Japan at Nature’s Edge

If Nature were human, we would wonder at the cruel irony of its setting the Fort McMurray fires that in May 2016 struck at the heart of Canada’s oil production, shutting down petroleum extraction in the country’s tar sands heartland, a place that even by the standards of a messy industry is at the far, very bad end of the environmental spectrum.

If we wanted to continue thinking of Nature as anthropomorphic, perhaps even thinking of her as Mother Nature, we would also wonder at the even crueller irony of anearthquake off the coast of Japan in March 2011 that led to the meltdown of three nuclear reactors at Fukushima. The incident was, excepting the 1986 meltdown at Chernobyl, the most serious civilian nuclear accident ever. These triple meltdowns, whose toll of death and suffering remains unclear, occurred in a country that was the subject of the only two atomic bomb attacks in history, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in 1945.

Nature is not a person, of course, and our attempts to anthropomorphize environmental forces is dangerous.

This review was originally published in the Asian Review of Books. Can be accessed here

Zoos, Cities and Sacred Spaces: Four books on Imperial Japan and Colonial Korea

No country can match the needlepoint-like intensity that Japan brought to its embrace of modernity following the 1868 Meiji Restoration. The burst of reformist energy intent on proving Japan the equal of the West gave birth to a modernity project like no other, one that consciously and intently drew from the West yet retained uniquely Japanese characteristics.

Modernization was about electric lights and streetcars, jazz music and bobbed-hair. It was the age of the railroad and an emperor but also of the bicycle and the suburb, an age of women workers and consumers. Japan’s modernization has always had a strong backward-looking tug, one designed to support the Emperor and a newly powerful nation-state. The past was used to support the modern, with meticulously catalogued local history and the nurturing of craft traditions. Japan’s is a hybrid approach to modernity, embracing what is best from outside but re-working it inside the insular eco-system of this island nation.

That energy ultimately was channelled into imperial, colonial expansion and a cruel fascism whose shadows continue to spook Japan’s neighbors today. Looking back through the lens of history, it is too easy to see the violence of  the 1930s and 1940s Japan as pre-destined, a war whose gratuitous cruelty was too thorough-going to have been anything but inevitable.

This review was originally published in the Asian Review of Books. It can be accessed here

Climate Change Governance in Chinese Cities by Qianqing Mai and Maria Francesch-Huidobro

Global warming is one of the greatest challenges of our time. Yet despite all the attention that climate change, air pollution and other environmental issues receive, too few books go inside government decision-making processes to look at the messy, inconsistent and usually unsatisfying business of making and carrying out environmental policies.

This specialist book fills some of that gap with a detailed look at policy formulation and implementation related to climate change in three important southern Chinese cities—Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Guangzhou. The focus on cities, and the close-up look at the collaboration between these three cities, is valuable. Around the world, cities are where some of the most innovative and important experiments in environmental policies are being undertaken. Today’s mega-cities are the size of Britain and Germany two centuries ago.

There is a wealth of fascinating detail in this book. These are cities with similar populations (seven to nine million), yet many differences. Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region that enjoys much more autonomy than the other two cities, is much more energy-efficient: it produces more than triple the GDP per unit of energy as Guangzhou and two-and-a-half times that of Shenzhen. Put another way, although Hong Kong is much richer than Guangzhou, it uses less energy.

This review was originally published in the Asian Review of Books. Can be accessed here

The People’s Republic of Chemicals by William J Kelly and Chip Jacobs

Each day air pollution in China kills more than 3000 people—that’s more deaths each day than the 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington, some 1.2 million a year. This comparison is one among a torrent of scary statistics in The People’s Republic of Chemicals, written by a self-described team of “gonzo mavericks of environmental reporting”.

How can one convey the magnitude of China’s environmental nightmare? After all, this is not September 11th, and people are not dying in deliberate terror attacks. Instead, China’s pollution victims are succumbing one by one to respiratory diseases in hospitals and clinics and homes and cancer villages. They’re dying before their time, yet the country is growing and becoming richer in part because of environmental degradation.

The authors’ message is to remind us that we’re in serious trouble and that the situation is getting worse. China’s many announcements about increased environmental protection and its impressive accomplishments in installing solar and wind power should not obscure the reality that the environmental situation continues to deteriorate. An obsession with growth continues to triumph over the environment. We may look back and see that the  severe air pollution in Beijing in recent winters, which on bad days has been like breathing the air in a forest fire, marked a turning point. For now, Kelly and Jacobs are understandably skeptical that environmental progress in China is for real.

This review was originally published in the Asian Review of Books. Can be accessed here

Fantasy Islands: Chinese Dreams and Ecological Fears in an Age of Climate Crisis by Julie Sze

China’s environmental emergency, Julie Sze tells us, has given rise to fear, loathing, and, more recently, what may prove to be a historic agreement by Xi Jinping and Barack Obama to limit carbon emissions. The growing crisis has also set off a race to find solutions. From wind farms and solar panels to electric vehicles, Chinese government and businesses are in a race to keep the Chinese dream of a higher living standard from being overwhelmed by coal-choked air, toxic water and clusters of cancer villages.

China needs big solutions for problems that are almost unimaginably large. Setting up entire new cities—so-called eco-cities—was one path to change. On paper, it seemed sensible enough to build high-end showcases that could serve as experimental demonstration sites and diffuse good environmental practices more broadly throughout the country.

Dongtan was the most ambitious of these projects. Set on Chongming Island, the world’s largest alluvial island just north of Shanghai, Dongtan was supposed to exemplify the way in which a rising and increasingly urban China could live in harmony with nature. Crucially, it was also one of the earliest such cities, so the entire concept was something of a blank canvas.

This review was originally published in the Asian Review of Books. Can be accessed here

Review: City of Darkness Revisited by Greg Girard and Ian Lambot

Two decades after its destruction, the Kowloon Walled City has acquired an increasingly shiny gloss of respectability. Architects of the new urbanism celebrate its dense, human, organic development. The government’s dystopian view of the Walled City as a place of “notorious… drug divans, criminal hide-outs, vice dens and even cheap unlicensed dentists,” has given way to a vision of the Walled City in the collective imagination as the lost paradise, a sort of Atlantis, Xanadu and urban Shangri-La rolled into one.

Symbolizing this re-imagined city, and helping make the gloss even shinier, is a new and dramatically expanded twentieth-anniversary edition of City of Darkness. In its earlier editions, the book was smoothing of a cult classic. It was also a book that focused very much on the people of the City, trying to de-mystify and humanize this place of urban myth.

The new edition is big and bold, a colorful heavyweight book perfectly suited for gift-giving and coffee-table viewing by people who never would have gone to the City while it was real. But it is also a far more ambitious attempt to look at the underside of the city and at its larger global and urban-architectural dimensions.

This review was originally published in the Asian Review of Books. Can be accessed here

Review: Villages in the City, edited by Stefan Al; Paris Reborn by Stephane Kirkland

The city was one vast construction zone. New streets were literally smashed through buildings. Half-demolished buildings dominated the cityscape. Roads were ripped apart and mountains of rubble piled up.

Much of this will sound familiar to anyone living in China today. In the eyes of the Chinese media, a village that stands in the way of lucrative high-rise property development is derided as an “eyesore”, “cancer”, an “ill” that is a “scar” on the city. The residents of these poorer areas are labelled as filthy, as burglars, drug users and even murders.

As in Second Empire Paris, so too in China today: governments exercise their power of eminent domain to seize land. It is a contest, naturally, with the state and its development allies against those who stand to lose their apartments. Importantly, it is also a struggle between the state and private developers over profits. For urban real estate redevelopment can be spectacularly lucrative, whether in Paris or Shenzhen. Money, as much as vision, drives urban change.

This review was originally published in the Asian Review of Books. Can be accessed here

Review: China Fast Forward by Bill Dodson

Dodson’s book is a bit like China itself: fast-moving, somewhat kaleidoscopic, hard to pin down, by turns baffling, frustrating and entertaining. Reading the book is a bit like watching a movie running at twice or four times its normal speed—it is sometimes a bit jerky, but fast-paced and often entertaining.

Despite writing a book filled with often searing criticism, Dodson dearly hopes that China will somehow pull it off… yet despairs that it won’t. This is a rapidly-paced, even scattershot book, more of a quick tour than an in-depth visit. For anyone familiar with China, most of these arguments will not be new. For anyone who knows less about China or who thinks that China’s rise is unstoppable, there is much here to recommend.

This review was originally published in the Asian Review of Books. Can be accessed here

Review: The Singapore Water Story by Cecilia Tortajada, Yugal Joshi and Asit K. Biswas

In exploring exactly how Singapore prepared for contingencies and achieved water security, The Singapore Water Story is a detailed and often fascinating look at one of the most remarkable yet least remarked-upon political and environmental successes of modern Asia. It is an extraordinary story of how the country simultaneously made everyday life more pleasant for its people and enhanced national security through a focus on securing and diversifying its water sources.

This review was originally published in the Asian Review of Books. Can be accessed here

Review: Greenprint by Aaditya Mattoo and Arvind Subramanian

In their slim book, Aaditya Mattoo and Arvind Subramanian make a case for action led not by the rich West but by the giants of the developing world. The biggest carbon emitter is China; other large developing nations—India (third largest), Brazil, and Indonesia—are also significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions…

This review was originally published in the Asian Review of Books. Can be accessed at www.asianreviewofbooks.com/?ID=1494