Taking a Breath in China


It was our very first experience with China. We arrived at night, made our way through bag check and security and took our first step into the country. We were hit almost immediately after the glass doors slid open. That first breath of misty air was thick and course. We could almost taste the pollution.

As we traveled by bus to our hotel, we tried to survey the city. It was shrouded in an off-white mist. The amber street lights cast a ghostly gold smear against the fog. It was difficult to make out distinctions. Even reading the street signs was difficult until we got close.

During our stay, especially in Beijing–less so in Shanghai–my wife suffered on the verge of an asthma attack, waking in the morning wheezing from the particles that settled into her prone lungs. My lungs are especially strong, but even I had difficulties. My allergies inflated and itched around my eyes and sinuses. Every evening and morning we noted the grey and brown discoloration in the tissues we used.

Most tellingly, our Shanghai tour guide shared with us a story about teaching her daughter Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Her daughter didn’t understand the song because she had never seen a star twinkle. Sure enough, my wife and I made it a point to examine the paucity of stars in the evening sky.

If there was one downside to visiting China, it was breathing the air.

China’s environment is the victim of centuries of abuse and neglect. Our Shanghai guide told us that the most amazing thing she remembered from traveling to the United States was all the wildlife. In China, you really don’t see wildlife. Even the typical urban fauna that we are used to in American cities are scarce in China. To the point where hearing birds sing in one park outside of Shanghai caught our attention. “Wow! A bird!” But centuries of imperial warfare, feudal poverty, colonialism, civil instability and population pressures were exacerbated in the mid-twentieth to the early twenty-first century with forced industrialization including the disastrous Great Leap Forward. In its bid for greatness, China sacrificed its ecological vitality.

And it is paying the price. China’s notoriously bad air and water cost it hundreds of billions of dollars per year in direct economic and health impacts, according to a report put out by the World Bank in 2007. The Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection estimates the costs of pollution at almost $230 billion. That’s almost 3.5% of China’s GDP.

It’s true that China’s economic growth has lifted almost half a billion people out of poverty, the single greatest economic transition in history, but the consequences could be dire. Pollution is costing many Chinese as much as three years from their lives. According to the Council of Foreign Relations, air pollution alone in China contributes to over a million premature deaths a year.

Image result for cuyahoga river fire
I’m not a hydrologist, but I don’t think rivers are supposed to catch fire like the Cuyahoga River did 1969!

Furthermore, it doesn’t have to be this way. The United States also experienced its own environmental consequences of rapid industrial growth. The United States literally experienced bodies of water bursting into flame! In the 1960’s, environmentally concerned citizens demanded that the government clean up the dirty air, the acid rain, the contaminated waterways, the trash covered landscape. Crucial pieces of legislation were put in place to do just that, including the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Clean Water Act of 1977 among others.

We do not have to sacrifice the economy to take care of the environment.

Now we can argue that these laws do not go far enough. Certainly, a lot more work needs to be done if we are to build a truly sustainable economy. One thing we cannot say, however, is that protecting the environment was done at the expense of jobs and the economy. An EPA report called Our Nation’s Air noted that by 2016 significant progress had been made in cleaning up the air we breathe. Furthermore, this progress did not come at the expense of the economy. Despite laws that brought down CO2 and other air emissions and conserved energy, the economy continued to grow. Indeed, its steepest growth, according to the chart above, appears to correspond with the steepest cuts in emissions.

Despite the clear benefits of environmental regulations, even the relatively anemic ones in the United States, and the dire need for nation states to turn their attention toward sustainable economies for the sake of…say…saving global civilization, there is a disproportionately powerful group intent on reversing the inadequate progress that has been made. At the helm of this movement are billionaire and millionaire libertarians like the Koch Brothers who feel that it is their obligation to their class to be able to suck up even the very last fumes of earth’s wealth for themselves. In order to do this, they must socialize the costs associated with environmental degradation. Referred to as externalities, these costs include but are not limited to health, productivity, poverty and exploited human capital. All the worst things.

Furthermore, these millionaires and billionaires fund so-called think tanks and hire PR firms for the specific mission of shaping the discourse in such a way that they can get their regressive representatives into office at every level to pass and protect their agenda through ordinances, legislation, judicial rulings and bureaucratic cooptation. They sell their poisonous scam by referring to big government (which they really love) and harping on the evils of over-regulation.

The consequence is the appointment of grifters like Scott Pruitt as director of the Environmental Protection Agency. Overseeing environmental protection is the exact opposite of Pruitt’s qualifications. Nevermind the fact that Pruitt is probably the moldiest of the swamp monsters in the cabinet, spending his time bilking millions from taxpayers. The most important thing about Scott Pruitt is that he is slowly poisoning us all while at the same time using his position to hide the evidence. It’s the perfect environmental crime.

According to Mother Jones:

In just his first year in office, Pruitt has already made stunning strides in that direction. He’s dismantling the Obama administration’s landmark Clean Power Plan, which imposed greenhouse gas limits on fossil-fuel-fired power plants. He has slashed enforcement efforts against polluters and tried to repeal rules meant to safeguard drinking-water supplies. He has threatened to roll back fuel economy standards. He’s moved to weaken new rules for smog, coal ash, and mercury pollution, poorly enforced a new toxic-chemical law, and refused to ban the dangerous pesticide chlorpyrifos. He’s taken aim at dozens of lesser-known rules covering everything from safety requirements for replacing asbestos to emergency response plans in hazardous chemical facilities. In the process, Pruitt has driven away hundreds of experienced EPA staffers and scientists while putting old friends and industry reps in charge of key environmental decisions—a troubling trend that has led former EPA administrators from both parties to warn that he is doing irreversible damage to the agency.

When I was a kid we were constantly reminded of the environmental impact of allowing businesses to use our ecosystem as a cost-free sewer. Smog was a constant occurrence. Our rivers and waterways had floating fish. The news covered the fact that our polluted clouds were dropping sulfuric acid on us, destroying the trees, even dissolving the architecture. From the Love Canal to apocalyptic Ozone Holes over expanding over the poles, even conservative leaders like Ronald Reagan found themselves acting as stewards of the environment if only minimally.

And things have gotten better. Not better enough, but we have made progress. At the same time, the environmental crises that were once regular fare on American news are now the norm for China. Smog alerts, sickness, brown zones. These are the wages of unrestricted environmental growth, and they will come due. China now recognizes that their libertarian policies with regard to the environment can bring all of its progress to a crushing halt. Its government is just now trying to make changes.

Anyone who thinks that corporations will “self-regulate,” that the government is too inefficient to steward the environment, that sustainability is too costly and that we must privilege economic growth over our ecosystem should try breathing in China for a couple of days. This is what shills like Trump and Pruitt and the Kochs are advocating. They don’t care. They feel that their money can buy them a clean place to live. If you can’t afford to do the same, then you are not worth saving. That really is their attitude.

The real Scott Pruitt scandal is not the extravagant trips and the sill phone booths. The real scandal is how he is trying to shepherd us into an environmental dark age the likes of which humanity has never seen. Some wheezing and coughing in Beijing will seem like a cool autumn breeze by the time these guys get done with us.

Scott Pruitt (1)

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