China’s Environmental Dilemma

Smog over the Forbidden City in Beijing.

The train ride to Xi’an today showed me China is absolutely incredible in terms of how fast it’s growing. If you look at the pictures below you can see how many cranes are working at once. This is a common site in every place we passed. The entire route from Beijing to Xi’an on a high speed train was huge city after huge city. It’s amazing and mind boggling to see but the effect all this industry has had is really sobering.

I heard a lot about the air pollution in Beijing before coming to China and I assumed it was fairly localized to the city. But today on the train I saw the smog extend for hundreds and hundreds of miles without lifting. It casts a grey light on everything and obscures the view so anything past a half mile away isn’t visible. I did not see the sun the entire time I was in China.  The haze hangs over everything.

The air leaves your skin coated in a fine layer of grime. Most travelers get a cough and sore throat within the first few days here. There are times you can taste the air. I can’t imagine living in this perpetual haze without ever breathing fresh, clean air or seeing clouds in a blue sky. The amount of pollutants being pumped into the air is unfathomable and the breadth of the problem is unlike anything I had imagined.

At the same time, I have worked in heavy industry enough to have heard the stories from the smelter in my home town to the factories that I worked at in Portland.  People would say that back in the 70’s you couldn’t see across the street.  The mine waste in my home town has prompted a gargantuan clean-up effort.  However, as a society, we have learned from our mistakes.  As China becomes more economically developed they are doing the same.  The Chinese that I had conversations with during my time here agreed that it was an issue and called the smog an embarrassment.

Although it is shocking and terrifying to realize the terrible power that industrialization is, I also think the next step to having that power is learning to control it.  I think China is on it’s way there.  It’s a long road, but the technology exists now which it didn’t when the US started down the path.  There is hope.

Endless building from Beijing to Xi’an
Smog on the mountains outside the Great Wall.