Wednesday, February 4, 2015

China's Smog: Days of Future Past

A comparison of air pollution levels in China and the US.  From an excellent article in Forbes Magazine.
Let's start with what I think are three empirical facts.  First of all, the unregulated economy never factors in the environmental costs of doing business until it is too late. Secondly, there are no instances of human industrial expansion where the human beings have not rendered the air and water unhealthy in absence of environmental regulation. Finally, and most hopefully, when human beings create enough filth that their own business models start to make their citizens sick and to kill them, they will finally start to address the root causes of the issue out of necessity.  As with most aspects of human history there is no real wisdom, only necessity forces people to behave in a manner that appears to be wise.  There is no "basic wisdom" in economic development.

The environment is one area where I am a staunch big government liberal.  My libertarian leanings are always trumped by clean air and water.  As I have posted before, liberty means nothing if you can't breathe the air.

Right now, after years of unprecedented industrial expansion with no pollution controls whatsoever, China has created a world where it is unsafe to breathe the air.  Forbes recently compared the worst air pollution levels in the United States with the worst in China.  The graph will amaze you.  The article states: "China’s struggles to contain thick rolling shrouds of smog have been well documented. Despite public discontent and countless pledges from the authorities to tackle the problem, air pollution in many cities has been pushed to over twenty times the safe limit on numerous occasions." 

As bad as the smog issues are in places like Los Angeles in the US, that city's pollution levels are only a fraction of what China's cities are experiencing. When you consider that then it becomes easy to understand why China is suddenly so cooperative in Climate Change talks after years of stonewalling requests for action by the United States and Europe.  From an excellent article in Rolling Stone: "According to one study, air pollution contributed to the premature death of 1.2 million people in China in 2010. 'China today is a lot like America was in the 1960s and Seventies – the rivers are on fire, the sky polluted, and the rising middle class is not going to put up with it anymore,' says Jigar Shah, a solar-industry pioneer. For U.S. negotiators, it was important to convince the Chinese that cutting carbon pollution would not only clean up the air but also lead to more political stability for the regime. 'They will have a social revolt on their hands if they don't come up with a way of dealing with this,' U.S. Ambassador Max Baucus told me bluntly when I was in Beijing this past summer." 

US conservatives are critical of the agreement.  Of course, they are critical of any agreement that "burdens" our "job producing" industries with the necessity to keep the air breathable and the water drinkable.  There is, perhaps, no single area of politics where conservatives are more wrong-headed than on the environment.  They are a disgrace to their own name, there is nothing "conserving" about their predictable and shallow position on the environment.  

Ironically, they are pro-business to the exact degree that the Communist Chinese government is pro-business.  But, we have been down this road before. The results in our own history was the death of Lake Erie and massive toxic waste all across the country. These are historical facts of an antiquated non-regulated business model where the equation for stockholders never has anything to do with the Earth's natural resources until people start suffering and dying in sufficient numbers. This is the past legacy of the West and it is the future legacy of Asia.

The mayor of Beijing recently warned that smog is rendering that huge city unlivable (and it isn't even the worst offender in China).  Meanwhile, this short film documents what it is like to live in a typical large Chinese city, wearing face masks everyday, even cute face masks for children, because the air is unfit to breathe and the smog is so thick you often cannot see from one end of the street to the other.

It isn't just China.  India too has enormous problems with smog and air pollution.  The situation there is so bad that India is losing as much as 50% or its agricultural production due to pollution.  Last November The New York Times reported: "According to India’s Central Pollution Control Board, in 2010, particulate matter in the air of 180 Indian cities was six times higher than World Health Organization standards. More people die of asthma in India than anywhere else in the world. Indoor air pollution, mostly from cooking fires, and outdoor air pollution are the third and fifth leading causes of death in India."

Most of the headlines recently have about the Ebola outbreak in Africa.  This is serious and certainly worthy of attention. But the fact is, if you add it all up, pollution in the developing world kills more people than any other factor including deadly diseases.  Perhaps nothing demonstrates how the Earth and we as human beings are more globally interconnected than massive air pollution.  This satellite video shows how the polluted air from China and India travels all over the planet. 

Please take a moment to study this incredible real-time map of air pollution measurements across Asia, including China, India, and Japan.  Any readings other than green are considered hazardous.  Red and purple readings are considered unsafe for human beings.  Obviously, there are far more red and purple measurements in China and India than any other color on this scale in all of Asia.

Once again, I do not consider human beings to be very wise. Human beings are stupid. But, human beings have a strong survival instinct and when things get bad enough, when there is no other alternative, we will get off our lazy asses and attempt something reasonable (if it is not too late). So, we are slowly adapting to the decades long crisis of belching greenhouse gases and other pollutants into our atmosphere. 

Will we, as a species, learn anything from this? Will we begin to value environmental quality as at least an equal partner with monetary security and material gain? Will we finally recognize that it is an illusion that we dominant the Earth? I doubt it. But it seems that we are being harmed enough to finally do something besides get regulations out of the way so business is easier.

Maybe, just maybe, this time, it will dawn on us that our "control" over the Earth (a fundamental tenet of Old Testament theology, by the way, this bullshit "dominion over the Earth" found in Genesis) is an illusion.  The Earth is vast and beautiful and forgiving but it is not benevolent.  It will factor in the crap of humanity and humanity will not benefit from how the equation of the Earth changes thanks to us.  

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