there is a continent in the sky

Yesterday evening, December 29, 2017, I had the pleasure of listening to Agency (Ersela Kripa and Stephen Mueller) speak on the results of their Shenzhen residency. They walked accessible edges to produce drawings and embroidery patterns of data, the embroidery algorithms derived from the difference between reported and their on-the-ground measurements of air particulates. The talk was inspiring, not least for “Roller Blade Boy” who skated circles around us, pausing only to check out the data. Continue reading

politicized face masks


On May 4 this year (more here), Kunming residents wore surgical face masks to protest the construction of a p-xylene factory. In response, the government issued a gentle reminder that clinics, pharmacies, and printers should use the “real name system (实名制)” to complete surgical mask sales and immediately report the transaction to the police.


Gentle Reminder to all pharmacies, clinics and printing shops in Bianbanjie Village, Jitou Township: From this day forward, if anyone comes to you to purchase large quatitities of surgical masks or to print any of the phrases “human health, petrochemical project, Pengzhou [proposed factory location], or PX”, please take down their telephone number and identity card number, and then report the transaction to either the Jitou Precint or neighborhood police station. Thank you for your cooperation. Jitou Precint telephone number: 85369511 and neighborhood police officer cell phone number: 15828585968.  

Paraxylene is an isomer of xylene, one of the most produced petrochemicals in the United States. In the toxic daisy chain of polymers, xylene is a raw material used to produce terephthalic acid, which is used to manufacture polymers, which are used to make products ranging from pantyhose to take-out containers to baking tins. Paraxylene (or PX as it is being called in Chinese) is the most commonly used isomer in the production of terephthalic acid. The major producers of p-xylene tend to locate factories in poorer regions. One of the world’s largest producers, Chevron Phillips, for example, produces p-xylene at their Pascagoula, Mississippi plant. BP owns the world’s largest single factory in Texas City.

P-xylene is highly toxic:

In humans, overexposure to xylene can cause headache, fatigue, dizziness, listlessness, confusion, irritability, gastrointestinal disturbances (nausea and loss of appetite), flushing of the face, and a feeling of increased body heat. Exposure to xylene vapors above recommended exposure limits (100 ppm – TWA) can cause irritation of the eyes, nose and throat as well as tightening of the chest and staggering gait. Severe overexposure to xylene has been reported to cause irregular heartbeat or rapid incoordinate contractions of the heart, tremors, central nervous system depression, and unconsciousness. Lethality has resulted upon exposure to 10,000 ppm. The odor threshold for xylene is reported to be 1 ppm…Aspiration of this product into the lungs can cause chemical pneumonia and can be fatal. Aspiration into the lung can occur while vomiting after ingestion of this product.

Six years ago, protests against a PX plant in Xiamen caused local authorities to cancel plans to build a processing factory. Similar protests took place in Dalian (2011) and Ningbo (2012) also resulted in authorities withdrawing plans to build PC processing plants.

The levels of pollution in many Chinese cities have resulted in many residents wearing face masks. There are also reports of face-kinis to protect skin on the beach. To date, however, the Kunming protests and government response have been the most explicit politicization of face masks.

edgy map

Ryoyu Kido sent me the link to Modeling the influences of land reclamation on groundwater systems: A case study in Shekou peninsula, Shenzhen, China, which includes a map of land reclamation around the Nantou Peninsula, 1983-2005:

shenzhen land reclamation

I colored in the boundaries to give a sense of the progression of land reclamation in in the Qianhai and Houhai areas of the Peninsula:

shenzhen land reclamation-mao

The tags land reclamation and Shekou bring much of this change into cultural perspective.

scale of gentrification, buji

Gentrification in Shenzhen not only means displacing the working poor, but also rescaling the city. In Buji, the process has just begun and thus the palatable violence of this transformation is more visible than it is in the inner districts, where neoliberal environments have a more polished veneer. The images below highlight the extent to which the construction of massive public infrastructure effectively isolates neighborhoods and privileges car-owners.

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luohu culture park: the antidote to mall-burbia

DSCI0079 I prefer early Shenzhen urban planning to the rush to mall-burbia that is the current trend. Early planning assumed small scale, low cost urban living that promoted street life. In contrast, mall-burban developments raze central areas of the city to build large scale, high cost gated communities and attached mall, where security guards keep out the riff raff, effectively suburbanizing densely populated urban areas.

Luohu Culture Park (罗湖文化公园) exemplifies the latent urbanity of early Shenzhen planning. The 2,000 sq meter park includes underutilized cultural infrastructure, a lake, and my favorite kind of public art — a sculpture that children can easily appropriate. Continue reading


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sustainability is a collective decision

Netizens have joked that using a blow dryer or tanning may now infringe on national property rights.

Just recently, Heilongjiang Province promulgated laws governing the analysis of atmospheric resources and conservation (黑龙江省气候资源探测与保护条例). The key and controversial point, of course, is the decision that atmospheric resources, including wind energy, solar energy, precipitation, and ambient air are natural resources and as such belong to the country.

What does that mean?

According to Minister of Meteorology, Zheng Guoguang (郑国光) the laws do not mean that air has been privatized — “impossible!” he said — but rather that the research and development of energy resources will be centralized. The legislation seems to me a rather straight forward decision to institute state monopolies on the production and allocation of sustainable energy. It also anticipates state appropriation of sustainable energy technologies that are developed outside the context of national research and development, but within national borders.

Other countries have also begun to dispute the question of “wind rights”. Denmark, for example, compensates neighboring landowners for loss of property value due to the erection of wind turbines. More interestingly, the Danish government has adjudicated on disputes that (depending on placement) new wind turbines “take wind” from extant turbines.

Ron Rebenitschhas considered water laws (first in time, first in right) and oil right laws (compensatory unitization) as models for developing wind laws. In the former, the first user to develop a qualified use of water (i.e., irrigation) from a flowing stream develops certain rights to divert a defined quantity of water from the stream if it is available. Later users of water from that stream can still divert water from that stream, but only in quantities that do not affect the earlier users’ ability to divert the allocated quantity of water.

In contrast, when an oil well is drilled, the oil flows to the well from all directions, without regard for ownership of mineral rights. Thus adjacent mineral rights holders could theoretically have their oil drain to the nearby well, without recompense. Under unitization, the production of an oil field is then allocated proportionally to the surrounding mineral rights owners, in accordance with pre-determined impact.

Like the Danish and US American discussion, China’s nascent foray into wind rights discussion do not take international borders and sustained regional inequalities into account. Consider, for example, the Law of the Colorado River.

This thicket of deals, trade-offs, set-asides, subsidies and politically sanctioned thievery is nearly impenetrable to even the most seasonedand cynical observer. But from the Mexican side of the border,the law is devastatingly simple: The US retains 95 percent ofthe Colorado River’s water and Mexico gets what’s left over. Most years this is about 1.5 million acre feet, roughly the same amountthat Sonoran desert farmers were using to irrigate their beanand onion fields in 1922.

Likewise, in the Middle East, long-term sustainable economic development depends on access to clean and dependable supplies of freshwater. In turn, this access continues to depend upon region wide management agreements (Gleick, Yolles, and Hatami). More recently, US American Intelligence has predicted increasing risks of water conflicts worldwide. As in the Middle East, shared water resources are increasingly used to threaten neighboring states, while the over-pumping of groundwater supplies threatens the agricultural production, which accounts for 70% of freshwater usage.

All this to make a simple point.

In China, the rhetoric of a centralized state frames the discussion of sustainable resources, while in the Middle East and United States, we can speak of “water security” and thereby transform drinking water into weapons of war.  Thus, the development of sustainable energy sources is as potentially fraught as the development of other resources (oil and now water) because we are proposing to use the same, unsustainable models of production, distribution, and allocation.