Thursday, May 18, 2006

Mirrors Reflect Mirrors on the Promenade

Sign held by a panhandler on Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica: "Need the money to buy my wife a new vibrator". The wife, her sleek look completed with a mohawk and a streamlined biker jacket, sat next to him, bantering with passers-by who joked with the husband- "Man, you need to work harder!".

That was pretty much the high point of my quick run to the Promenade. That, and the Chinese acrobat balancing a dozen plates on his head. On earlier visits, a bunch of hotter than hot band of Argentinian musicians who used to perform regularly on the Promenade were a major attraction. But they've been missing for a while now, which makes me suspect that some corporate types might have swooped them up, and they'd be coming out with a record soon. They were crappy musicians anyway, the only appeal being that they were yummy eye candy.

But seriously, the Promenade is becoming more and more lacklustre for the likes of me as we speak. All the quirky, independent shops are long gone, the last to disappear being the beloved independent bookstore, Midnight Special.

Instead we have rows and rows of outposts of corporate empires, clothing stores where the season's trend infects displays with lightening speed, meaning that shopping is basically an endless succession of deja vu. This year's trend flu happens to be ruffles on shirts and tops, and by goodness they're everywhere.

I happen to like ruffles, so don't mind much, but given that clothing is so ephemeral and disposable these days, most of these garments are awfully constructed and made from synthetic or poor quality fabrics. Viscose, polyester, rayon, nylon, polyamide. Chances are, this is what the fabric content on your garments reads like. The irony is that these fabrics make their appearance across the spectrum, from bottom of the barrel stores like Old Navy to high end designer wear. Don't believe me? Check this out then. You've got to have some nerve to sell a dress made of viscose and elastane for $2139 (which by the way, is the discounted price).

Anyway, I digress, but not too much. Point is, the Promenade has been taken over by overpriced, mind-numbingly similar corporate clothing stores. There is also a de rigeur Starbucks (but of course!). Actually, I'm happy for the Starbucks, it's the only place on the promenade that allows you to use its bathrooms for the very nominal price of their cheapest coffee. This may not seems like a big deal, till you're actually stuck on the Promenade, and you really gotta go, and the only alternative to the Starbucks is buying a meal at one of the mediocre restaurants for bathroom privileges.

So now that Midnight Special is gone, we have the excellent choice of deciding between the tightly controlled genres and selections of Borders on the one hand, and Barnes and Noble on the other. Oh wait, there is an actual element of real choice, Barnes and Noble serves Starbucks on its premises, while Borders serves Seattle's Best Coffee. Happy now? Ok, ok, I should not quarrel with bookstores, especially with bookstores that have very liberal policies with regard to browsing and even reading on the premises.

This article, by a former Santa Monica mayor was perhaps written a few years ago, when the takeover of Third Street Promenade by large corporate chains was not yet complete. It is fairly prescient about things to come and correctly predicts that the place has become nothing more than a shopping mall with jacaranda trees, such a change from the vibrant place with independent retailers that it once used to be.

Lest anyone thinks I'm reflexively anti-big business, let me clarify that I have nothing against large corporate chains whatsoever. I shop extensively at retail chains like Target, Ikea, Zara and Trader Joe's, and am thankful for the bargains these places offer to a starving student like me. However, I also like diversity, and the happy co-existence of large and small players in the retail business. However, given the megastore uniformity that the Promenade has embraced, each visit yields more and more disappointment on that score.

A pity indeed, a street of shops and cafes by the ocean has such a nice ring to it!

Friday, May 05, 2006

NIMBY Chinese and the Plunder of Indonesia's Rainforests

This seriously makes me sick. Apparently the Indonesian government has gone ahead and signed a deal with the Chinese government to trade off the fabulous rainforests of Kalimantan and Sumatra. The forests would be chopped down and the wood used to service the construction boom in China (especially given the 2008 Beijing Olympics). In return China seeks to develop palm oil plantations there to supply the growing world demand for palm oil in detergents, soaps, etc. Ironically China is putting in place an initiative to save its own forests, even as it plunders rain forests in South-east Asia. A number of Indonesia based bloggers have written about it here, here and here.

I live in a country where the level of thoughtless, wasteful consumption shocks me on a regular basis. What shocks me even more is that I seem to be morphing into one of those thoughtless, wasteful consumers. I use disposable plates and cutlery on occasion, use non-organic, polluting detergent for my clothes, liberally use paper towels in my kitchen and generate more trash on a weekly basis than my family of four in India would in a month. My boyfriend chides me for my carelessness in leaving lights on when I leave the apartment, something I would have never done in India. I live in the midst of a quasi-desert, and yet when I wash dishes, the tap runs continously.

Somehow, it seems very easy to be seduced and sucked into wanton wastefulness. Especially when there is no incentive to act otherwise. And especially when this very callousness with resources is seen as one of the perks of leading a first-world lifestyle. And now, more and more people around the world want a taste of this American life, and all the rampant consumption that invariably accompanies it. And so the Chinese government scours the world for wood to build its Olympics showcase apartments and feed the demands of the growing Chinese middle class.

Is it fair to judge them? According to Mahathir Mohammad ex-Prime Minister of Malaysia, Western governments are hypocrites in asking developing countries to protect their forests, when Western nations did no such thing for their own environment in their scramble for industrialization. And for those living in poverty, the romanticising of nature by the intellectual elite can be very cruel.

Certainly Indonesia could do as Germany did, embark on an ambitious programme of reforestation, once they became acutely aware of the ravages wrought on the environment by all the steel mills and coal furnaces that came up during Germany's great industrialization drive. Germany's afforestation drive is a remarkable success story, as they managed to increase their forest cover from 6 per cent in the middle of the 20th century to more than 30 per cent at present. Not without its problems as often the hardwood oak and beech trees were replaced by softwood trees unsuitable for local conditions. And there's a certain amount of biodiversity that has been permanently lost in Germany and cannot be replenished.

If this is the case for Germany, imagine how much worse is it for Indonesian rainforests, that are home to an incredible variety of species of plants and animals. And unlike Germany, which is unique in the widespread environmental consciousness of its population, most forests cleared around the world have never really been replenished. The North Sumatran forests chopped down to make way for Dutch colonial coffee and palm oil plantations in the late 19th and early 20th century have been irreplacably lost.

Every year, more forests in Sumatra are cleared by surreptiously setting fire to them, causing neighbouring Malaysia to suffer horrific pollution (wonder what Mahatir Mohammad has to say to that). And now, instead of checking this rampant clearing, the Indonesian government gives its official stamp of approval to the violence against its natural heritage.

I fear that it won't be long before India jumps on the bandwagon as well. After all India's always chided in the West for not growing fast enough, for being bogged down by the myriad voices of its constituents. We are told to look up to the Chinese model, one aspect of which is the pillage of the Chinese environment and the alarming growth of pollution in Chinese cities. And given that, mercifully, we do not have the diplomatic wherewithal to arm-twist South-east Asian countries, we would perhaps start devouring our own forests.

Is there an efficient solution that allows the world to have its cake and eat it too? In the case of many other environmental problems such as vehicle-generated pollution, burning cleaner fuels and newer, more efficient engines is partly the answer. Environmental challenges are the top concern at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, and implementing better operating practices and technological advances to make the ports environment friendly are seen as the best ways to balance growth and the environment. In the case of the rainforests, we need to stop using virgin rainforest wood for housing and furniture, using wood from newer plantations instead. Also we need to find alternatives to palm oil in industrial uses.

But in the meanwhile, as we press for these changes in industrial practices, we can all contribute to stop what I fundamentally believe is a terrible loss for Indonesia, and indeed the world as a whole. And what's an inconsequential, irrelevant consumer like me to do, except in my own small way indicate my displeasure. By writing a blog post.

PS: What really, really breaks my heart is that all these rainforests are being destroyed for the Olympics, the most pointless waste of resources ever invented. My boyfriend and I have argued zillions of times over this, but I truly believe that apart from some much needed infrastructure additions, which the EU would have paid for anyway, Greece really got the short end of the stick with the 2004 Olympics.

It got saddled with umpteen sports venues that no one would ever use, the security paranoia meant that actual visitors were far less than projected ones, and now its saddled with a debt that would take years to pay off. For S, it's more a matter of national pride and the triumph of the Greek spirit, which I understand, but I don't think that such national glory should be attempted at any cost.

And now the Chinese government is trying to show off its new found economic might in another wasteful exercise of self-aggrandisement. And the Indonesian rainforests pay the price.