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.

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