(Originally published 1/20/13 on MURDER IS EVERYWHERE)
But once the Games were over, it was back to business as usual.
In 2008, the US Embassy in Beijing started a Twitter feed of hourly air quality reports, an action that ticked the Chinese government off (or in Chinese diplomatese, "hurt the Chinese people's feelings"), since the Chinese government was unwilling to provide such information, and the news tended to be pretty bad. Anyone who's spent any length of time in Beijing knows that the air pollution is terrible, but it's one thing to look out the window and think, "yeah, air should probably not appear as a semi-solid," and to know that you are routinely breathing air that according to international standards is considered "hazardous."
And then there was the day in 2010 when the pollution was so off-the-charts terrible that a tweet went out from the official US Embassy air quality twitter feed describing it as "crazy bad."
Jonathan Watts, whose excellent environmental reporting from China is a must-read, described this as "a joke embedded in the embassy's monitoring program and triggered by a reading that was off the normal scale." I can tell you that one afternoon while I was having a drink at the Vineyard Cafe, I overheard a conversation between two Americans in which one of them confessed to have been the culprit. I felt as if I'd been a witness to history...
Many things have been gained and many things have been lost in China's rush to modernize and become a global power. Put the natural environment in the negative tally. Pan Yue, the deputy director of SEPA, China's EPA, warned as early as 2005 that China's environmental crisis would undermine its economic miracle. He also saw China's environmental problems as part of a larger global problem. His explanation was that the capitalist system displaces its economic problems by creating environmental ones: "The environmental crisis has become a new means of transferring the economic crisis." Or, as he also put it, "the rich consume and the poor suffer the pollution."
Mind you, he was not just implicating wealthy countries in China's ecological horror show. Pan Yue spoke out against Chinese government policies, local authorities and polluting industries, blocking projects that were environmental disasters. He was widely considered the driving force behind promoting sustainable development as the path forward for China. And this might be why, when China's economy was sagging because of the global economic crisis, Pan Yue suffered a bout of "ill health" and was replaced by someone widely considered pro-development.
I think we all can understand the trade-offs of economic growth for environmental quality. The history of the last two hundred years is replete with stories of horrible, killing pollution in exchange for greater wealth. But what Pan Yue understood was that horrible, killing pollution has its own economic toll charge, and it's not an insignificant one.
Aside from not always being able to breathe the air, you really have to worry about what you eat. Problems in China's food supply are legion. Among the more notorious examples: Sewer oil. Fake eggs. Detergent-doctored tofu. Pigs that glow in the dark. I could go on, but you may not have had breakfast. More typically food is contaminated with hormones, antibiotics, pesticides and non-food additives like melamine, whatever it takes to make things grow faster, cheaper.
Officials and the wealthy have ways around the problems in China's food chain. They get their food from a "special supply" — dedicated organic farms that only sell to them, not to the general public.
Air, though...that's a little trickier. You can filter the air in your apartment and office, but at some point, you will be breathing the same muck as everyone else.
And the pollution in Beijing this past week went beyond "Crazy Bad" into levels greatly exceeding those experienced in the middle of a forest fire. In the Air Quality Index developed in the US, 500 (for particulate matter) is the top of the scale and is considered "hazardous." Anything above that is "Beyond Index." During this siege of smog, levels were up above 700 and at one point almost hit 1000.
(for some perspective of how bad this is: the sort of "moderate" air pollution typically experienced in Los Angeles is between 51-100. "Unhealthy for sensitive groups" is 101 - 150. Levels considered a public emergency are 201- 300 and rarely seen in the US)
In a turnaround of its former, "tweak the numbers and call it a 'Blue Sky Day" policy, the Chinese government stopped fighting the US Embassy Twitter feed and began releasing accurate air pollution data last year. During this crisis they released figures hourly. More unusually the Chinese media covered "Airpocalypse" with aggressiveness and openness. There's been a lot of speculation as to why this reporting was allowed or even encouraged, particularly when at the same time, control of the Great Firewall, the system of internet censorship, has been tightened and the Global Times (owned by the CCP) defends censorship in the wake of the Southern Weekly controversy.
Put me in the camp that thinks environmental concerns in China have the potential to unite large numbers of people, and in fact, they already have. From poor farmers protesting polluting factories that destroy their crops to wealthy urban dwellers who would like to be able to breathe safely on the streets of their own cities, these issues cut across class, income and location.
Protesting an industrial waste pipeline in Eastern China
Put me as well in the camp that thinks these issues also cut across national boundaries. We in the U.S. may have exported many of our polluting industries to countries like China, but guess what? We're getting the pollution back anyway. Clouds of Chinese pollution now routinely land on the west coast of the U.S.: "If the weather conditions are right, contaminants including mercury, ozone, sulphur and nitrogen oxides, black carbon and desert dust, can reach the west coast of the US within days." Remember this the next time you hear an American politician screaming about a "War on Coal!" or wonder why the state of California is fighting efforts to increase American coal exports to China and other industrializing nations.
The problem is, all kinds of economic interests are invested in keeping things going the way that they're going. In China, local authorities depend on growth. They need it to build things that will keep people working. They need it to look good to the higher-ups, in the pursuit of their own personal advancement. They need it so that money flows into their pockets, and in a lot of cases, that's probably the biggest driver. Without a significant enforcement budget to back up its progressive laws and regulations, SEPA can only do so much.
What I'd really like to know is, why can't we do more?
Just as one example, the United States, "with less than 5 % of the global population, uses about a quarter of the world’s fossil fuel resources—burning up nearly 25 % of the coal, 26 % of the oil, and 27 % of the world’s natural gas."
In its pursuit of modernization and growth, China has done some amazing things, some of which both provide jobs and help the environment. Take mass transit: For all the problems and corruption associated with its high-speed rail program, China has created a passenger railroad network that we should envy. Its major cities already have or are building modern subway and light rail systems that make getting around without a car far easier than trying to do the same in most American cities. And yet for the past few decades, U.S. government policies have starved our passenger rail network and neglected our critical infrastructure. The only major high speed rail project with funding and a start date is here in California, with Phase 1 not scheduled for completion until 2029.
We're supposed to be the most powerful country on Earth.
What's our excuse?