Yearning to Breathe Free

China’s notorious smog has made the news again.

I lived through episodes of smog there even in the early 1980s. Back then, individuals did not own cars, but nearly everyone in Xi’an heated and cooked with coal. The greasy pall blanketed the city and invaded our lungs.

The central heating plant at Jiaotong University in Xi'an, 1981.

The central heating plant at Jiaotong University in Xi’an, 1981. ©1981 Patti Isaacs.

I returned to Xi’an for two months in 2005. People were cooking with natural gas, but coal was still being burned in power plants, and cars were everywhere. The city was shrouded in smog most days. You can read in more detail in this earlier post.

A sunny day in Xi'an, November, 2005. The sun is the faint orange dot just above and to the right of the office building in the background.

A sunny day in Xi’an, November, 2005. The sun is the faint orange dot just above and to the right of the office building in the background. ©2005 Patti Isaacs.

Everyone was acutely aware of the problem, and looking for answers. “We do not need sunglasses,” said one of my students. Xi’an’s taxis could run on regular gasoline or natural gas. There was never a line at the petrol station, but the cabs would be lined up for blocks waiting to be refueled at the natural gas facility.

About six weeks into my two-month stay, I began to feel desperate to get out, to go someplace where the air was clear, to take a deep breath that didn’t feel bad. I finally got my chance on my return trip home, when I had to change planes and terminals in Los Angeles. I decided to walk instead of taking the shuttle. I stepped outside, looked up at the blue sky, and drew the Los Angeles air deep into my lungs. It seemed so clean.

Every American who thinks that environmental regulations place too much of a burden on industry should be required to spend a few months in China, breathing smog without the chance to escape.

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