So by now, you must have heard about the airpocalypse that engulfed Beijing (and the rest of northern China) for most of January. Now that it’s well into the second month of the year, I obviously survived!
Could I chew the air, as Jon Stewart claimed? I don’t think so. Then again, I don’t notice things like this. For example, I spent most of the worst day holed up in my apartment and watching Downton Abbey. When I finally emerged the next day, boyfriend and I had a short conversation about how white the air was, especially noticeable as we traversed the elevated highways around Guomao in the back of a taxi. We were completely oblivious to the fact that the air quality reading had spiked just hours before and was still at an insane level. Honestly, it seemed worse than usual, but not really unfamiliar. You get used to it. Also, it was white. Other times, the air was gray or brown. For several weeks, however, I could smell/taste a distinct whiff of old burnt diesel and kerosene every time I stepped outside. After gasping for a few breaths and burrowing my face into my scarf, I became used to it.
Since then, the air has been relatively better. Sometimes it’s gray and dreary, and then the next day is blue and sunny. Every week, there will be a news report of the latest government plan to improve the air — short-term emergency measures. First, it was fairly sensible: Get rid of old cars and other outdated polluting technology. It’s a small step and probably will have little effect, but it’s a good and simple place to start. But then, things got crazier: Authorities asked people to limit how much fireworks they set off during Spring Festival. Another small measure, for sure, since fireworks are allowed only for short period of a little over two weeks. But crazy because they’re only set off for a short period of a little over two weeks, it’s tradition, and their impact on reducing China’s overall pollution in the long term is essentially zero.
Now, the government is thinking about banning barbecue (and “barbecue-related activities” — such as, I guess, eating barbecue and banning barbecue). Because this street food staple is just the worst! The pollution they create is so obvious in the smoke coming off their dirty charcoal grills. If people really wanted to eat pollution, they can just grill their lamb kebabs over the factory smokestacks. At least then they wouldn’t be adding anymore pollution than necessary into the air.
China likes to trumpet its environmental record, and much in the West has been written about its investments in green energy. But the pollution (not just in the air!) makes the government’s efforts seem dubious and worthless. It really doesn’t help that there’s not a lot of specific data on the causes of the pollution. Obviously, it is a potent mix of geography, climate, surrounding factories, coal burning, inefficient technology, trucks and cars and too many farting government officials. So why not make laws that target the main culprits, the enforcement of which may actually do something about the pollution? As my coworker said, “Barbecues are the only fun we can have in Beijing. Don’t take it away!” Here’s to hoping we see more proactive ideas to reduce pollution being bounced around, say for instance, standing up to state-owned companies. Or trading in the government’s fleet of Audis for electric vehicles. Or banning farts.