I remember the smog in Beijing rendering the most beautiful skies. There was an innocence to the air pollution back then, before the engines of economic development really got going.
It was just a pretty sunset, or a delicate brown haze that romantically softened the edges of things—while wrecking your lungs, of course. But, like the sand storms, pollution gave the city a different, rarified quality.
There was also less of it—less pollution and less city. Beijing, like most Chinese cities, was much smaller ten years ago; there were fewer buildings; hardly any dirty trucks bellowed smoke en route to construction sites. Most people didn’t own cars. Things were just getting started.
The way Beijing’s smog is being written about now makes me think of Lars Lerup’s “zoohemic canopy”, which he described in his book, After the City. The atmosphere floating above Houston was intrinsic to its character.
But Lerup’s canopy was benign, passive, even beautiful, a giant friendly blob that formed another plane of life. It was not, like China’s apocalyptic air, something conjured by brute economic ambition and reckless nationalism. Lerup’s canopy was more weather than toxic byproduct.
Beijing’s smog is always at its worst right about now, in the depths of winter when the city smokes coal like cigarettes to keep the heat up.
When I lived there, this “haze” was certainly dreaded when it showed up, but it was not yet an international issue or a measure of progress. Over the past couple of weeks, Beijing’s air quality has become a specter of China’s on-going development frenzy—an economic trajectory we in the west are wholly complicit in helping to create. China’s coal-fired engines are running for our Walmarts and iPads, our intertwined economic fates.
Part of the west’s dream of China is that it was once defined by a benign past, not by contemporary economic might. Even though we depend on it, we are less at ease with this China. It has been our greatest and most necessary realm of otherness, helping to prop up popular notions of contemporary institutional and cultural superiority. But this trope has become destabilized with China’s rise. It is now polluting with the best of us.
In a way, air pollution has turned into the menacing beige megashape of our xenophobia. The more China pollutes, the more it projects power, its pollution an accidental and unexpected index of aggression. China spreads it smog around the way it spreads its money and people around. Back in 2008 there were fears that China’s toxic cloud would reach Europe. At that time, the world also watched to see if the air would clear enough to hold the Olympics.
There were days last week when the AQI (Air Quality Index) in some districts of Beijing was reported to have been above 900. According to the World Health Organization, this is the sort of air quality that can potentially decrease your lifespan by five years. So, everyone in Beijing: You may have just had five years stolen from you.
Globally, roughly 40% of all power is produced using coal. 42% in the US. In China its 79%. Moreover, according to a New York Times special report, to meet increasing demand, China will be adding about 160 new coal-fired power plants within the next four years. Coal is still king…and emperor too. It will be for some time.