went viral. The monumental wake-up call it created was like an oriental Silent Spring, and of course, within a week the film was censored - but not before hitting 300 million views. It outlined Jing's daughter's in utero tumour caused by shitty air and laid into China's biggest polluters. At the end, she encouraged viewers to say 'No, I'm not satisfied, I don't want to wait. I want to stand up and do a little something.' No wonder the CCP got scared.

And people did a little something. No 1989-style revolution, obviously, but some type of online grumbling that got noticed. Beijing had for years already been moving the factories out of the city centre, riling up the older generation who'd lost their jobs as a result. This had, in a huge way, transferred the grey problem to surrounding provinces like Hebei (which Chinese people now stereotype as polluted), but Beijing's turf still had a winter-smog elephant to deal with.

Every November, around the 15th, Beijing flips on the central heating. This kept people in the little hutong courtyard houses like mine cosy during the tundra-like climes (and in my conspiracy-paranoid mind, shut up - in more senses than one). But there is a big cost to this. The energy it takes to heat a city of 22 million via a system of underground pipes means an unbelievable amount of coal being burned, and consequently a fat shroud of smog over the capital. Sometimes the Gobi Desert also likes to troll the capital, dumping yellow clouds of sand whenever it gets a bit windy (which, in winter, is sometimes).

Last year in 2017 they tried to ban coal for heating and replace it with natural gas, which it turned out they didn't have enough of, leaving a ton of people in Hebei out in the cold. Naturally, Hebei-ers were frosty about this and the 'government' had to revert to the black stuff. But like Chai Jing, many more city-dwellers are complaining about the long-term effects pollution has on general health and well-being - especially that of their children. These people, mostly the rising middle-class, live in Beijing and Shanghai and can afford to consider the luxuries of clean air, occasionally disappearing to Taiwan, Japan or New Zealand to detox their lungs. To placate these high-PPP people, whose mass dissatisfaction could threaten the very stability of the regime, the biggest cities are mobilising in a big way to clean up the skies.

And it seems to be working, if you take the word of China's Ministry of Environmental Protection, which for your own sanity you shouldn't. The US embassy, which unofficially (but more reliably) monitors the city's air, had readings which suggested PM2.5 concentrations in winter 2017 were more than 50% lower than in 2016 - in agreement with the official stats.

It's like Beijing has reached post-development, where inhabitants have the economic clout to call out the damage from the industrialisation that made them rich. Meanwhile, in second- and third-tier cities like Chengdu, it's still development at all costs. It may take several years before they get to the comfortable-enough point to 'do a little something'.

Of course, Beijing still has its bad days, and compared with European cities it's a gas chamber. But it's nothing that can't be dealt with temporarily by a magic weather machine or cloud-dispersing rockets to maintain a sunny façade, as is what probably happened for my nostalgic National Day parade in 2015. Back then, most days people used to say that smoking was a way of filtering out the pollution. When I went back just last year, there were fewer masks, and fewer smokers. Maybe, just maybe, there's less to filter.

EDIT: Literally a few hours after I wrote this, I looked on a WeChat group of the Beijing Energy Network that I'm part of. Someone had posted this update that BJ's pollution in the first two months of winter 2018 was actually WORSE than in 2017. So it probably isn't a trend and may well invalidate all of the above... hence the ellipsis and question mark in the title. And this awkward photo as recompense.

The face of a smog mask expert.

Monday, 17 December 2018

Stolen Stalactites

This maybe doesn’t seem like an environment or sustainability issue. But bear with me.

In the depth of Chom Ong, a 16.4km-long cave in the northeast of Laos whose name means ‘chasing the wasp’, Mr Shengshoulixai starts slapping the palms of his hands against a million-year-old overhanging white limestone curtain. He beats a rhythm on the differently-tuned stalactites, whose bass reverberates through the darkness.

Mr Shengshoulixai knows and loves the cave like his own home. He is keen to show me around even though I have just shown up unannounced and already weary from the 18km hike to get there. It is so remote, very few tourists make it – unless they are shuttled there in a four-by-four by special spelunking tour agencies. The nearest town, Oudomxay, is an industrial shithole.

The cave was ‘discovered’ only in 2006, and opened to the public in 2010. Actually, it was discovered by local farmers many generations ago, but for some reason these things are only truly considered ‘discovered’ when white scientists show up to measure them and draw pictures. As we clamber over the slippery stalagmites, Mr Shengshoulixai points out the demarcations where the local tourism office is planning to set up a trail. ‘Good thing you came here before 2020,’ he tells me, ‘by then this place will be full of tourists!’

He is hopeful about this. The adjoining Khmu village where he lives is very basic, with bucket showers and no electricity. Daily dinner is sticky rice and the local staple, bamboo shoot, with some zesty chilli (frog is also a specialty). Obviously, the more visitors, the more income he will make for his family. He’s looking for connections and investors in his plans for an eco-resort in the vicinity, but he only wants to partner with Westerners, despite a strong Chinese presence and interest in the area’s development.

He says that Chinese people do come here, but that they are not interested in exploring the cave like the Europeans are. They want to buy his land and build hotels. Sometimes they even try to break into the cave without paying him for his guidance services, which isn’t permitted. He shakes his head when he tells me about the stalactite thefts.

A few years back, some individuals broke into the cave and hacked off pieces of stalactite, perhaps with some kind of saw or club. The evidence of this is clearly visible, where the normally rounded ends of the ‘tites have sharp cornered edges where they have been broken clean off. A formation of several thousands, maybe millions of years old, severed in an instant.

Mr S. knows it was the Chinese. He is aware that there is some kind of stalactite trade in China, which I’m initially dubious about. But then I recall the many stalactites I have seen in souvenir markets in the southeast of China being sold as mantelpiece ornaments. Why the hell would anyone steal bits of cave? I hadn’t realised that was even a THING.

Market in Guilin, south China

Much less work has been done on the ethics of trade of geological heritage compared to biodiversity. China is notorious for breaching international trade rules on ivory and other endangered and non-endangered species, but there’s so little information on the scale or causes of mineral trafficking, and effects this pillage has on communities like Mr S’s.

While perhaps this doesn’t at first glance seem to have a tangible impact on the natural environment (it is unknown what ecosystem purposes stalactites might serve, if any), as a ‘fuck-you’ to the beauty of the planet and its diverse habitats, as well as an affront to the people that try to protect them, these activities should be up there with illicit trade and theft of biological organisms.

Mr S has had to put a giant padlock on the gate of the cave mouth, to stop anything like this happening again. If it were to continue, it could ruin not only the cave and its formations that visitors come from all over the world to marvel at, but also his livelihood. He hopes that further development, under the watchful eye of the authorities and in partnership with environmentally-aware investors, will bring enough attention to the threat Chom Ong is under and grant him more capacity for protecting it. For now, only he holds the key.