You may recall a previous post from back in August entitled ‘Not So Chic: A Post from Beijing,’ in which I discussed the pollution perils facing Mainland China. I was validated to read in the New York Times today that citizen groups in China have been taking matters into their own hands to publicize the ‘real’ nature of the air pollution problem, even investing in their own air pollution monitors and publicizing results online. There is nothing more ‘chic’ than collective activism, especially against a mechanism that can at times, especially from inside China, feel so deeply menacing.
China’s massive smog issue is caused by a number of reasons, including the extensive use of coal for energy as well as a marked demand for automobiles—there was a 32 percent jump in China’s car sales last year amounting to a total of 4.81 million vehicles on Beijing roads last year, triple the number as in 2000. As someone who first lived in China in 1996, I can personally attest that the pollution problem is a massive detriment to the future of Chinese society and a healthy, sustainable environment for both growth and prosperity. In the ’90s, the pollution one faced in Beijing was mostly of the home-grown sort: coal was used in furnaces and kitchens and therefore, the smog was black, sooty, and primarily heavy in winter (when heat was needed). By the early 2000s, I noticed a shift in the type of pollution—arriving at Beijing’s spiffy new international airport (oh, how I miss the old airport with its red propaganda slogans painted on the walls!), I immediately could smell something distinctly chemical. Turns out that new noxious odor was a mix of nearby factory pollution and exhaust from the increased number of vehicles on the road. By the time I returned to China last August, I noticed that there were hardly any bicyclists on Beijing’s streets (when I asked my Chinese sister ‘Where have all the bicycles gone?’ she responded ‘There’s one!’—yes, ONE). When I asked my Chinese father why everyone in China wanted to own a car when the traffic is so atrocious it can take two hours to go a kilometer (and I thought Los Angeles was bad!), he responded, thumping at his chest: ‘我有车!’ or ‘I have a car!’, implying that the desire to show off one’s material wealth trumps even the most pragmatic notion that a car is a simply means of transport, and in Beijing, a terrible one at that.
So what happens now? Predictions abound about the future of China’s smog problem, and they aren’t for the faint of heart. Nevertheless, it heartens me that citizens are finally taking matters into their own hands. Even my Chinese father checks the U.S. Embassy’s smog alert system, rather than trusting the Chinese government’s reports.
Still, for those readers outside of China, we think ‘This is China’s problem.’ It’s not. China’s pollution is a direct result of our actions abroad. All those items you buy that are ‘Made in China’? They are made in factories that do not undergo the same stringent environmental demands in the US and Western Europe. And yes, maybe we can live ignorantly unaware of the impact of our consumerism, but smog doesn’t have a nationality and is surprisingly mobile—China’s ‘problem’ is equally ours. Until we demand products that are made locally and sustainably, smog (and its equally harmful, invisible, particulates) will invade our cities, clogging our lungs and choking our dreams of blue skies (okay, that sounds very dramatic, but I’m a writer after all…).
In the meantime, check where that toothbrush, that sweater, that shoe, that iPod is made. Demand that companies be honest in online stores about the origins of their products (I recently returned two purchases I made online because they were Made in China—more on that soon). Sure, ignorance is bliss, but it also can lead to lung cancer.
*An update as of March 12, 2012: Here’s a great photographic trip through Beijing’s smog problem, as reported by a Beijing-based photojournalist.