Big Cities, Big Problems

I found your September/October 2005 cover story “Cities of the Future” informative and well done. I believe, however, that some of the information regarding Jakarta, where I lived for several years in the early 1990s, is dated, and in some cases superficial.

Jakarta had the “three passengers in one car” policy for vehicles traveling into the inner city during business hours when I was there more than 10 years ago, so it is by no means a “new” program. But I seriously doubt it is any more effective now than it was then.

My driver and I would merely pull off the main thruway and for a few rupiahs could hire one of the multitudes of ever-present children to be the “third” in our car. As a traffic or pollution control measure it was nearly useless, although it was some help to the impoverished children.

The “transmigration” projects wherein folks are moved from the overpopulated islands of Jakarta and Bali to the under-populated islands of Kalimantan and Irian Jaya have also been in full swing for more than 10 years. Although this sounds like a good idea, in practice it is a human and environmental tragedy.

Whole villages are transported so that their homes can be turned into golf courses. They are plopped down into the middle of a jungle that has been scraped raw down to the soil and the large piles of debris set on fire. The fires burn literally for months, sometimes years if the underlying peat ignites.

The “transmigrants” are housed in dirt-floored shacks with poor sanitation. They come from malaria-free islands, so they have no immunity to it when they are forced to live in affected regions. They speak a different language and practice a different religion from the surrounding natives. They are kept in place by the Indonesian army. While I was in Jakarta with the U.S. Navy Medical Research Unit, our research doctors were the sole source of medical care in the transmigrant camps.

You had to see the water pollution in Jakarta to believe it. With the first monsoon rains, the drainage systems became clogged, flooding entire neighborhoods with toxic sludge. Friends of mine who had lived in Jakarta for years had their children checked for heavy metals because they noticed a deteriorating level of cognitive ability. The kids had toxic levels of lead in their blood, believed to be caused by the city’s leaded gasoline.

If visitors to Indonesia would venture a few blocks from the gilded tourist attractions and ultra-modern environs, they would learn of its heartbreaking human and environmental tragedy. Jakarta was my initiation to the nightmare of third world mega-cities. I shudder to think how much worse it is now than 10 years ago.

Brent E. White
Poulsbo, WA

In “Cities of the Future,” I was disappointed to find so little space devoted to what is being done or what should be done to alleviate the myriad problems facing mega-cities. A smog-encrusted, doomsday article is of little value unless it looks to the future and attempts to identify solutions. Pages were devoted to desperate environmental degradation and only a few sad paragraphs were written about small attempts to solve these problems.

Cities can be models of sustainability, as their heightened density allows more efficient distribution of services than disperse rural or suburban areas. The potential for these cities was scarcely mentioned.

As one of the primary voices of the environmental movement, E Magazine would do well to ask, what can be done? Then report on people, organizations and municipalities trying to answer that question. So many wonderful things are happening, moving the world closer to sustainability.

This is essential work, and strides are being made, particularly in urban areas around the world. After reading your article, I was reminded of the proverb, “Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those doing it.”

Ariel K. Diamond
Associate, Chicago Center for Green Technology
Chicago, IL


Having read your article “Building Sustainable Cities” (Currents, September/ October 2005) four days after the Hurricane Katrina disaster, I can only wonder if those in charge of recovery efforts would even consider this a perfect opportunity for turning any of the affected cities into the model you have described.

Media accounts of the flood destruction of New Orleans portray a totally collapsed infrastructure and the need to almost completely rebuild much of the city from below ground up. The bitter irony is that experts have been predicting this scenario, unheeded, for years.

The big question then becomes: Why would planners and public officials, even with the most vested of interests, think it advisable to rebuild a city that will, given its current geographic location, most certainly be similarly destroyed again when another Katrina hits? Why not rebuild a sustainable city on ground that is above sea and lake level? Too much to ask? Probably.

Sue Hall
Grants Pass, OR


As a dietitian who works with cancer survivors, I applaud your article on cancer prevention (“Everything Gives you Cancer,” Your Health, September/October 2005). Statistics show that 30 to 60 percent of cancer cases are diet-related, meaning there are many food and lifestyle choices we can make to protect ourselves.

And there’s no better time than now to discuss the positive impact a low-fat vegetarian diet can have on our health. In fact, a recent study from UCLA Medical Center found that breast cancer patients who reduced their fat intake lowered their risk of tumor recurrence by as much as 42 percent.

While there is no 100-percent guarantee against any disease, scientific evidence strongly suggests that a vegetarian diet rich in fruits and vegetables can be a powerful tool in preventing and surviving colon, breast, ovarian and some other forms of cancer.

Jennifer K. Reilly, R.D.
Managing Director, The Cancer Project
Washington, DC


Although sadly it’s been a while since Hollywood embraced any serious subject matter that deals with environmental themes, the 1980s and 90s were a prodigious time for the topic (“L.A. Environmental,” Consumer News, September/October 2005). While including some worthy titles that are action/adventure (On Deadly Ground) or based on social concerns (Silkwood), Benjamin Chadwick’s article glaringly omitted some of Hollywood’s greatest titles on environmental issues. May I suggest the following for your viewing pleasure:

At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1991): evangelism and rainforest destruction;Medicine Man (1992): Sean Connery and Lorraine Bracco search for a cure to cancer in the rainforest;The Burning Season (TV, 1994): true story of murdered rubber tapper Chico Mendes;The Emerald Forest (1985): kidnapping of American child by Amazon tribe;Mosquito Coast (1986): Harrison Ford and family escape civi

lization;The Mission (1986): Robert DeNiro in a story based on real experiences of the Jesuits and Guarani Indians;Fitzcarraldo (1982): building an opera house in the Amazon;Star Trek 4: The Voyage Home (1986): rescuing humpback whales;Gorillas in the Mist (1988): Sigourney Weaver plays slain zoologist Dian Fossey.

These films are delivered with heart and eloquently state the case for ecologic balance and environmental justice without trivializing the subject with numbing special effects or things blowing up. Alas, it would be difficult to imagine these films being made today.

Ken Levy
Brooklyn, NY

In his discussion of green-themed movies, Benjamin Chadwick omitted four excellent choices: The Emerald Forest, Gorillas in the Mist,The Burning Season and Medicine Man. The stories are a decade or two old, but the problems remain and the murders have not stopped as witnessed by the assassination of Sister Dorothy Strang in February 2005. It makes these true stories all the more inspirational to those of us who often feel powerless and on the verge of giving up as environmentalists.

Now, if only Hollywood would take on the subject of overpopulation! It is still the underlying cause of global warming, pollution and habitat loss. And it is amazing how many people have not been able to connect these dots! One well-written movie with a strong international cast showing where the world is headed—and how much better it could be if everyone voluntarily decided to hold family size to two or fewer children—could possibly wake up the world before it is too late.

Claudia Vetesy
Heidelberg, Germany

Editors’ Note: Medicine Man, along with many other worthy titles, was included in a supplemental list we published with the article on our website at Unfortunately, the printed page provides only limited space.