REDDING, CA. — Cities along the Carolina coast were under water this month. Neighborhoods in California’s northern highlands were incinerated in July and August. Mother Earth is pushing back hard in this quickly unfolding era of ecological menace and there are twice as many people in the way as there were 40 years ago.
I’m in California reporting for ProPublica on the causes and the solutions to the state’s wildfire emergency. You’ve heard something no doubt. The fires are getting bigger, more dangerous, more destructive. What you probably haven’t heard is that this fire calamity has been anticipated for 35 years.
The federal and state governments are pouring a tide of money into fire fighting responses that are not working, and killing the men battling these fires. More effective, much less expensive, less ecologically damaging, and safer tactics to prevent fires have been pushed to the side. Reason: lawsuits, ideological intransigence from environmentalists and industrialists, legislative momentum to pay for war-like militaristic air and ground “attack” teams to battle the flames, and bureaucratic frustration and exhaustion by forest managers.
The single spark from a tire blowout that ignited the inferno here in Redding was the last deadly step in a long, stupefying, characteristically demoralizing tale of the nation that we’ve become: litigious, science rejecting, intransigent, money grubbing, finger pointing, blame shifting. It’s a rotten story.
Like a herd of wild bulls, raging floodwaters stampeded across a highland plateau in July and tore a hole in the mammoth Xi-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydropower complex dam in south central Laos. The boiling torrent crashed downstream from the nearly completed $1 billion dam, drowning 39 people identified so far, leaving over 100 more missing, and forcing more than 6,600 people out of their homes and into temporary government housing.
Little more than a month later, on August 29, floodwaters caused an irrigation dam to burst at Swar creek in central Myanmar, flooding 85 villages.Two people are missing.
The two catastrophes, both connected to the increasing ferocity of drenching storms in Southeast Asia, are an epochal moment of reckoning for the financiers, builders and managers of big dams, especially the mammoth hydropower dams that n nations are so intent on building despite the vivid and mounting risks. Mega dam developers are being challenged by fierce ecological havoc, as well as climbing costs, civic resistance, and engineering lapses. The result is that dams around the world are failing at a rate never seen before.In Southeast Asia alone three big dams have failed in the last year. A second hydropower dam failed in northern Laos in September 2017.
“There have always been big projects that failed,” said Bent Flyvbjerg, professor of major program management at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School and a widely cited global authority on mega projects. “What is different now is that we have many more mega projects, they are much bigger, and there are spectacular failures that are more visible.”
The deadly collapse in Laos is a case in point. Until the Xi-Pian Xe-Namnoy disaster, Laotian leaders viewed mega hydro dam construction as a safe path to strengthening their treasury. The tiny landlocked nation of 7.1 million people set out to encourage domestic and international financiers and contractors to build over 100 big hydropower projects to sell electricity to its fast-growing Southeast Asia neighbors and to serve its own rising power demands. According to the Laotian government, two thirds of the country’s hydropower is exported, which accounts for almost a third of its export revenue.
Two of the nations at the top of the list for assassinating journalists are Mexico and the Philippines, where I’ve worked. Another is Pakistan, where I won’t work. Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter, was killed there in 2002.
Very suddenly, though, it’s become dangerous to be an American journalist in the United States. In late June five reporters and editors were killed in Annapolis, MD. It was the deadliest mass murder of American journalists since 1910 when a bomber killed 21 people at the Los Angeles Times.
The killer is a man said to have a long-standing grudge against the Capital Gazette. And while investigators assert they understand the motive, it’s not lost on me (or other journalists I know) that the Annapolis killings occurred when the president of the United States was lustily declaring the American media as “the enemy of the people.”
The video coverage of Trump’s rallies display how his attacks on fake news and the media animate blood lust in the crowd. It’s no reach at all to project how some among them could take up arms and attack U.S. journalists. And it’s no reach to project that Trump’s supporters, and perhaps the president himself, would say they had it coming.
This is the requisite paragraph in which I display my intimate understanding of the myriad lapses in American journalism. I understand why the powerful institution to which I’ve devoted my life makes good people crazy. It’s not just the factual errors or the mechanics of hyping insignificance. It’s how the herd can be driven so far off course, like blindly following government lies about weapons of mass destruction into war with Iraq, or devoting so much attention to Hillary’s emails while dismissing much of Trump’s record of financial fraud and management malfeasance.
But in no way are journalists the enemy of the people. Our value in holding leaders accountable, in uncovering wrong doing, or promoting good work is vital to a healthy democracy. I will not be pushed off track by a manic president or his menacing siege against journalism. My colleagues won’t either. At this vulnerable moment in our history we know the nation needs courageous reporting more than ever.
One of the many critical details of 21st century change, learned during a decade of global reporting, is that Asia is the dominant continent of the century. Another thing is that development patterns in Asia’s big cities, the glittering metropolises along the Pacific Rim, are different than they are in the West. And the third essential feature of 21st century change is the big role American architecture, engineering, and planning firms are playing in designing Asia’s future, which is to say designing the century.
Asia’s urban design strategy is forming in an arc of big Pacific Rim cities from Seoul south to Jakarta. Within the arc are Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore. I’ve reported extensively in almost all of them, most recently in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
The design fosters economic development principles and values that stresses density, public transit, coastal protection, resource reclamation, walkability, energy efficiency, and land and water conservation. The really interesting and important feature that links the cities and the new buildings, transit lines, river reclamation projects, park construction, energy efficient housing and other infrastructure is this: Five big American global architecture and design firms are doing a significant share of the master planning, design work, engineering, and construction management.
In Malaysia, for instance, two new Kuala Lumpur automated transit lines (over 100 kilometers and $11 billion in investment) and a $1.2 billion river restoration project were designed and engineered in large part by AECOM. AECOM also is involved in the design and engineering for a $14 billion, 688-kilometer fast rail line that crosses the Malaysian peninsula.
The master plan for Forest City, in southern Malaysia, perhaps the largest private mixed-use real estate development in the world, was prepared by Sasaki, a Boston-based architecture and design consultancy. Sasaki prepared the Beijing Olympics master plan, and was involved in designing a number of its installations. Skidmore Owings and Merrill (Chicago), KPF (New York), and the SWA Group (Pasadena) also have a lot of big transformative projects in architecture, design and master planning in Asia.
What’s so compelling is that Americans are designing urban spaces that are, in large part, a repudiation of the auto-oriented, land wasting, resource-consuming, sprawling land use and metropolitan development patterns of America’s 20th century, which were first introduced in GM’s Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. And in really stark contrast to the reluctance to invest in infrastructure that describes America’s experience over the last three decades or so, Asian nations are pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into the civic equipment that helps make nations and urban centers work. Though the May 9 election trimmed Malaysia’s infrastructure spending there are still over $60 billion in projects that are either under way or about to get started. Vietnam, Thailand, China, Indonesia, Korea and India also have enormous infrastructure development programs.
AECOM’s revenue in its Asian Pacific operations totaled $1.3 billion last year. They also are heavily involved in India Prime Minister Modi’s project to build what he calls “smart cities” between Delhi and Mumbai.
One more signal thought. American design firms are involved in master planning, designing, and engineering installations in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the $1 trillion, 70-country project to establish new trade routes from Beijing and Shanghai to Europe, Africa, and Southeast Asia. In doing so China is completely reworking the global trade and transport system, a system that the United States basically developed and helped to manage over the last 70 years. The White House-sponsored tariffs and trade stresses are pushing China to quicken its plan to develop and dominate new supply and customer markets, which are steadily expanding China’s sphere of influence and accelerating its global trade goals. American architects and planners are playing a big role in shaping what those new Belt and Road installations look like, and how they will perform.
BENZONIA, MI — On this disruptive, bittersweet July 4 let me draw you back 155 years. On this same day in 1863 the blood of the dead and the wounded seeped into the grassy fields of Gettysburg. Spawned by irreconcilable principles and values nearly as virulent as those that exist today, the Union army victory was the strategic turning point in the Civil War. It provided military and cultural momentum for the winning progressive view that free will was an American virtue guaranteed to all races. It also confirmed the views, and cemented the historic legacy of the gifted and courageous anti-slavery voices of the 19th century — Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, William Lloyd Garrison.
Fast forward to now, and further to November 6, election day. In my mind the 2018 mid-term election is tantamount to an American political Battle of Gettysburg. The outcome of that day, regardless of which side wins, will measure the American character and define our national direction for decades. I stand with progressives who support justice, human rights, job and economic opportunity, fairness, environmental protection, and peace. Make no mistake, the other side, supporters of a venal man and the fact-free politics of fear and grievance, bring to the battle equivalent reserves of energy and intensity.
The right wing of the United States has succeeded in building an ultra-conservative counter culture. Its supporters, and their brazen leader, understand the power of their movement and its capacity to impede, if not reverse, a half century of civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, environmental safeguards, and workplace advances.
Our generational Gettysburg fast approaches. On this day of Independence, I commit to voting for an American way of life that makes the national town square safe and welcome to everyone. I commit to bringing every eligible voter I know with me.