Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Edge of Development

Note: I do not attach a positive nor a negative connotation for the the word “development” and while its connotation and use is contentious, this post is not a forum for such semantic disputes.
 A summary of the beginning:
In the beginning, there was the Earth. It was really hot and then it cooled down. Eventually, plants and animals inhabited the more reasonable climates of the sea and land. Critters scurried, plants did plant things and over the course of time untold, humans walked erect out of the cradle of humanity (Ethiopia) and into the cradle of civilization (the fertile crescent of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers). As I imagine it, whomever first walked into the area stood, eyes squinted and deeply focused on the horizon, one foot propped on a rock, hunched over, their body weight on their elevated knee (think a Homo Erectus Captain Morgan) and thought to themself, “this’ll do.”
After that they may have stopped for a snack, scratched their nether regions and defecated but the very next day they started kicking over rocks, diverting streams (think children diverting hose water in the street with sticks and rocks) and modifying the land the suit their needs. Indeed, this triggered a reversal in our relationship to the Earth. The Earth could no longer provide for us much in the way that we found it. We had terms now and for the first time in our history the Earth would abide by them.

This moment (or series of events, more likely) marked the point in which we discovered that we could design our environment: harvest wheat in fields, raise livestock, build fences out of trees, chisel pictures into rocks, write lasting testaments to our ingenuity and cultures on papyrus and then paper and then the Internet, build shelters out of diverse materials, cool them down with air conditioning and shop for dead animals, neatly organized by organism and vacuum sealed to guarantee freshness. Since this moment, humans have been on a trajectory and in the West it is a trajectory out of sight, out of mind.
Having lived in East Asia for the last 4 and a half years or so, I see the above image not as a contrast but as a continuation. The East has and is developing so quickly that one finds juxtaposed hand-tilling farmers and terraforming backhoes literally side by side. 

Nowhere in my travels have I seen such a stark and bold expression of the spirit of the tamers of the Earth than here in East Asia, specifically in South Korea and China where the economies and cities have developed at break-neck speed. While the lines between farmland, exurbs, suburbs and urban areas blur in the West,  the edges of development here in the East are as clear as a road or a line of demarkation. Like the four corners of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado, there many places one can stand, straddling urban chaos and developing, terraformed wasteland like in Zhuhai, southern China.

I took the above picture while visiting my brother in Zhuhai. On the right, urbanized and developed land and my brother’s apartment building and, on the left, an area that was once the Pearl River Delta. This land on the left is zoned for apartments though development seemed to be on hold at the time. Chinese developers have been dumping the excavated earth from flattened mountains in some areas and filling in the sea and wetlands in Zhuhai and elsewhere; this also happens in places like Hong Kong where the airport now sits atop land that was claimed from the sea.
It wasn’t until I combined the two images at the top of the post that I realized something profound and interesting: both men, the tilling farmer and the terraforming backhoe operator, were both trying to accomplish the same thing, a charade as old as civilization, moving an imperfect Earth to manifest our desire for abundant food and shelter.