EMALAHLENI, South Africa — There’s enough disturbing news in the world. I’ve reported my share of it. So when a story crosses my path that is part of the global garden of embryonic hope, I relish telling it.
One of those stories, about two young guys here in South Africa who turned trash dumps into a program to build neighborhood parks, was brought to my attention by environmental activists living in Mpumalanga province, the coal mining and coal-fired power capital of South Africa.
Patrick Bodibane is 33, a wiry and slim father of three, and a member of the overwhelming number of young, smart, and modestly skilled South African men who veer from one piece work job to the next to feed their families. One of every three working age South African adults is jobless. Those without industrial or craft skills, or post-high school educations, are passed by in a poorly managed nation that is hindered by its own reluctance to invest in skills training or higher education for its young people.
Dumisani Masina, Patrick’s friend, is a year older. He is tall and slim, wears his long hair in dreadlocks, and affects an air of confidence that fits a wardrobe of fitted colorful African shirts and stylish shoes that speak volumes about his grace. He is the father of four children by four women, and pursued studies at the local technical training school sufficient to attract several big industrial companies to hire Dumi in various health, safety, and quality control positions.
SHENZHEN, China – Although it is a distinctive way to view the world, to some extent the contemporary industrial age is a global narrative of substance abuse and recovery.
Sixty years ago the basic elements at the center of political and ecological concern were uranium and plutonium. Reckless Soviet and American atomic bomb blasts put so much deadly radiation in the atmosphere that milk and water became contaminated. Nations heeded the warnings of scientists and a global treaty to ban atmospheric testing was signed in 1963.
In the 1970s and 1980s the world came to recognize the malignant hazards of chlorine and its various chlorinated compounds used to manufacture pesticides, plastics, and coolants. A hole in the ozone opened over Antarctica. An industrial accident in Bhopal, India killed thousands of people. Trace residues showed up in food, in breast milk, and contaminated groundwater from leaking toxic waste dumps. Chlorine-based products were banned. Cleanup programs were instituted. Industrial safety improved.
Today, the world is steadily coming to agreement that carbon is the chemical compound putting life and economies at risk. Rejecting the views of the fossil fuel industry and their political allies in the United States, most national governments now heed the warnings of the climate-altering capability of carbon and are pivoting away from fossil fuel, its principle source.
The shift starts with coal and is starting to encompass oil. Coal production in the United States and western Europe is declining. Oil consumption in both regions is flat. Prices are sagging. Mexico banned new water drilling permits for shale oil and gas development near the Rio Grande Valley. Wind and solar electrical generating capacity is climbing quickly. A number of nations are developing new market signals and regulatory programs to reduce consumption of coal and oil, and to encourage cleaner energy alternatives. World leaders are set next month to converge on Paris to negotiate the first international agreement to limit carbon emissions.
In the United States, in an especially telling example of the global shift on fossil fuels, President Obama this week rejected the Keystone XL oil pipeline, and ExxonMobil is being investigated for securities fraud. The company is charged with hiding its own scientific studies about the carbon emissions threat, and spending millions of dollars to protect its fossil fuel holdings by supporting lawmakers and interest groups that marketed the false idea that climate change is a scientific hoax.
Tilting To Cleaner Production Practices I spent time this month in China’s Pearl River Delta as part of the Global Choke Point project I developed with Circle of Blue in 2010. The Choke Point project builds on seven years of multimedia reporting and convening that examines the water-energy-food confrontations in China, Australia, the United States, India, Mongolia, and the Arabian Gulf.
On the global resume of a world awakening to an era of ecological and economic reason, China’s new reckoning with the dangerous consequences of carbon stands out. Like a lover escaping the burden of a relationship that has suddenly grown difficult, China is steadily realigning its passion for coal, the largest source of carbon emissions. With an estimated 8.5 billion to 10 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions annually, China produces more of the world’s carbon air pollution than any other nation. Continue reading “China Joins Global Pivot Away From Carbon”
GUANGZHOU, China — Can a polluted stormwater drain newly constructed as an urban park speak for a city? Can a place of refuge, where clear water slips past slick rocks and families gather near the sound and mist of fountains, be an extension of a nation?
There’s always risk in heaping such rhapsody on a single example. Still, in the characteristically handsome Chinese design, and in the cooling embrace of its flowing water, the Donghao Chung greenway here defines something very new about this city and this nation: Ecological principles are steadily rising nearer to the top of China’s economic priorities.
Last year China’s President, Xi Jinping, visited Donghao Chung and said as much. “China wants to be known as a beautiful country. We want sustainable development. Donghao Chung is a small detail, a small part. By doing well with small parts China can paint a brilliant picture.”
Six years ago I made my first visit to China, which was still caught up in the storm of infrastructure construction, energy production, and urban development that made it the world’s second largest economy, and among the most polluted places on Earth. Though China was simultaneously building dozens of energy-efficient underground metro systems, a 10,000-kilometer high-speed rail network, and the globe’s largest wind, solar, and hydropower production sectors, top government officials did not express genuine interest in the ecological condition of their country.
A Nation Evolving
Perhaps in a triumph of rational recognition over economic ideology, or maybe it is economic rationale recognizing the painful consequences of rampant pollution, China is a changed nation in 2015. A year ago China reached a pact with the United States to reduce its climate changing emissions. A month ago, China announced it would establish a national carbon emissions trading market by 2017, a move to achieve the emissions reductions. Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Harbin, and other big cities regularly announce new policies and practices to clear the air of dreadfully high levels of particulates, and build new treatment plants to make the nation’s rivers and lakes safe.
A good deal of the justification for taking these actions, and for spending the $US billions that it costs every year, resides in this provincial capital of 16 million to 18 million residents (nobody is quite sure), China’s third largest city. For several years, as the rest of the world now knows, Guangzhou’s economy has been slowing and shifting, from heavy reliance on manufacturing to new layers of professional, finance, travel, real estate, banking, and service enterprises. Continue reading “Donghao Chung, Guangzhou’s Daylighted Refuge”
BENZONIA, MI — The role of a journalist isn’t hard to understand. We’re translators. We sort through the myriad details of complex subjects and choose the most salient to build a narrative that’s simpler for readers to understand. There couldn’t be a more important era to deploy that skill than now — the dismaying, dangerous, fabulous, primal decades of the 21st century.
The old order, in short, is coming apart. Think of it as a big building resting on a slippery, unstable foundation of mud.
2oth vs. 21st Century The 20th century economic construct was about consuming wasteful amounts of water, energy, soil, and land to build big centralized projects — big power plants, big oilfields and mines, big transmission systems, big highway networks, big farms, big suburbs, big houses, big malls. Managing enterprises of such scale called for spending enormous sums of money on supplies — energy, water, food — and on equipment — trucks, cars, factories, water pipes, power lines, air conditioners. Keeping order required hierarchical, vertically integrated, massive institutions –governments, banks, industrial corporations, universities.
The enterprise worked for a short time in the developed West — about the last half of the 20th century — because it fit market conditions. Energy and water were plentiful and cheap. Land was available and comparatively inexpensive for farms and for suburbs. Populations were smaller and more stable. Government treasuries were growing and so were working class salaries.
In the United States, ample government, business, and personal wealth built the roads, water systems, transmission networks, and supply lines that kept the enterprise running. In Michigan, where I live, factory workers owned boats, cottages along the shores of cold northern lakes, sent their children to college, and retired on generous pensions.
How quickly all of that melted away to produce the disruptive, confusing, and dangerous years of frustration here in the United States and across much of the world. Energy got expensive. World population soared. Land became dear. Industrial competitiveness shifted from North America and Europe to Asia. Pollution levels soared. Droughts and floods and earthquakes caused billions of dollars in damage. The energy-consuming, water-wasting, and inordinately expensive “get big or get out” 20th century formula for economic success is dying on the hot sands of ecological and economic distress.
Standing alone on the festival stage with her fiddle, Phoebe Hunt, one of the singularly great young artists that ROMP has featured in the last several years, prepared to open her set as a solo. A striking dark-haired woman, Phoebe paused. Her shoulders seemed to fall. She bowed her head, struggling to compose herself. But the weight of her tears became overwhelming. Glancing at Gabrielle, who stood offstage nearby, Phoebe mouthed “I love you,” and almost stumbled.
A few more moments passed before Phoebe gathered herself and started to play, the sound of her voice and fiddle like a halting lament. When she finished, Gabrielle strode to center stage and wrapped Phoebe in a big hug, a warm embrace of kinship and confidence, which is how Gabrielle always treats Phoebe and the other uncommonly talented millennial generation musicians who play ROMP.
All of them – The Rigs, 10 String Symphony, Luke Bulla, Vickie Vaughn, Sam Grisman, Sarah Jarosz, Billy Strings, Alex Hargreaves, and many others — are shaping the fresh, ascendant sound of bluegrass music. Settled at last, Phoebe was joined by the two other virtuoso members of her trio, mandolin player Dominick Leslie and cellist Nathaniel Smith, and performed the rest of her flawless and stylish set.
Tears of An Artist There aren’t many music festivals, or festival directors for that matter, that are capable of inspiring a performer’s tears. ROMP is one of those festivals and so is Gabrielle, its founder and director for the past 12 years. The 2015 ROMP fest was Gabrielle’s last. With new leadership deciding next year’s lineup of performers there’s no assurance that ROMP’s internationally distinctive musical center — the cadre of prominent young bluegrass artists that Gabrielle has recruited and cultivated — will still be featured in Owensboro.
That’s what drew tears from Phoebe Hunt, the awareness that it wasn’t just one era that was surely ending — Gabrielle’s sensational run as a festival director. So might another — the place ROMP holds for the emerging stars of bluegrass to perform during the last weekend of June and gather as friends to catch up and jam together. ROMP is what this generation calls its “hang,” and has been as important to elevating young careers as the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado was in the 1980s for Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Tim O’Brien, Mark O’Connor, Stuart Duncan and other artists who are now some of the biggest acts in bluegrass, and all of American music.
“ROMP was the first place that I could come to spend time with great musicians and hear their music,” Eric Robertson, the lead singer and mandolin player for The Rigs, told me. In 2013, Robertson was joined by fiddle player Duncan Wickel, drummer Nicholas Falk, and bassist Josh Hari at their first ROMP, performing a festival-best set that mixed bluegrass, soul, and New Orleans funk at an after party attended by a throng of dancers. Continue reading “Gabrielle Gray’s Last ROMP”