Chinese officials and executives, like those in every country and especially those with a feeble press, have a history of perpetrating health and environmental cover-ups—think of the SARS cover-up or dousing cities with artificial rain or literally painting a mountain green.
But not all concealment can be concealed; especially not when the concealment is the size of three football fields and sitting in the middle of downtown.
In an effort to remediate a large patch of heavily contaminated soil in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou, engineers managed to unleash a smell so pungent that, last week, owners of the site took a new tactic: a giant tent to contain it all.
The toxic soil is the result of waste and pollution left behind by an insecticide factory that sat on the land for fifty years until it was closed in 2009, according to state media reports. Efforts by the investment company that now owns the land to remove the smell, such as injecting it with deodorant, have proved mostly fruitless, say neighbors. Soil samples have been sent to science institutes in Beijing and Shanghai for analysis.
And even after the dome, neighbors have complained that the "volatile pungent odor" persists. Though the 20,000-square-meter polyester tent contains an area roughly the size of three football fields and rises 36 meters near downtown, it only covers less than half of the contaminated area.
The dome descends at a fateful moment in Hangzhou, a prosperous city on the eastern coast that's known for its lakes and hills. Two weeks ago, protests over a planned incinerator grew violent, leaving two police cars ablaze, dozens of vehicles overturned, sixty arrested and "dozens" injured. It was one of three recent large "public incidents" around the country related to local pollution, and another sign of China's middle class demanding clean air and soil.
Government officials have publicly urged transparency. A nine-year government survey released in April warned that China’s soil is laced with pollutants like mercury and arsenic, endangering food supplies. An un-bylined article in Chinese state media about the incident ("Hangzhou protest tests China's governing capacity") ended with this expression-less but still unusual kicker:
The NIMBY movement represents worries among residents and their concerns for the environment.
"China gained its high-speed economic development at a high cost to the environment. Resulting environmental pollution has affected people's bodies and minds," said Yang Jianhua, director of the Institute for Public Policy of Zhejiang Academy of Social Sciences. "The top priority for the government is to regain public trust," he said.
The public demands to be part of social governance as China progresses. Yang called for a change in the government management model.
A government's slow or poor planning decision might lead to questioning and protests. Joint discussions and an evaluation would allow for a more balanced decision, he said.
Reforms like these have been years in the making or at least in the talking. But the past twelve months of hazardous pollution have forced the government to take larger-than-normal measures, and have given the media more latittude to report on large gatherings of angry people. There's a new punishment regime for polluting factories and companies, a just-inaugurated "environmental court," and an effort to scrap up to five million old cars. (Keep in mind, while Beijing's air is bad, London and Delhi still score higher in some pollution measures.)
Carbon sequestration—"clean coal"—is on an uptick in China. The government says it will cut carbon and energy consumption per unit of growth by about four percent this year, and spend up to $54 billion on energy saving and environmental protection. Many cities have closed factories outright or limited the use of private cars to certain days of the week. In Xi'an, officials have turned to mist cannons to dampen smog (experts say these don't do very much except get people wet).
But some efforts to stem pollution can look even more drastic or merely more defeatist. Besides seeding the clouds, China's officials (if not its scientists) have taken a fancy to geoengineering, and specifically the idea of a "positive" kind of climate control, lacing the atmosphere in aerosols to keep the sun out.
"Weather controlling machine," postcards of the year 2000, Germany. Image: Paleofuture
Last year, the idea of protecting the Earth with a dome made out of chemicals became one of China's Earth science research priorities "in a marked shift in the international climate change landscape," the Guardian noted.
But China was merely trying to keep up with the rest of the world. The climate situation has become dire enough to make geoengineering an increasing focus among scientists and policy makers from the Kremlin to the White House. The National Research Council, the House of Representatives' committee on science and technology, and the Government Accountability Office have encouraged more research, as have a number of beltway thinktanks.
The temptation is understandable, and self-perpetuating: The faster that predicted climate impacts take effect, the more compelling geoengineering becomes. And once geoengineering starts on a large scale, no one really knows what the side effects will be, especially for those people who aren't in control of the climate cannons.
Meanwhile, Beijingers compare notes on their favorite face masks or respirators for their evening strolls. At many of the city's luxury highrises, residents get their fresh air from sophisticated air filtration systems. Some of the remodled historic courtyard homes at the city's center boast domes over their central courtyards. Even one of the city's iconic modern structures, Paul Andreu's National Theater, is a giant bubble made of glass and, echoing the nearby Forbidden City, is separated from the street by a moat.
The less capable you are of fighting what's outside, the more you might want to live inside a bubble. Can the neighborhood-sized anti-pollution dome, then, be far off?
Buckminster Fuller's US Pavilion, built for Montreal's Expo 67. Image: Guilherme Duarte Garcia
The Hangzhou case isn't the first time that a dome—specifically, "a curved vault that is erected on a circular base and that is semicircular, pointed, or bulbous in section," according to a seminal textbook—has been suggested as a response to pollution. Last year, the International School of Beijing, an elite K-12 suburban day school where tuition runs as high as $35,000 per year, erected two new pollution domes (or “sports domes”) in response to the persistent smog that descended over the city.
And last month, Rajat Sodhi, an Indian architect working in Beijing, proposed a neighborhood-sized modular dome made of inflated plastic bubbles, similar to those used on the Olympic Water Cube. It was born out of the realisation, said Sodhi, "that in developing countries, especially major cities in India and China, the air quality has crossed unacceptable limits. You really can't step out and be outdoors. You just move from one air-conditioned space to another."
Spread from Fact or Fantasy (World of Tomorrow), Neal Ardley, 1982. Image: Paleofuture
One of the first serious proposals for a real-life neighborhood-scale dome, Paleofuture tells me, was reported in the Edwardsville Intelligencer, of Edwardsville, Illinois, on December 15, 1952. "'Weather-conditioned' communities in the future are perfectly feasible," it reported, and that "Ambrose M. Richardson of the University of Illinois announced that his graduate architecture students already are working on a model of plastic pillows, helium-filled and joined to make a mile-high floating dome." The next step could be "covering 10 or 15 acre areas such as football stadiums and baseball parks," before building "larger domes - made of thousands of transparent pillows each only a few feet square - covering whole communities.
The ideas call to mind—and indeed were probably inspired by—larger, more speculative visions of domelife. In science fiction, the domed city is essentially a trope: when it's not underwater or on another planet (think Total Recall), it's a symbol of humanity in its final throes (also, probably, Total Recall).
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency covered Springfield with a giant dome after Homer accidentally polluted the town's water supply, in 2007's Simpson's movie. The dome meme continued with Steven King's CBS hit miniseries last summer, Under the Dome, which was based on a book that, of course, is situated in a town that is mysteriously surrounded by a giant dome.
In his 1982 book Fact or Fantasy (World of Tomorrow), Neil Ardley conjures up domed cities of the future, necessary to protect humanity from the "savage cold" yet to come. In 1970's Logan's Run, the domed life looks comfy, but it also becomes a means of surveilling and controlling the populace.
In real life, in 1960, Buckminster Fuller famously proposed the Dome over Manhattan, which would cover most of midtown in order to regulate weather and reduce air pollution. Fuller, granddaddy of the geodesic dome, believed his modular approach to construction would mean the mile-high dome could be erected in months by a fleet of helicopters at a cost of $200 million, a cost that would easily be offset by savings to the city in snow removal, he claimed.
Wrote his biographer, Alden Hatch:
Its skin would consist of wire-reinforced, one-way vision, shatterproof glass, mist-plated with aluminium to cut sun glare while admitting light. From the outside it would look like a great glittering hemispheric mirror, while from the inside its structural elements would be as invisible as the wires of a screened porch, and it would appear as a translucent film through which the sky, clouds and stars would appear.
The dome would never rise, but Fuller would see his geodesic domes rise in much smaller forms across the map, most notably in the form of his US Pavilion at Expo Montreal in 1967, a dome that would inspire Epcot's Spaceship Earth. Consisting of three-fourths of a sphere and made of 1900 molded, transparent Plexiglas panels, the structure rises only 200 feet high and covers an acre.
Dome over Manhattan, Buckminster Fuller, 1960
Still, urban-scale dome attempts would follow. In 1979, after a few glasses of wine, a group of young city planners in Winooski, Vermont (four hours from Stephen King's hometown of Portland, Maine!) came up with an idea for a dome that would cover nearly the entire town, 800 times larger than Fuller's pavilion. The Golden Onion Dome, as it was called, was one answer, they argued, tongue partly in cheek, to the country's second energy crisis in a decade and double-digit inflation. It was also a way of making the wintry 7,000-person town more habitable year-round.
A modest request for federal funding was killed by Jimmy Carter himself, but not before the dome made headlines worldwide and landed the lead planner, Mark Tigan, on Letterman. In March of 1980 there was even a Dome Symposium, and Fuller showed up to offer his support.
"In a time of growing population and dwindling resources, especially energy," said the dome-master, "it is incumbent upon technology to dedicate itself to provide mankind with the means of sheltering himself from the elements with the least amount of materials and resources. Domes are inherently capable of achieving this end, and in particular with the use of the tensigrity principle and with the development of materials that have increasing amounts of strength to mass ratio, the project to dome Winooski is a feasible practicality."
Drawing for a proposed Golden Onion Dome in Winooski, Vermont. Image: John Anderson/International Dome Symposium
"Economically it’s a slam dunk," Tigan, now an associate professor of Community Development at Clark University, told H+ in 2009. The use of eminent domain to secure the edges of the dome would be more complicated, he said, due to land law that may only become more complex in an age of rampant environmental devastation. “You could have had year-round fly-fishing,” he said.
In 2010, a Russian engineering company drew up plans for a "luxury eco" dome city in an abandoned Siberian mine. In 2009, some engineers proposed erecting a dome over downtown Houston. In the late 1960s, a dome popped up in a proposal for the MXC, or the Minnesota Experimental City, a project that imagined a futuristic town with pod transport under a humongous geodesic dome three hours north of the Twin Cities. The plan even recieved $250,000 in seed money from the federal government before evaporating in the late '70s. Today the town of Swatara looks more like a ghost town.
But Minnesota isn't exactly wanting for a dome city. The Mall of America, built in 1992 near Minneapolis, contains within its 80 acres of floor space more than 500 stores, 80 restaurants and an indoor amusement park. There is a dome-like quality to a number of modern "public" buildings, like airports, stadia, and shopping malls. A dome stadium covers about eight to 10 acres. And of course, there are laboratories like Biosphere 2 (3.15 acres) and England's two Eden geodesic-dome greenhouses (5 acres).
But while most of these domes are meant to contain people, establishing a barrier with the world outside for various reasons, like climate regulation and pollution protection, the dome in Hangzhou, is designed specifically to keep people out.
That can become a necessity when dealing with wastelands so toxic or radioactive that they seem to be beyond repair. Consider New York's third and newest Superfund site: a street in Ridgewood, Queens that used to be home to one of the city's thorium processors, back in the day when the radioactive element was first being tested for use by the military. The EPA is preparing for an extensive clean-up (it still needs to determine who will pay), but it has already laid down concrete and lead plates on top of most of the radiation, a common practice at former nuclear sites, where there is often nothing other to do than bury the bad stuff.
Nothing's wrong with a giant dome, in theory. Does a dome contain a problem or keep a problem outside? When does a temporary solution create a much bigger problem? What happens when a temporary dome becomes a permanent dome? What about the people who live outside a dome habitat or near a dome container? Will domes become more common? These questions need to be addressed for the dome future that may, once again, be coming.
And another question: would a dome—be it a virtual dome made of aerosols or a geodesic dome or a giant plastic tent—actually keep out something as bad as a stinky smell? Not yet.
"We can only lighten the smell by stuffing clothes into the cracks between the window frames," a nearby resident of the Hangzhou Dome surnamed Shao told a local website. "We dare not open the windows or hang clothes out to dry. We also stopped going out for walks in the evening."
To some planners, that would be cause for another dome.