If I had just come from another planet and someone showed me this documentary and told me it was scenes of a major city in the wealthiest and most powerful nation on this planet, I wouldn’t believe it.

Detropia is a 2012 documentary by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady on the decline of the city of Detroit.   Some of the imagery is almost surreal, considering Detroit was at one point a showcase city for America with a vibrant middle class, well-kept neighborhoods and a ton of cultural amenities.   The city shown in this documentary is something completely different.

This documentary has no narration from the directors and the only experts they consult on this documentary are the residents of the city itself – no urban design PhDs or talking heads, just everyday people in Detroit, who come up big with a lot of frank and gut-level commentary.    Another technical plus of this documentary is that there’s very little juxtaposition of stock footage from prosperous and promising times in this one – sometimes it seems like if you’ve seen one documentary like this, you’ve seen them all due to the frequent use of stock footage.

There’s one scene that stood out of a house being torn down with a swingset in the backyard.   The swingset was almost overgrown with golden native prairie grasses, swaying in the wind.  It looked like what you would expect an abandoned homestead somewhere in the prairie states would look like, not something in the midst of one of America’s largest cities.

Another scene that stood out to me was one on the stoop of a house in a run down neighborhood with a group of black 20-somethings.   The municipal government had just brought up the idea of attempting to move residents and consolidate them in order to be able to better provide services as right now the city itself is geographically large and spread out, making efficiency difficult.   The plan was to turn over unused land into urban agriculture.    These guys were talking about the idea and were in complete disbelief over the prospect of turning the city over into gardens.   While urban agriculture makes sense to a lot of people outside of Detroit, it’s probably pretty hard to accept a prospect like that if you’re actually in Detroit and have no connection to food production.   I can see how it can be seen as admitting defeat.  I guess it’s just a matter of perspective.   I do think that urban agriculture along with decentralization is probably Detroit’s best option though (see:  Detroit: Too Big to Not Fail)

An example of the frankness of the residents was a scene involving a bar owner and ex-teacher going to the big auto show in Detroit (I forgot what it’s called, but it’s the major one).   He talks to a Chinese manufacturer of an electronic car that will retail for about $20,000.   Then he talks to some guys manning the booth for a major American manufacturer with an electronic car going for somewhere north of $40,000.   He asks them why the Chinese can do it for $20,000 left and you can see the guys get uncomfortable.   They say it’s an apples to oranges comparison .   The bar owner pushes it further and winds up with the bullshit answer “because we have more features” (which is probably true, but probably not $20,000 worth).   The bar owner then brings up the fact that these guys are saying the same things they said about Japanese automobiles when they first hit the American market and they ended the conversation there.   The discomfort was obvious…

At one point in the documentary they interview a group of guys that were in the business of collecting scrap metal.   They said the police had stopped them earlier and just wanted to make sure that they weren’t stealing anything and told them that if they got any complaints from the neighbors, they’d have to send them off, other than that they had free range at the abandoned houses.   They said they were in this business because they couldn’t find jobs elsewhere and it was the only way they could honestly make money.   They said they got 11 cents a pound for scrap steel and $2.50 for copper.   One guy made a poignant comment about how the scrap metal was often sent back to China so they could “make shit with it and sell it back to us”.     Then there was text stating that most of our scrap metal in the US is sold to China.

This is currently on streaming Netflix, so it’s worth watching if you’re into these subjects.   I don’t think that there’s any new ground covered in the way of documenting Detroit’s decay but it’s full of harrowing footage and homespun wisdom on the topic.


Efforts To Go “Green” Have Modern, Old Ties in China


I saw this article in the newspaper the other day and figured I’d share it and add a few of my thoughts.  It’s an account of a columnist traveling through parts of rural China and some of the environmentally-friendly measures she saw from the locals.   I believe the Des Moines Register only keeps articles up for about a week, so I’ll cut and paste the text below.  If the link isn’t working, feel free to scroll down to the italicized text at the bottom.

China has a reputation as not exactly being the most environmentally friendly country in the world – by all accounts, most Chinese cities are completely miserable due to poor air and water quality.    China’s economic rise has caused concern around the world due to the increase in commodity consumption and pollution that a more prosperous economy will undoubtedly bring about (see:  China’s Rise and Competing for Resources).   Criticism and alarm over China’s effect on the environment is valid, but (as the author points out) it’s notable that most of it comes from our society where no one bats an eyelash over driving an SUV to the gym to walk on a treadmill.   The author, Kirsten Jacobsen, doesn’t exactly paint the whole of China as some kind of ecologically-friendly wonderland, but does point out some promising happenings in this part of rural China.

The write-up includes a quote from Qiu Baoxing, China’s vice minister of housing and urban rural development taken from The Guardian were he states “We cannot continue to blindly follow the American dream.  This is simply unsustainable for China and the world”.
I’ve heard statistics that if the rest of the world had a level of consumption similar to ours in the US, we would need the resources of five more earths.   Being as China constitutes approximately a fifth of the world’s population (not to mention other heavily-populated rising economies), even the slightest increase of consumption can have a notable effect on the planet’s ecosystem and resources.

Fortunately for China they have the benefit of being able to look at some of the ways we went wrong in urban planning and infrastructure and possibly learn from our mistakes.   If Baoxing’s words reflect the sentiment of the people calling the shots in the middle kingdom, China could have the opportunity to go forward in a more sustainable fashion.

The article describes a lifestyle in this part of rural China where low-tech and highly effective environmental solutions are simply a way of life.   People are used to bicycling and walking for their primary sources of transportation and food is usually produced within the community by members of the community.    Modern conveniences like refrigeration, air conditioning and such are kept on an as-needed basis, instead of being implemented as a way of life.   It kind of reminds me of The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil in that both societies came to the same conclusion on how to deal with their situation – In Cuba they were backed into it, in this part of China they’re just keeping what’s always worked for them knowing that a lifestyle like ours isn’t going to be sustainable for them.

In addition to maintaining a traditional lifestyle, the article points out that China is looking forward with alternative energy technologies like solar and wind energy.   Although the industry is still working out some of the kinks, demand for low-cost alternative energy measures in China could spur some real innovation in this field and make these things more accessible to the rest of the world.   As things stand now, I can’t very easily afford to throw some solar panels on my roof and have it make sense economically to me now but what if mass production due to demand in China makes the cost of photovoltaic energy for the average homeowner drop to a point where it becomes reasonable?   If I can get a photovoltaic solar energy system that will be financially viable to me, I really don’t care if “Made in China” is stamped on it.

So anyways, I thought this article was kind of cool because it brings up the possibility that China’s rise might not pan out to be the kind of ecological disaster it’s always made out to be, as they pretty much have a clean slate to work with as far as infrastructure.  Many people are continuing to do the same kinds of low-tech things they’ve been doing for generations while they’re making technological advancements in “green” areas such as renewable energy and public transportation.   Hopefully at this juncture China chooses to go towards a more sustainable route rather than chasing down the kind of lifestyle we have here in the western world.


Efforts to go ‘green’ have modern, old ties in China
Like in Iowa, rural provinces naturally are eco-conscious.
3:52 PM, Jul 13, 2012 |

One of many garden plots shared by a whole neighborhood in Yongzhou. Here, people tend to different plots and sell the extra produce in downtown markets. This way, those who purchase goods from individual sellers benefit from locally grown food and keep many people employed.
One of many garden plots shared by a whole neighborhood in Yongzhou. Here, people tend to different plots and sell the extra produce in downtown markets. This way, those who purchase goods from individual sellers benefit from locally grown food and keep many people employed. / Kirsten Jacobsen/ Photos Special to The Register
Written by
Kirsten Jacobsen
Special to The Register

Who needs plastic bags when you can just carry tonight’s dinner home by bus? There are definitely some cultural differences to the ‘green’ approach, especially when it comes to perceptions of animal rights.
Who needs plastic bags when you can just carry tonight’s dinner home by bus? There are definitely some cultural differences to the ‘green’ approach, especially when it comes to perceptions of animal rights. / Photos by Kirsten Jacobsen/Special to The Register

KIRSTEN JACOBSEN is a former reporter for The Des Moines Register and a native Iowan currently teaching in Yongzhou and writing about life in China. Read her blog at DesMoines

We Iowans fancy ourselves pretty green. From the piles of reusable bags stuffed in the trunk for that unforeseen Hy-Vee run to our love of everything free-range, cage-free, au naturale and locally grown, it’s fair to say that many Des Moines residents are eco-conscious.

Thursday night? You’ll find recycling bins on our curbs, set out like clockwork. Saturday morning? You’ll find us milling about at the Downtown Farmers Market. (And it doesn’t come as a surprise that Iowa as a whole ranks second for most farmers markets per capita in the United States.) We even made the top 20 in Greenopia’s 2012 “Greenest States” listing — easily beating out our neighbors Illinois (27) and Nebraska (40).

But there is a place that may give Des Moines a run for its “green” money, a place similarly situated in the middle of miles and miles of unadulterated cropland in the middle of a country, a place both purposefully and unintentionally Earth-friendly (kind of like the hipster of the locavore world). A place where reusable bags are as cheap as plastic ones, recycling is literally a full-time job, and “locally grown” is often the only option.

It’s just a blip of a place in Hunan province, but the prefecture of Yongzhou is remarkably environmentally efficient.

“But China is so polluted!” you gasp. People wear masks to keep from choking on the smog. Everything from baby formula to vermicelli noodles is contaminated. If the communist-era building asbestos doesn’t get you, surely the coal dust and Avian Influenza will! How can a place like that be “green”?

To be fair, there is no shortage of pollution. There have been a few weeks where I haven’t seen the sun for the smog. People have a habit of throwing their trash on the ground rather than in rubbish bins (hence, the army of hundreds of hired street-sweepers). A third of all China’s fresh water — including ponds, lakes, and rivers — is deemed unfit even for industrial use. In 2010, more cars were sold in China than in the U.S., adding 13 million new vehicles to the country’s expanding automotive roadways.

But stick with me here: It might surprise you just how green-minded the Red State is becoming, even in less-developed rural areas like Yongzhou.

The eight-lane expressway into our prefecture is lined with solar and wind-powered streetlights, which illuminate the innumerable busy bus stops along the highway each night. This elaborate bus system connects the main cities in the prefecture. According to Bill McKibben of National Geographic, “China now leads the planet in the installation of renewable energy technology — its turbines catch the most wind, and its factories produce the most solar cells.” The country, fast developing, is also home to more low smog-emission “supercritical power stations” than anywhere else in the world.

This doesn’t even account for the dozens of trains that pass through the Yongzhou Huoche Zhan (train station) each day, taking passengers to the farthest corners of the country using far less fuel per person than as many cars. As the remotest parts of the 20th century-era Middle Kingdom meet the environmentally friendly technological advancements of the 21st, there is a rare chance — and necessity — for a greener Chinese Industrial Revolution. (As recently as 2010, China was already investing $12 million per hour on clean energy alternatives, according to the Center for American Progress.)

Yet it’s not necessarily the implementation of a modern “green” mindset that makes places like Yongzhou worthy of imitation. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Here, people prefer to walk, bike or take a bus to their intended destinations, while cars are treated as a luxury for long-distance travel. Instead of visiting the sterile and expensive “Hyper-Mart” for groceries, most residents prefer to stop by the early-morning or late-night meat and produce markets that pop up downtown.

Food at these impromptu farmers markets is as locally grown as it gets — usually from the seller’s backyard, or a nearby plot shared by a neighborhood. The growers then haul their offerings downtown by any means possible, from shouldering the load to piling a three-wheeled cart high with lychee berries (or even quacking ducks).

Bartering and trading are part of the experience as well; prices are never set, and the same goes for purchasing snacks or clothing from a street vendor. In this way, thousands of people are kept employed in any given Chinese city, and people are able to live affordably and sustainably.

Other necessities are used on an as-needed basis to maintain a sustainable standard of living. Despite the stifling summer heat in southern China, the vast majority of Yongzhou residents go without air-conditioning (something tells me this isn’t by choice, though, as I’ve seen plenty of teenagers hanging out in KFC just for respite from the heat). Refrigerators and washers are compact and keep energy costs low.

I’m not suggesting that developing cities and nations curtail improvement efforts in order to make the world a greener place. Rather, it is imperative that they follow a path different from our own. Instead of returning to reusable bags, farmers markets, rechargeable cars, and energy-efficient methods after the fact, places like Yongzhou would do well to keep these things in the forefront and develop around them.

“As China gets richer, it will slowly but surely create its own equivalent of a Whole Foods buying, eco-tourism-enjoying middle class. That’s the very group that will be most likely to question the cost of unbridled development,” wrote Rana Faroohar in Newsweek. She makes an important point: While it has been mentioned that China produces most of the world’s wind turbines, 90 percent of them are still exported to other countries.

Qiu Baoxing, China’s vice minister of housing and urban rural development, agrees. “We cannot continue to blindly follow the American dream,” Qiu told the U.K.’s Guardian in June. “This is simply unsustainable for China and the world.”

Will the residents of Yongzhou, in a decade’s time, adopt a capitalist-centric “Chinese dream,” or will they see development of their city through green-tinted glasses?

As for myself, I can say for certain that rural Chinese living has changed my habits for the better. While I, too, have been known to dip into Better Life Mall for a moment away from the heat, buying local shucai (vegetables) and biking to and from errands isn’t actually as hard or time-consuming as it first seemed. Hang-drying clothes gets progressively less menial as the summer drags on. Now, taking the bus to the next district is no sweat (except that buses aren’t air-conditioned, either).

It may sound tedious, but we all have some work to do. (Here’s looking at you, Iowans who drive SUVs to the gym.) Perhaps one day soon, even Des Moines will emulate Yongzhou, installing some of those solar energy-powered streetlights around a nighttime farmers market.


China To Become World’s Largest Consumer Market by 2015



Tonight I was listening to Radio Havana’s weekly news review and then later Radio China International on shortwave and both stations brought up this story.   It hasn’t happened yet of course, but the fact that China is on pace to surpass us as the largest consumer market within a couple of years is pretty significant and I didn’t see this in the US news, although it looks like Forbes covered it.

Although it is significant, it doesn’t exactly spell the end of the United States as we know it or anything.  What it does mean is that we’re likely to start feeling the pinch of a little extra resource scarcity as China’s purchasing power grows and the Chinese consumer is able to consume more.   As pointed out in China’s Rise and Competing for Resources, China already consumes a sizable portion of many of the world’s commodities.

There’s still a large disparity between consumption levels/standard of living between the average North American/EU citizen and the Chinese citizen, but China’s sheer numbers and recent economic growth make it a market to take seriously.

Let’s play with some rough figures from Wikipedia here…

List of Countries by GDP (Nominal)

China has a population of 1.3 billion, a GDP of 7.3 trillion and a per capita GDP of about $5,400USD.

If the per capita GDP of China increased by $1, it would be comparable to adding another Liberia or Djibouti to the world (about 1.3 billion dollars)

If the per capita GDP of China increased by $10,  it would be like Iceland or Congo to the world (around 13 billion)

$100?    Another Vietnam or Hungary (56 and 57th largest economies in the world) – keep in mind this is about 2% growth. (about 130 billion)

$1000?   Just like adding another Australia, Mexico or Spain.    This is roughly 20% growth and would represent 1.3 trillion dollars.

These figures are just pulled from Wikipedia and me shooting from the hip with them, but I hope you get the idea that a little bit of growth goes a long way with China and as they grow, finite resources could become a little more dear to us in the United States.

What should be done about this?   At a personal level, develop levels of self-sufficiency in order to reduce your dependency on outside resources.     At a higher level, it should be good motivation to develop sustainable systems in order to allow more people in the world to live a higher standard of living without causing massive environmental degradation.   The Chinese people have a right to pursue a better life, just as we in the west have but I hope we can find ways to do things a little different as more of the world begins to demand lifestyles similar to ours.

China’s Rise and Competiting For Resources

Source:  Time To Wake Up:  Days of Abundant Resources and Falling Prices Are Over

I just started reading  “World Right Side Up: Investing Across Six Continents (Agora Series)” by Christopher Mayer last night and came across this chart taken from Jeremy Grantham’s “Time To Wake Up: Days of Abundant Resources and Falling Prices Are Over” from his April 2011 newsletter.   The chart is pretty straight forward – it names a commodity in the left hand column and then lists China’s percentage of total world consumption of that commodity in the right hand column, i.e. China consumes 53% of the world’s cement production.

First, I want to say that I don’t think we (the United States) should paint China out to be a boogeyman or take any sort of antagonistic stance towards the Middle Kingdom over their economic rise, so I’m not trying to fan those flames.   I know they do some sketchy things over there (and we do as well), but I think some of the crying about them using “our” resources is a little undignified.   Let’s beat them fair and square (and peacefully!) instead of stomping our feet and demanding that they stop using as much oil or whatever.   After all, can you really blame the Chinese for wanting a better standard of living, especially considering the disparity between the average Chinese citizen and American citizen?

Anyways, I have a few thoughts about this chart:

–  Although the news has lately been touting a slowdown in China’s economy, it’s not exactly coming to a screeching halt either.   China’s consumption of commodities will most likely continue to rise.

–   While commodities can certainly be nationalized within a state, on a global level these inanimate objects do not have loyalties or choose sides.   They go to whoever is willing to pay for them.  Oil in Iran, Copper in Chile, Nickel in Kazakhstan and all of the world’s other commodities aren’t inherently “ours” and they’ll ultimately go to whoever is in the best position to purchase them.   Some political arrangements can (and are) made to dictate the flow of commodities, but as the balance of power between the West and China (and others) begins to tip, maintaining these arrangements will become difficult (see:  Petrodollar System).   In other words, we’re losing carte blanche over the world’s markets.

– The figures are just for China – what about Brazil, India, Russia, Turkey, Indonesia, Taiwan, Korea, Mexico, Thailand, Vietnam or any other place in the world where things are happening, not to mention the EU, Japan and other developed economies?   Standards of living are rising in many parts of the world for a large segment of the world’s population and commodity usage tends to go up correspondingly.  Increased world demand for finite materials means we’ll pay a higher cost for what we have.

–  China is roughly one-fifth of the world’s population and they consume a greater percentage of the world’s output in all of these commodities except the bottom six.   Factoring in China’s projected economic growth and as previously mentioned and the many other places in the world that are emerging, one can logically conclude that certain resources might get a little tight around the world.

–   Not trying to sound racist or anything, but I thought China’s rice consumption was going to be higher than that  :::shrugs:::   Soy consumption was a little lower than I thought too.

–  Scarcity often leads to conflict.   This is true between individuals, communities and governments.

Now let’s kick over some thoughts on addressing the issue:

– Reduce, recycle and reuse.   Might as well get on board now.

–  This might be a good time to make investments in commodities, one way or another.  Mining, energy or agricultural-themed stocks, ETF’s, precious metals investment or anything else.

–  Self-reliance in energy efficiency, food production or anything else that involves consuming commodities might be an even better investment.   Grow a garden, explore alternative energy and increasing energy efficiency, learn skills and do things for yourself.

– Rising prices of commodities on the world markets and increased shipping costs could force us to look to source things locally .  Personally, I think there is a bit of a silver lining here in that there’s a possibility to see something of a revival in local businesses and farms as increasing costs abroad make it more viable to produce close to home.   I think it would be a good idea to at least begin to get an idea of what is available (and when it’s available) from your local area in the way of food, goods and services.   I think it’s an even better idea to begin to establish relationships with local merchants and farmers now.

Odds are that if you’re reading this (and other similar blogs around the internetz), you’re already of the mindset of DIY, preparedness, thinking locally, sustainability and  self-reliance and probably already taking measures to combat scarcity and add some security to your life.   I think that instead of letting fear get the best of us when we look at the cold, hard facts I think that they should just serve as a bit of reinforcement to why we live the way we do and some motivation to continue to improve our lot in life.   As individuals we cannot change the course of the world, but we can certainly take action as individuals to determine how the change of the course of the world affects us.


Also, I think it’s a good idea to talk to people you know about these sort of things and more importantly, share the solutions.   Feel free to share this blog, comment below and/or contact me at

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