To Beijing or Bust
A year ago my family and I moved to Beijing, China for what was supposed to be a three-year job. We had spent several years learning the language, studying the culture and trying to familiarize ourselves with a country that has very little in common with our own. One thing we kept hearing anecdotally was how polluted it was in China. I like to think that I have a rather rational mind that veers easily into cynicism so when I heard “ pollution” I thought I understood what that meant. I’ve lived in urban areas for most of my life so I figured I knew how to deal with the smog and general grit that is part of the grind of city life in the post industrialized world.
I was wrong.
The pollution we had heard so much about was immediately apparent even before we were on the ground in Beijing. We flew into the city via Siberia and came in over the mountains. The city itself lay to the south and smothered in a dense sulfurous cloud. I am originally from San Francisco and the pollution was not unlike the blanket of fog that rolls in from the sea on the side of the Pacific. But this was not a refreshing, cool mist. It was instead a putrid poisonous blanket. Even before we had exited the airport, our mouths were coated with a dense metallic flavor that overwhelmed our ability to taste anything else. It was appalling, shocking and, as we would come to discover, completely normal for a Chinese mega city.
In the months to come my family would have to readjust to a new life which included wearing high tech masks, living with industrial air filters in our house and the constant, daily checking of the US embassy twitter feed that monitored the deadliest particles, PM 2.5. These are the bits of pollution that cause cancer, strokes, heart disease and a bevy of other afflictions. To give you an idea of how bad the air is, the average PM 2.5 in an airport smoking lounge is 166. In January of last year, Beijing and more than 30 other Chinese cities suffered what has become known by the grim portmanteau as, “Airpocolypse.” During that time we saw PM 2.5 levels that clocked in around 800 – generally unheard of numbers that superseded a scale designed to top out at 500. A smug clerk at the American embassy had originally thought nothing above 500 would occur so this person cheekily labeled anything beyond that as “crazy bad.” This created a small diplomatic incident. It seems that the Chinese government, which has long complained about the US publicly measuring pollutant levels, did not see the humor.
At levels approaching 500 you can see the pollution inside of buildings. It is a haze that lingers in the florescent lights. The average for last January was “hazardous,” (PM 2.5 levels of 300-500). I kept my children inside almost constantly, fitted them with masks, and ran a dozen air filters in our home. At school they had to play in a “dome” of hospital grade purified air straight out of science fiction. I was worried I was living in the not too distant future in a world that had been ruined and driven into the uninhabitable. I was constantly frightened, paranoid even, that I was literally killing my children. We could never go anywhere without having to weigh it against the possibly life altering toll it would take on us. It did not matter that thousands of years of history was at our fingertips; we could not enjoy it. We had to cram all of our exploration of Beijing in on the rare days when the pollution levels dipped below 100 parts per million. The issue of pollution took over our lives.
In April of last year it came to a head when I got sick. I ended up in a hospital while on vacation in Hanoi (an experience I do not recommend) and had to be airlifted to an international hospital in Bangkok. It was all very dramatic and gruesome. I was diagnosed with an illness that fits into the growing list of ailments that doctors are beginning to think arise because human beings have not been able to adapt to the chemicals, pollutants, sugars, etc. that dominate modern life. But I’ve been healthy all my life. I am young. I ate organic food in the crunchy culture of 1980’s San Francisco before organic food was phenomena. So the big question was, did China make me sick? Some doctors told me it was inconclusive. Some said that it was untestable. Other doctors said absolutely, without a doubt I got sick because China poisoned me.
We went home. Six months after moving to China we came back to the States. We are still trying to wrap our heads around what happened to us personally and what is going on environmentally on the other side of the world. Here is what I do know. China is, in a world that is growing more polluted every day, one of the most polluted places on the map. 16 of the top 20 most polluted places on the face of the earth are in China. It is an overwhelming global problem. Winds move the pollution over the earth and there is growing evidence that pollution from Asia is blowing over the Pacific Ocean and affecting the United States. But even before that, the pollution goes into their rivers and pours into our oceans. It is everywhere.
A Calamity of Reasons
Why is the pollution in China so bad? There are many reasons. One is a total lack of regulation. There is no EPA equivalent in China and the scant limits the government tries to place on factories and companies are easily overcome in a country where bribes are the rule and not the exception. China has no rule of law so the consequences of paying a bribe or falsifying paperwork or manipulating an inspection to circumvent measures designed to curb pollution are commonplace. In fact, being a heavy polluter is often rewarded since massive output is the goal of any business in China thanks to an outdated economic model. For the last thirty-five years China has undergone unprecedented growth and experienced the world’s largest migration from the rural to the urban in human history. Their wealth has grown at leaps and bounds. The average sixty year old in China today endured starvation during the Great Leap Forward, experienced the mayhem of Cultural Revolution, and now lives in a wealthy China, gunning for status as a world power. But modernization at the rate is downright dirty especially when first world consumption is combined with third word practices such as heating a home with a compressed chunk of coal. The other thing about China is that it has so many people – 1.3 billion – and they want to live in warm homes and drive cars and eat meat. But this type of living takes a ghastly toll on the planet, especially when multiplied by such a massive population.
It is easy to stand in judgment at this point and want to rail against a political system and cultural values that would allow this sort of environmental catastrophe. However, the truth is, one third of Chinese pollution comes from the creation of cheap goods that are in demand all over the western world. Think of all the plastic crap you have in your house from baby toys to bathmats. All of this junk that is so much a part of our daily lives that were are almost blind to it is made in China and its production is killing people. In fact, it’s killing children.
Made in China
For most of my life I have put an ethical value on saving money. They way I understood saving money meant buying things cheaply. America’s economy is built around the fundamental tenant of capitalism: “buy a lot and often.” I thought it was wise and I thought that it was best to buy things for as little money as possible. But I am now convinced this is wrongheaded and damaging. The American consumer has skin in this game. Blood on our hands. We have culpability in China’s pollution problem. We must buy fewer things of higher quality that last longer. Recycling is not enough. We must change how we live our lives in order change the world. And that is hard to do.
This summer I was in a big box store and I passed by a tent that was set up for display. Its shiny newness stood out among the bicycles and baseball bats on display and when I walked by it I was hit with a pungent odor that flung me back into the bad old black days of Beijing’s “Airpocolypse.” The tent smelled of China. It stunk like the chemicals that lingered in my children’s hair as they slept at night. It reeked like the morning on the days the pollution blotted out the sun. I looked at the tag and sure enough it was stamped with “Made in China.”
Since coming back from China I have tried to live without “Made in China.” It’s tough and not always possible but it is worth putting in an effort. It is worth being deliberate. I hope that someday, toxic chemicals in our clothing will become as taboo in many circles as the wearing of fur or the eating of meat has become for many people. I hope that awareness will grow and as it does, people will match that awareness with action.
I am not someone generally comfortable on soapboxes and it is not my style to cry out in the wilderness, however, I believe this is the most pressing issue of our time. The degradation of the environment is something that should not be viewed with phobic skepticism or as a point of view pertaining only to one political party. It is not about politics. It is about living. Our world is being damaged and possibly even destroyed by a modern demand to posses everything we can possibly imagine. This is real and it is happening now. It is an urgent burden that, I am convinced the earth and the life on it cannot bear.
 The US embassy warns that pollution at this level brings “serious aggravation of heart or lung disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly; serious risk of respiratory effects in general population.”
 It is worth noting here that we in the West have set a very bad example in how we have defined prosperity.