Crazy Bad


BEIJING - Perhaps as a kick in the pants I got an email from the editor of The Mantle. He suggested I look into an MSNBC article about Beijing pollution. The U.S. Embassy put out a statement that the air was “crazy bad” this past Friday. Friday night I had said to a friend of mine in broken Chinese that I could eat the pollution that past two days. I also had not been able to see airplanes fly over me, impressive as I’m just south of the Beijing capital airport. After reading the article I had second thoughts about plans to going hiking with friends, but I ended up going anyway. My language partner suggested I wear a mask, but I didn’t find any on the way to the park where I met a few others.

As we hiked up the mountain yesterday we talked (in Chinese) about the inevitability of pollution as countries develop. Those I was with, two from China, and one from Canada, talked about how European cities like London went through similar phases of pollution and development. A few times myself I have brought up Monet’s paintings that document the pollution. Yet while the editor suggested I explore this issue, I think the MSNBC article, the US Embassy’s Twitter feed beijingair, and the Asia Society project Room with a View already document the daily pollution levels in Beijing, leaving little investigative work for me to do. As I listened to Jon Watts introduce his book When a Billion Chinese Jump at a session of BEER (Beijing Energy and Environment Roundtable) back in August, air pollution came up. A professional in the crowd said measured pollutants were generally declining; the problem is that there are still significant pollutants not measured. This professional also said that generally pollution is moving westward into central and Western China (Inner Mongolia and Gansu Province). It is also important to remember that Beijing is outside the top ten for most polluted cities in China.

In the MSNBC article I read, prominent environmentalist Ma Jun was quoted as saying that Beijing needs to do more in terms of air quality beyond the clean-up done for the Olympics. Ma and his colleagues use advanced measuring techniques including satellites to track pollution, yet there are likely many who share similar sentiments based more so just on their daily physical experience. I think that one’s reality or physical situation matters (read phenomenology for the social scientists and theorists in the crowd). I presented a paper on US-China collaboration on climate change this past summer in Sweden. I often said to people that while I’m in China, the most important issue for me is not climate change, but air pollution. I love Beijing, but sometimes as I have trouble breathing or I’m coughing it’s a little hard to love. One night as I said goodbye to my language partner I said that the weather wasn’t bad, I’d just walk back to my apartment instead of taking the subway. She objected, saying you couldn’t see any stars. I responded that in “the country,” my nickname for suburban Beijing where I work, you can. But also, unlike in the city, it’s much easier to see water pollution, with water often full of trash. In the city I don’t really see much water at all, other than in the store. Yet in the city, more than once I have had people, not from Beijing, tell me that I should be researching water pollution and not climate change.

After reading blogs, When a Billion Chinese Jump, and A River Runs Black by Elizabeth Economy I have tried to find this water pollution that I don’t see in Beijing. In the process I have gotten myself in some trouble asking people if their hometown is polluted. Sometimes I forget, but when I was volunteering in a village this summer teaching English my front teeth turned black. When I returned to Beijing a friend asked me what happened and I guessed it was water pollution, because I drink green tea every day no matter where I am. For me then, clearly water pollution was the main issue I faced, yet I still would have been clueless about the pollution if not for the black that I later removed with teeth whitening toothpaste in Sweden during a Sociology conference.

Talking to people it’s clear that their personal experiences matter regarding what environmental problems are seen as most serious yet there is also the place of science. The publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in 1962 was a synergy between Earth science and physical experience, being unable to hear birds singing in the fields. Since the publication of Silent Spring environmental organizations and an environmental movement have emerged that have tackled issues like DDT, the ozone hole, and climate change, relying on science as opposed to just one’s physical experience. Last year I spoke with a woman who works at Greenpeace who struggled to get Chinese in Northwest China to make the connection between physical experience of the weather changing and climate change science. The situation was complicated by the fact that the woman was trying to tell people in an arid region that the record rains in Southeast China blamed on climate change was a bad thing. In the United States, a large country with multiple climates and multiple views regarding science, perhaps it’s natural that climate change remains a contentious issue.

On our way down from climbing a mountain, a sense of the air in the background.

Yesterday if we had followed the science we probably should not have gone hiking, instead waiting for another day like today. We like hundreds of others including one blind eighty-year-old woman, put priority on the fun and challenge of climbing a mountain with others rather than the science. Perhaps resigning ourselves to the fact that there are bigger processes at play and we can just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

China, Climate Change, Water