Beijing's Pangu Plaza last week
It’s surprisingly easy to turn a blind eye to environmental degradation in China. The country is the biggest polluter in the world (but only 78th per capita), but that fact becomes a useless abstraction, lost in the narrative of China’s dawning worldwide economic domination. Like with other global crises, self-delusion helps to get you through the day.
Even as gross examples exhort us to take note, wiggling our way out of considering the obvious isn’t that hard. One thousand nine hundred seventy-three people died in Chinese coal mines in 2011, but it’s easy for me to leave my lights on because I’ve never met any of them. Rivers turn all sorts of crazy colors from pollution and algae growth, but as long as I don’t live near any of them, why should I care? Coal-burning furnaces and polluted groundwater are creating entire cancer villages but… OK, this one is a little tough to rationalize, but let’s go with the most popular justification: Villages with increased incidences of cancer are regrettable, but these sacrifices are necessary for the sake of continued economic development.
The Chinese people, knowingly or not, are engaged in a Faustian bargain with their rulers. They have surrendered their right to complain in exchange for economic development. To put it more bluntly, the Communist Party can do whatever it wants so long as the rising middle class can buy new refrigerators and handbags every once in a while. In modern China, development is paramount—all other concerns are secondary.
But “Out of sight, out of mind” only works if the problems stay invisible, or on the periphery of experience. What happens when the ugly side effects of economic development are everywhere you look?
Two weekends ago, the pollution in Beijing was the worst on record, with the air quality index (AQI) hitting 775 on the U.S. Embassy's Beijing Air Quality Monitor. According to the EPA, AQI values over 100 are “considered to be unhealthy” and “levels rarely exceed a value of 200 in the United States.”
The highest tier of the index is 301-500, which is labeled “hazardous” and accompanied by the warning: “Everyone should avoid all physical activity outdoors.” The AQI readings on January 12th, reported hourly by the Air Quality Monitor’s verified Twitter feed, were “beyond index.”
In addition to the potentially lethal AQI, the PM2.5 reading, which tallies the amount of particulate matter 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller per cubic meter, was 886. I’m not exactly sure what this means but I imagine it’s about as healthy as snorting a bag of asbestos.
Stats can be so vague. Here is a picture to put it in perspective.
And here are two shots taken by NASA from space. Beijing on a normal day on the left and Beijing on its worst day ever.
Though I stayed indoors on both Saturday and Sunday, I did open my window to take a whiff of the outside air. It smelled like the inside of a coke furnace, a mix of coal and ash and soot and exhaust.
It’s hard to describe the feeling of looking out the window and not being able to see buildings that you know are there through the smoke, or looking down a subway platform and seeing the other end obscured by a scrim of gray dust. It’s even harder to justify why you choose to live in a city that is slowly killing you.
As a result of the record-breaking pollution, hospitalization rates for heart attacks and respiratory problems soared and half a million facemasks were sold in two days.
Though it’s hard to know how many deaths were caused directly by the pollution, according to a study by Greenpeace and Peking University, PM2.5 exposure led to the premature deaths of 8,572 people in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Xi’an last year. But it’s OK, because I didn’t know any of those people.
What’s most surprising about the spike in visible pollution is that the Chinese government actually acknowledged the issue. Officials ordered factories to shut down and cars to stay off the streets until the smog lifted.
Official media reported on the incident as well, with even the jingoistic Global Times opining, “If we continue this way of development instead of adjusting it, the long-term damage will be serious.” This is truly a shocking development considering previously official media referred to the pollution euphemistically as “heavy fog.”
Official media also quoted AQI numbers from the US embassy readings, which is unprecedented given that the measurements were once the source of political tension. Beijing regularly pressured the embassy to discontinue broadcasting its readings, because they were consistently higher than official numbers.
But just in case you’re getting optimistic, let me emphasize that the government has admitted to the pollution problem mainly because it can no longer hide it. If coal ash were invisible and odorless, this would be a different story.
And in case you’re thinking, “Well, at least the government officials have to breathe the same air as everyone else,” this is where I burst your bubble. High-ranking leaders have top-of-the-line air purifiers at their homes and offices and eat food from private farms run by the military. They are chauffeured around in private cars and have access to the best medical care. The leaders of the People’s Republic literally breathe different air than the people they govern.
When it comes to pollution, government cadres have no incentive to improve the air apart from the constant fear of instability and revolution. In the end, maybe that’s what drives all reform in China.
Indeed, two recent articles suggest that the Faustian bargain is beginning to unravel and citizens are looking for some kind of escape clause. The middle class is becoming disillusioned with the slow pace of progress and asking if a new handbag every now and then is worth toxic air, undrinkable water, and unsafe food.
Many Beijingers are beginning to the think the answer is no.
SO WHAT? I DON’T KNOW ANY OF THESE PEOPLE
With China, it’s easy to think of their pollution as theirs, trapped between their newly risen apartment buildings and blanketing their ever-expanding ring roads. But carbon dioxide and particulate matter have little regard for national sovereignty.
China’s current plight is a microcosm of history. Beijing and Lanzhou are today’s London and New York, which were industrial-era versions of ancient Rome and Greece. Even as late as 60 years ago, Pittsburgh had to keep its lights on during the day because no sunlight could penetrate the smog around the city.
Our historical memories are short or nonexistent. Those of us who never lived through Northern England’s 19th century industrial nightmares or what F. Scott Fitzgerald called the "Valley of Ashes" in the 20th century have no reference for the depths of environmental wretchedness that industrialization can produce. But paradoxically, we are better off for it. But only in the short-run. If China is gripped in a Faustian bargain, it’s because the whole world is enthralled by a similar lie: That economies can grow without limits and externalities never have to be paid for.
But what if one day this growth stops, and all we’re left with are the problems? Unlike Faust, there will be no angels to save us.