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.

Under the Dome

I’ve posted this photo before. It was taken in Xi’an on a rather ordinary day in 2005. The sun is a faint orange dot visible above and to the right of the small rectangular building on the horizon. I really enjoyed my return to Xi’an, but after two months I was dying to get home, primarily to breathe some clean air. I saw blue sky about 20-30% of my time there, but mostly it was gray, hazy, and nondescript.

SunnyDayIn Xian

A movie about air pollution in China, “Under the Dome” was released just a few weeks ago. I wanted to link to it because it explores the concerns of ordinary Chinese people about their polluted environment in much greater depth, and from their point of view, not mine as an outsider.

Upworthy.com has a great summary and short clip of the movie if you don’t have time to watch the whole film:

http://www.upworthy.com/everyone-waited-for-it-to-be-taken-down-150-million-views-later-its-still-up-watch-it-here?c=reccon1

The Upworthy summary highlights many of the same things my Chinese friends discussed with me. I told them that we used to have prodigious pollution in the U.S. as well, citing big industrial eastern cities like Pittsburgh. They wanted to know how we cleaned up the air.

Technology initially played a big part in it. But now we’ve taken care of much of our pollution problems by outsourcing them, along with our manufacturing jobs, to China—but that’s another issue, and it’s addressed in the full movie. If Upworthy is too radical for your taste, you can watch the entire movie on YouTube—with English subtitles, but not the summary—here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T6X2uwlQGQM

And the movie gets into topics like alternative fuels, urban planning, and public policy in a very accessible way that anyone can understand.

The Communist Party’s central propaganda department ordered the movie removed from Chinese websites after 300 million views. Edward Wong of the New York Times wrote about it here:

http://cn.nytimes.com/china/20150308/c08dome/dual/

Sunnier Days Ahead?

SunnyDayIn Xian

If you look above and just to the right of the squarish building in the distance, you’ll see a faint orange dot. This was the sun on a “clear” (i.e., no clouds) day, struggling to shine through Xi’an’s prodigious smog.

I loved returning to Xi’an in 2005 but after two months there, I was desperate to go someplace where I could breathe a big lungful of clean air. When I flew home I had to change planes and terminals in LA. After the 14 hour transpacific flight I decided to stretch my legs and walk instead of taking the tram. I stepped outside the building and looked up to see blue sky, paused, and breathed deeply. Aaahhh! Then it occurred to me: I was in Los Angeles. Compared to China, the air seemed pristine.

It’s not like the Chinese were oblivious to their terrible air quality. Everyone talked about it, and when I told my friends that our industrial cities used to be that way but no longer were (think Pittsburgh in the 1950s) they all asked how the U.S. had accomplished this.

Even at the end of 2005 I saw efforts by the Chinese to change the situation. Xi’an’s taxis could run on either standard petrol or much cleaner natural gas. You could drive right into a conventional gas station without a wait, but there was always a line of taxis at least a quarter mile long waiting to fuel up with natural gas.

There may be a lot of things we don’t like about Chinese government, but they are efficient at enacting change when they want to. Within five years of my leaving Xi’an, they had built a subway system in the city. And I’m sure there was a subsidy for those taxis to use natural gas.

This article from the Sierra Club magazine gives us reason to be at least a bit optimistic.

http://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/2015-2-march-april/feature/clearing-skies#1