Book Review: The Uninhabitable Earth

The Uninhabitable Earth / Tim Duggan Books

Global warming may be near a tipping point; even the popular press says it is coming. Some experts warn it will be reached within a decade, others hold out for a twenty-year window — a generation at most. But it’s already in rapid motion scolds David Wallace-Wells in The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of The Future, beginning straight away in the first sentence of this riveting and deeply distressing overture to a tragic future: “It is worse, much worse than you think. The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all….”

Drawing from numerous credible scientific sources, some obscure and esoteric and others as widely circulated as recent U.N. sponsored or World Bank reports, Wallace-Wells hurls out a flurry of shock scenarios to delineate not just the more conservative probabilities, but also the higher and even scarier ranges of human-caused heat buildup. There is little doubt that devastation is occurring more frequently and it is getting more virulent. The book’s opening section, aptly titled “Cascades”, articulates a “new kind of ….violence….the planet plummeting again and again with increasing intensity, and in ways that build on each other and undermine our ability to respond, uprooting much of the landscape we have taken for granted for centuries.”

Last year’s hellacious California wildfires and mudslides were not an isolated incident, but rather part of a massive threat to global plant life. Forest die back may amount to “….retreat[ing] of jungle basins as big as countries….which means a dramatic stripping back of the planet’s natural ability to absorb carbon, which means still higher temperatures, which means more dieback…”

The human costs, especially in politically vulnerable circumstances, are a consequence of similar accelerations. The one million Syrian refugees resulting from the 2011 civil war were also victims of drought. The World Bank estimates that by 2050 the number of climate change refugees from sub-Sahara Africa, Latin America and the rest of Asia could reach 150 million. The U.N. goes higher – ranging from 200 million to a billion.

Celsius degree increases are a suitable metric in comprehending different scenarios, and they are the author’s most relied-upon benchmark. There has been a 1.1 rise since the inception of the industrial revolution; the rise associated with the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and the 2016 Paris accords to year 2100 is 2 additional degrees by the end of this century. Wallace-Wells considers this the “best case scenario”, with ice sheets beginning their outright collapse, water scarcity for 400 million more people, unlivable cities along the equatorial band of the planet, and in northern latitudes, heat waves killing thousands each summer.

Last year’s heavily publicized Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report has upped that to 3.2 degrees, even if immediate action were taken to implement the Paris accords. That could amount to major flooding in Miami, Dhaka, Shanghai and Hong Kong, along with a hundred other cities and multiple additional catastrophes. And the likelihood cannot been discounted that a rise of 4 degrees, or even much higher, might occur by the end of this century.

It takes little stretch of the imagination to conjure the connection between horrific disaster and the specter of mass extinction, and many other books have focused on this question exclusively. Of the five preceding extinctions, the first occurred an estimated 450 million years ago, when 85 percent of all species died, and the most recent occurring 80 million years ago when the tally amounted to 75 percent. What is likely to be happening now would constitute the first caused by homo sapiens.

Wallace-Wells concludes with wide-ranging speculations on what it means to be human, and thus self-aware, amidst a seemingly limitless universe where other such life forms may have both prevailed and expired countless times before ours. Here is where he searches for personal consolation in the Anthropic principle, which (depending on how it is interpreted) consigns to the very existence of earth-bound humanity, in the author’s words, a “sense of cosmic specialness.”

This sudden glint of optimism comes as a surprising and confounding about-face, given the preponderance of doom and gloom that precedes it, and yet for David Wallace-Wells, parent to a child born while this blunt screed was being written, the primal instinct to survive and the desire for meaning may be sufficient fuel for his rejection of despair, despite the preponderance of scientific arguments for a worst-case scenario.

This guest post is by Martin Zimmerman, who writes from Charlotte, North Carolina, where he is an urban planner, free-lance journalist, and sustainable city activist.

The Absent Hand: A Memoir and Critique of Contemporary American Suburbia

The Absent Hand / Counterpoint Press

The Absent Hand: Reimagining our American Landscape by writer Suzannah Lessard is part memoir, part examination of the American cultural landscape. Lessard offers a unique and necessary perspective on the deterioration of our society’s connection to the landscape, manifested most prominently in the book as sprawl.

Lessard is an aficionado of sprawl. It transfixes and confounds her, creating a special tension. The reader can feel Lessard’s urge to aptly describe sprawl’s features, sometimes manufacturing new words when the right ones aren’t there. The right words are there often enough, though: schizoid, edgeless, and excrescent attached themselves to places like Rosslyn, Virginia, and King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.

This struggle to read and relay the suburban landscape is part of Absent Hand’s larger theme: as technology collapses space, context is lost, and with it the ability to understand our place and purpose. Machiavelli explains to his readers in The Prince that to best view a mountain, one must descend to the valley. Context offers the promise of objective evaluation and control.

So what happens when a force such as sprawl saps context from our landscape or climate change outstrips our capacity to solve it? Bad things, you can imagine. Lessard views a cohesive landscape as cultural glue. Without it, there is no common geography to bind inhabitants. Suburbia gets experienced as “individual, customary routes.” And climate change continues its own destabilizing course.

Technology has historically been the primary instigator of this anti-contextualizing process. Lessard points to its impact on war and labor. The Internet has siphoned people from mills and farms into the same offices in front of monitors that bring us everywhere and nowhere. Our relatively recent fascination with industrial and pastoral relics like warehouses and barns is no coincidence, Lessard argues.

Those relics suggest to us a tangible link between our work and our landscape. Modern work has a weak relationship to territory and leaves no such physical imprint (its infrastructure being another story).

Most of these insights dominate the second half of the book. Lessard’s anecdotes and experiences living and traveling, mainly in the Washington, D.C.-Boston corridor, populate much of the first.

Her opinions are never watery, but neither are her introspection and self-critique. I’m a product of suburbia, and her descriptions of it renewed its mystery to me. As a current resident of Lessard’s old neighborhood in Brooklyn, I found she captured well the charm of the ubiquitous brownstones.

Still, it’s fair to wonder if Lessard’s worries are just fear of modernity. There’s a healthy amount of technophobia expressed in Absent Hand, and Lessard’s outward refusal of nostalgia for bygone landscapes is undercut by her own more elegiac descriptions of said landscapes.

And yes, it’s a familiar trope to fear the encroachment of McMansions, as Lessard seems to. But it’s also highly relatable. The only thing scarier than sprawl’s idiosyncrasies is its sameness.

Still, I imagine Lessard would be amused to learn, as I recently did, that critics initially panned brownstone homes for their uniformity.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (April 1 – 15)

jewel8
Jewel Changi Airport / PWP Landscape Architecture, Safdie Architects

City and Aps Launching a Pilot Program to Turn School Lands into Public ParksThe Sarasota Report, 4/1/19
“Atlanta can greatly add to public green space and parks by partnering with the Atlanta Public Schools to open up school property to the public.”

Why You Should Start a Pocket Prairie in Your YardHoustonia, 4/8/19
“Durham believes that prairie grass is the key to maintaining a more cost-efficient yard while also contributing positively to our flood-prone environment.”

How Better Urban Planning Can Improve Gender EqualityBehavioral Scientist, 4/9/19
“In the mid-1990s, public officials in Vienna found something surprising when they studied who was using their public parks: girls were much less likely to use parks after age nine, while boys continued using them into their teens.”

Mission 66: The Controversial Plan That Brought National Parks into the Modern EraUSA Today, 4/11/19
“Spurred by a comprehensive program known as Mission 66, these new additions were built to address problems plaguing the parks, including outdated buildings that could not accommodate the expected 31 million increase in visitors by 1966.”

Singapore’s $1.3 Billion Airport Expansion Is Half Botanical Garden, Half Mega-Mall Fast Company, 4/12/19
“Jewel Changi is not an airport, nor an amusement park, nor is a retail hub–it’s something in between.”

Singapore’s New Garden Airport

Jewel Changi Airport / PWP Landscape Architecture, Safdie Architects

International airports are in fierce competition for passengers and regularly one-up each other with new wow-factor amenities, shops, and restaurants. But Singapore decided to raise its game by going another direction: a plant-filled haven, a gateway consistent with its moniker — “the city in a garden.” The result is an inventive model other airports should copy, if not in form, then certainly in spirit.

The new Jewel Changi airport features a 6-acre indoor forest, walking trails, and the world’s tallest indoor waterfall. This restorative mecca filled with 2,500 trees and 100,000 shrubs not only revitalizes weary international travelers but is also open to the public.

Over the past six years, Safdie Architects has led a team that included PWP Landscape Architecture, Atelier 10, WET, Burohappold, and ICN International to create this bar-raising travel experience.

As anyone who experienced the stress of air travel can attest, the onslaught of digital signs, loud speakers announcing departures, shops blaring music, and carts flying by quickly leads to draining sensory overload. Now imagine if there was a natural place to take a break amid the cacophony. As many studies have shown, just 10 minutes of immersion in nature can reduce stress, restore cognitive ability, and improve mood.

Jewel Changi provides that nearby natural respite with a 5-story-tall forest encased in a 144,000-square-foot steel and glass donut structure. During rain storms, water pours through an oculus in the roof — creating the 130-foot-tall Rain Vortex, a mesmerizing waterfall sculpture that can accommodate up to 10,000 gallons per minute at peak flow. Stormwater is then recycled throughout the building.

Jewel Changi Airport Rain Vortex / PWP Landscape Architecture, Safdie Architects
Jewel Changi Airport Rain Vortex / PWP Landscape Architecture, Safdie Architects

According to Adam Greenspan, ASLA, a partner at PWP, there is a “forest valley” and a “canopy park.” Throughout, the firm used stone and wood to create winding paths that immerse visitors in nature.

Jewel Changi Airport / PWP Landscape Architecture, Safdie Architects

The valley is organized into terraces, like you would find in a shade-covered coffee or tree plantation, and features three types of trees: Terminalia, a native to Madagascar; Agathis Borneensis, which is native to Malaysia and Indonesia; and Agathis Robusta, which is native to Australia. Terraced planters are faced with Indonesian lava stone that epiphytic and and other plants can climb.

Jewel Changi Airport / PWP Landscape Architecture, Safdie Architects

Amid the canopy park, PWP planted a number of species of wide-spreading Ficus trees that will eventually create shade and a comfortable environment. Up on the fifth level, there’s a topiary walk and horticultural gardens, and an event space for up to 1,000 people.

Jewel Changi aiport upper canopy / PWP Landscape Architecture

Throughout the biosphere-like terminal, PWP selected some 200 species of mostly-highland plant species, calibrating them to the giant torus’ unique conditions where temperatures and humidity levels are slightly cooler than outside. “Air movement, humidity, and natural light have all been balanced.”

Jewel Changi Airport roof and oculus / Safdie Architects

In addition to hosting some 300 shops and restaurants and a transit hotel, the terminal connects to the city’s public bus system. Pedestrian bridges and an inter-terminal train link passengers and visitors to the airport’s many gates.

Jewel Changi Airport train tunnel / PWP Landscape Architecture, Safdie Architects

With Jewel Changi, Singapore has reinvented what an airport can be, just as they re-imagined what a hospital can be with Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, which is not only a medical facility but also a green hub open to the community. Now let’s hope Singapore’s biophilic design culture spreads around the world, like the planes that leave its terminals.

16-year-old Activist Inspires Global Student Protest on Climate Change

At age 8, Greta Thunberg, who lives in Stockholm, Sweden, learned about climate change. By age 11, she had fallen into a deep depression because of the lack of global action to solve the climate crisis. A doctor diagnosed her with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), selective mute syndrome, and Asperger’s syndrome, which means she is on the autism spectrum. Being autistic, she said in a TEDx talk, means she sees the world in “black and white.” And for her, acting on climate change is a black and white issue: “We must stop carbon emissions from fossil fuels. We have to change.”

Beginning at age 15, Thunberg started channeling her frustration into being a dedicated climate activist, sitting in front of Sweden’s National Legislature every day, during school hours, demanding the Swedish government reduce carbon emissions by at least 15 percent each year. Thunberg decided on such a radical move because “no one in the media is talking about climate change; and you would think they would talk about nothing else.”

Thunberg — who was inspired by the teen activists at Parkland in Florida skipping school to protest gun violence — has herself inspired a global movement of student-led climate protests. Last year, an estimated 20,000 school children held climate strikes in 270 cities. On March 15, the biggest global protest yet occurred — with an estimated one million students skipping school to march for climate action. Organizers estimated there were some 2,000 strikes in 125 countries.

The UK Student Climate Network, which organized protests in London, released a manifesto that clearly relays the protesters’ frustration and anxiety about the future:

“We’ve joined a movement that’s spreading rapidly across the world, catalyzed by the actions of one individual in taking a stand in August last year. Greta Thunberg may have been the spark, but we’re the wildfire and we’re fueled by the necessity for action.

The climate is in crisis. We will be facing ecological catastrophe and climate breakdown in the very near future if those in power don’t act urgently and radically to change our trajectory. Scientists have been giving increasingly dire warnings about the state of our planet for years, with the urgency and severity of their message escalating in recent times. It’s abundantly clear: change is needed, and it’s needed now!”

According to CBS News, protesting school children were united in their demand for a rapid transition to 100 percent renewable energy.

In the U.S., the strike was organized by Youth Climate Strike, a coalition led by Isra Hirsi, a 16-year-old sophmore from Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Haven Coleman, 12-year-old 7th grader from Denver, Colorado. In San Francisco, hundreds of students marched from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office to Senator Dianne Feinstein’s office, demanding action. And in St. Paul, Minnesota, 1,000 students stood in front of the state Capitol chanting: “Stop denying the Earth is dying.”

Protests also occurred on March 15 across Europe, South America, Asia, and Africa. In Berlin, Germany, an estimated 20,000 student protestors waved signs such as “‘March now or swim later’ and ‘Climate Protection Report Card: F'” on their march towards German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office. And in New Delhi, school children protested inaction on climate change as well as poor air quality, which causes an estimated 4.2 million premature deaths worldwide annually.

A recent Pew survey found that Generation Z, now aged 13-21, is equally as focused on climate change as the Millennial generation, now 22-37 years old. Some 54 percent of Gen Z sees climate change as being driven by human activity, while 56 percent of Millennials think the same. These numbers are considerably higher than for Gen Xers, Baby Boomers, or the Silent Generation.

The United Nations Secretary General António Guterres wrote an op-ed supporting the student protesters:

“These school children have grasped something that seems to elude many of their elders: we are in a race for our lives, and we are losing. The window of opportunity is closing – we no longer have the luxury of time, and climate delay is almost as dangerous as climate denial.

My generation has failed to respond properly to the dramatic challenge of climate change. This is deeply felt by young people. No wonder they are angry.”

Guterres said the “commitment and activism” shown by these students gives him hope the world’s leaders will shift course in time but it’s important to keep up the pressure. A recent United Nations report found that dramatically reducing emissions over the next 11 years is absolutely critical.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (March 16 – 31)

940
The so-called Latino High Line, part of the San Pedro Creek Culture Park redevelopment, San Antonio, Texas / Muñoz and Company

First Look at Frank Gehry’s ‘Anonymous’ Building X for Facebook in Redmond The Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce, 3/21/19
“As part of GGN’s landscape plan, native plans will be restored. Gehry Partners says, ‘the intent is to return as much of the site as possible to its natural state by removing non-native plant material and replacing it with native species.’”

Eight Buildings That Incorporate Waterfalls Dezeen, 3/21/19
“The focal point of architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker’s memorial to the September 11 attacks is two square fountains.”

When a ‘Be In’ in Central Park Was Front-Page News The New York Times, 3/25/19
“Fifty-two years ago, thousands came to Central Park for a counterculture happening that influenced decades of political gatherings there.”

A ‘Latino High Line’ Promises Change for San Antonio CityLab, 3/25/19
“The San Pedro Creek Culture Park stands to be a transformative project for nearby neighborhoods. To fight displacement, the city is creating a risk mitigation fund.”

Harrisburg Plans ‘Chutes and Ladders’ Playground at Reservoir Park Penn Live, 3/27/19
“Kids of all ages will eventually be able to play in a life-sized version of the classic board game “Chutes and Ladders” at Reservoir Park, after Harrisburg City Council voted to hire a landscape architect to design the playground.”

A Landscape Architect’s Plant-filled Oasis in Lower Manhattan Architectural Digest, 3/29/19
“Of course, one shouldn’t expect any less from Von Koontz, a talented landscape designer who works on everything from large country estates to petite, elegant rooftop spaces in Manhattan.”