All posts by Cathy Wilkinson

Great Green Wall to halt Sahara’s spread?

National Geographic has a recent article on a bold plan to stop the advancement of the Sahara desert.

China built its famous Great Wall to keep out marauders. Now, millennia later, a “Great Green Wall” may rise in Africa to deter another, equally relentless invader: sand. The proposed wall of trees would stretch from Senegal to Djibouti as part of a plan to thwart the southward spread of the Sahara, Senegalese officials said earlier this month at the UN’s Copenhagen climate conference. The trees are meant “to stop the advancement of the desert,” Senegalese president and project leader Abdoulaye Wade told National Geographic News in Copenhagen. In many central and West African countries surrounding the Sahara, climate change has slowed rainfall to a trickle, according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Crops have died and soils have eroded—crippling local agriculture. If the trend continues, the UN forecasts that two-thirds of Africa’s farmland may be swallowed by Saharan sands by 2025 (explore an interactive Sahara map). Trees are almost always formidable foes against encroaching deserts, said Patrick Gonzalez of the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Forestry. That’s because stands of trees act as natural windbreaks against sandstorms, and their roots improve soil health—especially by preventing erosion.

Having just finished reading Alan Weisman’s 2006 The World Without Us, I am reminded of Chapter 13 where he imagines ‘the world without war’ and writes of another type of ‘great wall’. In this chapter he describes what has happened within the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between South Korea and North Korea which has been ‘a world essentially without people since September 6, 1953’. It is now, somewhat ironically, critical habitat for many species including red-crowned cranes. He writes,

As the Korean naturalists watch, cameras and spotting scopes poised, over the bulrushes glides a dazzling white squadron, 11 fliers in perfect formation. And in perfect silence. These are living Korean national icons: red crowned cranes – the largest, and, next to whooping cranes, rarest on Earth. They’re accompanied by four smaller white-naped cranes, also endangered. Just in from China and Siberia, the DMZ is where most of them winter. If it didn’t exist, they probably wouldn’t either.

They touch down lightly, disturbing no buried hair-triggers. Revered in Asia as sacred portents of luck and peace, the red-crowned cranes are blissfully oblivious trespassers who’ve wandered into the incandescent tension of 2 million troops faced off across this accidental wildlife sanctuary in bunkers every few dozen metres, mortars poised.

Transition Towns – resilience indicators & upcoming conferences

Rob Hopkins, Founder of the Transition movement, published ‘The Transition Handbook: from oil dependency to local resilience’ in 2008. Here is an extract from the book under the headline ‘What are resilience indicators’,

Carbon footprinting and the cutting of carbon emissions are clearly a crucial part of preparing for an energy-lean future, but they are not the only way of measuring a community’s progress towards becoming more resilient. In the Transition approach, we see cutting carbon as one of many ‘Resilience Indicators’ that are able to show the increasing degree of resilience in the settlement in question. Others might include:

– the percentage of local trade carried out in local currency

– percentage of food consumed locally that was produced within a given radius

– ratio of car parking space to productive land use

– degree of engagement in practical Transition work by local community

– amount of traffic on local roads

– number of business owned by local people

– proportion of the community employed locally

– percentage of essential goods manufactured within a given radius

– percentage of local building materials used in new housing developments

– percentage of energy consumed in the town that has been generated by local ESCO

– amount of 16 year olds able to grow 10 different varieties of vegetable to a given degree of basic competency

– percentage of medicines prescribed locally that have been produced within a given radius

Interestingly, the book goes on to say that,

This is a new area the Transition Network is currently exploring. Your thoughts on what form other Resilience Indicators might take are very welcome. The core point is that we need more than carbon footprinting, that we could cut settlements’ emissions by half, but they would still be equally vulnerable to peak oil.

There are two upcoming Transition-related conferences in May 2010:

The 2010 Transition Network conference will be held in Forest Row in Sussex on the 29th, 30th and 31st May

The European Transition Conference from Wednesday 19th May 19 to Monday, 24th May 2010 in northern Germany

Remnants of the Biosphere

BLDGBLOG, written by Geoff Manaugh, just published this blog on Remants of the Biosphere.

Photographer Noah Sheldon got in touch the other week with a beautiful series of photos documenting the decrepit state of Biosphere 2, a semi-derelict bio-architectural experiment in the Arizona desert.


“The structure was billed as the first large habitat for humans that would live and breathe on its own, as cut off from the earth as a spaceship,” the New York Times wrote back in 1992, but the project was a near-instant failure. The entire site was sold to private developers in 2007, leaving the buildings still functional and open for tours but falling apart.

Sheldon’s images, reproduced here with permission, show the facility advancing into old age. A vast biological folly in the shadow of desert over-development, the project of Biosphere 2 seems particularly poignant in this unkempt state.

The largest sealed environment ever created, constructed at a cost of $200 million, and now falling somewhere between David Gissen’s idea of subnature—wherein the slow power of vegetative life is unleashed “as a transgressive animated force against buildings”—and a bioclimatically inspired Dubai, Biosphere 2 even included its own one million-gallon artificial sea.

In this context, Biosphere 2 could be considered one of architect Francois Roche’s “buildings that die,” a term Roche used in a recent interview with Jeffrey Inaba. Indeed, in its current state Biosphere 2 is easily one of the ultimate candidates for Roche’s idea of “corrupted biotopes“; the site’s ongoing transformation into suburbia only makes this corruption all the more explicit.

Watching something originally built precisely as a simulation of the Earth—the 2 in “Biosphere 2” is meant to differentiate this place from the Earth itself, i.e. Biosphere 1—slowly taken over by the very forces it was naively meant to model is philosophically extraordinary: the model taken over by the thing it represents. It is a replicant in its dying throes.

A reasonably scary forest

Victoria Ward, the founding director of Sparknow, has just posted this blog (A reasonably scary forest) reflecting on a recent resilience article by Carpenter et al 2009 in Ecology and Society.

Sparknow is a knowledge and communications consultancy that

‘specialises in unearthing useful truths that were almost known but not quite expressed’ and uses innovative narrative based methods to get ‘lively conversations going, conversations that allow questions – sometimes difficult ones – to be asked in new ways. Fresh, vivid conversation spaces are spaces for change’

It is no surprise in this respect that Carpenter et al spark an interest. Victoria writes,

Resilience: accounting for the non-computable is an article worth looking through, whether your interest is in ecology and the environment, or in how to assemble knowledge from many sources and use it to sharpen insight. The abstract runs:

Plans to solve complex environmental problems should always consider the role of surprise. Nevertheless, there is a tendency to emphasize known computable aspects of a problem while neglecting aspects that are unknown and failing to ask questions about them. The tendency to ignore the noncomputable can be countered by considering a wide range of perspectives, encouraging transparency with regard to conflicting viewpoints, stimulating a diversity of models, and managing for the emergence of new syntheses that reorganize fragmentary knowledge.

The article provokes this recollection and reflection from Victoria.

A friend who does really interesting work in special needs (of which more another time) is also an accomplished guitarist and composer who’s recently been invited to compose a forest to go with a Russian exhibition at the V&A. He decided not to make one from all the birdsong and leaves rustling he already had to hand and set off, very early one day, to the New Forest and crept about gathering sound. The V&A decided that the forest that he composed was too scary, which put him in a bind, because he’d been out collecting scary at the crack of dawn. Anyway, he toned it down to reasonably scary, and that’s all I’ve heard so far.

Shouldn’t his reasonably scary forest be curated too, not just dressing for something else? What’s the thing and what’s the packaging for the thing? Is the thing the experience? Or the art? Does the forest live as a separate thing, or only when wrapped together with the art at the V&A in that moment?

Same with us? What’s the thing? The soundscape, the fragments of interview and found sound that make up the soundscape? The thoughts and feelings and reactions it provokes in the individual or collective listener? The conversations that follow?

What we need, I’d venture, is a decent multi-disciplinary investigation by the competent rather than the expert, following the article from ecology and society, to help us shape a sharper collective understanding of what this might all mean.