It’s all over the news these last few days: the extreme smog problem in Beijing and other areas in China. I don’t really follow the news, read a newspaper, or watch the 8 o’clock broadcast at all, but even I heard about this. It’s pretty bad, and at the same time pretty hard to imagine that entire cities and large parts of entire provinces are covered in a thick blanket of smog, dust, sand, and other unwanted particles. But the pictures that are everywhere are pretty convincing, and the stories about increasing numbers of people with respiratory issues don’t lie either. Like most people (foreigners especially) who lived in Beijing, I have similar stories about smog and pollution. For example, it took me and my roommate a few weeks to realize that from the window of our dorm room we actually had a view of the mountains surrounding Beijing (the same mountains that are partially responsible for creating this smog problem, because they trap the air in like a lid on a pan keeping the steam inside). We just didn’t see them all that often.
And as I kept running into more articles about the issues, a memory slowly started to come back to me: Chinese language classes back in university; in between chapters on chopsticks, “little emperors” (a way to describe single children that are being spoiled by their parents and grandparents), bicycles, and the housing reform in China, was one lesson that discussed “the Pollution Problem,” or 环境污染 (kongqi wuran) in Chinese. I’m not sure if I thought the lesson to be very useful at that time (sometimes, when learning a foreign language, you get the most ridiculous words/sentences/topics. For example, the only sentence I remember from French class is (and pardon my spelling): “Tu es tres attractive sans ton Blue Jeans,” which means as much as “you are much more attractive without your jeans,” very useful in certain situations, I’m sure, but not something I ever needed when desperately trying to get on the right bus/train, buy a baguette, or find a hotel), but as soon as we arrived in Beijing, we realized that, like in other cultures conversation about the weather is common, the 空气污染 (kongqi wuran, air pollution) or 空气质量 (kongqi zhiliang, air quality) was often the topic of conversation in Beijing.
I don’t think that chapter offered any direct solutions to the problem, and I can only imagine that with China’s economic and industrial development, the issue of environmental pollution has become much more pressing in the years since my last visit. I do hope some smart men and women will sit down (again and again) and try to sort this out, soon. But I guess, like with many large and important topics, the answer isn’t easy, or the answer is easy, but getting there is really not. It will involve the cooperation of everybody: national governments (not just China but around the world), industries, and proud car owners. But i’m venturing well outside of my field of expertise here! For those of you interested in the environmental issues in China and Asia, I recommend checking out volume 7 of the Berkshire Encyclopedia of Sustainability:China, India, and East and Southeast Asia: Assessing Sustainability. Or check out the Berkshire Blog, where our CEO Karen Christensen and my colleague Bill Siever often write about environmental issues and sustainability much better than I ever will.