Crops droop, leaves wilt, vegetables wither.
The historic heat hitting much of the Yangtze River Delta has wrought havoc on local agriculture, causing intermittent increases of food and produce prices.
In Shanghai, the hottest weather in 141 years has promoted local authorities to decide to insure farmers starting next year against lasting hot weather.
It remains to be seen whether Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces, also bearing the brunt of this year’s unprecedented hot weather, will follow Shanghai’s lead.
Even if they do, and farmers are insured against hot-weather losses, we should ask: will the crops, tea bushes and vegetables be insured for their loss of life?
After all, farmers are not the only victims of a scorching sun. The earth’s life in the form of plants suffers as well.
I saw for myself this past weekend how vast stretches of precious tea leaves at a lake-side mountain in Hangzhou — China’s tea capital — had curled and shriveled under the blazing sun.
“Hangzhou was never so hot before,” many elderly local residents told Zhejiang Online in late July, a leading news portal in Zhejiang Province, whose capital city is Hangzhou. “However hot it was during the daytime, it always cooled down at night.”
In the same interviews on July 31, Zhejiang Online also quoted many experts as saying that the rise of concrete forests, the overuse of air-conditioners, cars, and the increase of population — all results of urbanization — had prevented winds from entering the city, thereby cooling off the daytime heat.
Urban heat island
A July 10 report posted on Shanghai.gov.cn, the Shanghai government portal, quoted local experts as saying Shanghai had also succumbed to the urban heat island effect — which means a metropolitan area is significantly hotter than surrounding rural areas due to human activities.
It’s common sense that you feel less hot in a natural forest than a concrete one.
Common sense tells us that you feel much hotter when you pass by air-conditioners at work.
While they keep people inside a car or a house cooler, the air-conditioners make the world outside miserable.
Let millions of cars and air-conditioners operate in a city made of concrete forests that block natural winds, and you have weather that gets hotter by the day. Common sense.
I’m not saying this is global warming, a highly divisive topic even among the world’s scientists. But our cities — rural areas being urbanized for that matter — are no doubt warmer as they have turned into heat islands one after another.
The report posted on Shanghai.gov.cn said: “Before 2000, Shanghai remained cool because of southeast winds from the sea. But urbanization of the former Pudong and former Nanhui areas in recent years has turned lots of earth into hardened surfaces such as cement roads, high-rises and public squares, effectively raising the atmospheric temperature of the southeast winds before they reach the downtown areas.”
Shanghai is not alone.
A train trip from Shanghai to Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu Province, impresses travelers with row after row of narrow multi-story apartment buildings all along the rail line.
Formerly known as China’s “land of fish and rice” for its water and food resources, the region south of the Yangtze River is now largely dominated by urban apartments, commercial structures and factories that combine to harden the surface of the earth.
It’s no longer the earth as we knew it before.
“We imagine we still live back on that old planet, that the disturbances we see around us are the old random and freakish kind,” says Bill McKibben, author of the book “Eaarth.”
“But they’re not. It’s a different place. A different planet. It needs a new name. Eaarth.” He calls the “Eaarth” an inhospitable place “with melting poles and dying forests and a heaving, corrosive sea, raked by winds, strafed by storms, scorched by heat.”
The book is full of stories and statistics that buttress the author’s assertion that the earth has changed beyond recognition if not beyond restoration.
Global warming deniers (who say human activities are not the only or the major cause) may still brush aside “Eaarth” as another doomsday book, but they cannot deny the author’s simple statement: “This is not some mere passing change; this is the earth shifting.”
One may find alternative answers in the book to why Shanghai and Hangzhou and much of the Yangtze River Delta were never so hot as this summer.
“Name a major feature of the earth’s surface and you’ll find massive change,” says the author. “For instance: a US government team studying the tropics recently concluded that by the standard meteorological definition, they have expanded more than two degrees of latitude north and south since 1980 — a further 8.5 million square miles of Earth re now experiencing a tropical climate.”
Which means much of the Yangtze River Delta has moved closer to becoming tropics.
How have humans “progressed” to the point of self-destruction?
The answer, according to the author, lies in human obsession with growth, especially after the Industrial Revolution.
He describes the economy that has shaped contemporary Western civilization as something akin to a “race horse, fleet and showy,” designed for speed.
In a sense, globalization in the past 30 years or so was Westernization in disguise.
What the world needs for a better future is not a racehorse, but a workhorse, a draft horse, not as fleet or flashy, but able to keep going, the author points out.
I like the book not just for the author’s mastery of solid statistics, but for his optimism, his awareness of what to do for a better earth.
Since the Industrial Revolution, humans have changed the world. Now, the author suggests: “We’ll need to change to cope with the new Eaarth we’ve created.”
In other words, instead of further changing the earth, change ourselves.
Embrace a slow city, a slow life, a go-slow mentality.