China getting lost in crisis of pollution

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Having recently spent time travelling around China, Margaret Hickey saw first hand how smog is much worse than we realise and asks why the West isn’t more worried.

For many weeks this summer, Ireland has basked in warm sunshine under blue skies. Clouds came and went, patterning the blue with their distinctive forms, usually cyphers of more good weather on the way.

While we may not have taken the unusually long stretches of good weather for granted, we almost certainly took the clear air as a given. Odourless air, apart from floating seasonal fragrances perhaps, like, at this moment, the scent of the lindens that edge Blarney village square.

We should not be so complacent. The planet’s atmosphere has no boundaries and not all the global neighbours keep their side up when it comes to care of our shared and most precious resource, the air we breathe.

In China this midsummer, I found myself engulfed in a smog that the word falls far short of describing. Smog is an imprecise word, I have discovered, a bit like trying to describe a hurricane or a tornado and having no other word except ‘wind’ with which to do so.

No, this was smog on the far end of the scale. Smog that was more than just ‘smog’, a thick, overhanging blanket of dun, grey fleece that smelled of something equally unfamiliar and unpleasant. Like a gargantuan bonfire was ablaze somewhere in the far distance, fuelled by everything and anything that is flammable, belching out an unending discharge of thick, nauseous, grainy, filthy fumes.

Shock, horror, disbelief are words we use when an experience renders us speechless. But as this was an entirely manmade horror, speech returns very quickly with unsettling questions and sobering reflections.

Where does responsibility begin and end for this carbon twilight in the world’s most populous country? How can people not mind, or appear not to mind, as they saunter along streets and chat in pavement cafes in China’s major cities like Beijing, Jinan, and Chengdu?

I was reminded of the words of Chinese writer Jung Cheung in her book Wild Swans: “When totalitarianism is at its worst, there is no dissent.”

But why is the world, particularly the green movement, not protesting at an appropriate pitch?

Thumping tables, denouncing, threatening, and, as a last resort, pleading is what would happen if the offender were a western country. Perhaps, we need to confine ourselves to the language of diplomacy when dealing with both the world’s engine room and its largest market?

But the abuse of such a fundamental human right, the right to breathe safe air, to enjoy summer skies and sunsets, would not be tolerated in the West. It occurred to me that if such atmospheric conditions occurred in Cork, even for a day, there could be an evacuation order and of course major protests against the offenders followed by inquiries and tough justice.

Haranguing the West for its environmental failures and lapses seems somewhat futile if China continues to foul the biosphere on the present scale. If the world were a small neighbourhood, China would be the neighbour with the large garden and the 24/7 bonfire, melting plastics, rubber, and metals.

The residents might try and improve the overall quality of the air by rounding on the man who smokes a pipe in his backyard or the neighbour with the fumy compost heap, but it would be pointless. Can we continue acting like this, ignoring, as it were, the elephant in the living room even as he poos all over the precious carpet?

You might ask if my experience was for some reason exceptional. A bad air week that seldom happens?

Well, it is not always as bad. It can be better but it can be worse too. Much worse. It can be so bad that flights are cancelled.

Flight delays are common due to the euphemistic ‘bad weather conditions at another airport’. I spent two hours on the tarmac in Chengdu airport for this reason, rereading the aforementioned Wild Swans, a harrowing bestseller account of the author’s family history, which includes the Communist takeover, Mao’s Great Leap Forward, and Cultural Revolution. It is banned in China. I kept the cover carefully out of view.

Travelling across the country by air to Sichuan’s capital, Chengdu, from Beijing really brought home the scale of the problem and the fact that sustained air pollution moves quickly from being a local problem to a regional one and beyond.

The plane burrowed its way through thick fleecy smog as we climbed. To my surprise and concern, it kept rising with us. Even at cruising altitude, we were still enveloped in its grainy, grey folds.

In Chengdu, in the heart of what the Chinese used to call “the granary of heaven”, where, as Jung Cheung, beautifully puts it, “most of the world’s roses were born”, there was no discernible change in air quality.

Rice and sugar cane, dragon fruit, and melons looked plentiful in the fields outside Chengdu. Conical-hatted farm workers tended the crops in a timeless scene.

The heavy air under a canopy of smog is what the 21st century has added to its working life. That and a growing need to pollinate by hand because of a diminishing population of insects and bees.

How much pesticide use and how much poor air quality contributes to this is a question for experts. All I can say is watching the pandas in their park just outside Chengdu was surreal because in a setting of woods and lakes and gardens, the air was as rank as an unventilated room.

This cannot be good for any creature, winged or otherwise.

I felt sad for the Chinese people as I left for home and guilty because our high-consuming western lifestyle is part of the problem. We think we are being virtuous when we recycle
without thinking through the processes involved.

Perhaps our new mantra should be ‘reuse’ or ‘repair’ or just ‘make do’. It mightn’t get the elephant out of the global living room entirely but it would at least let him know he was no longer invisible.

Irish Examiner

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