How bad was the
smog fog in northern China this past weekend? The extinct dinosaurs who had their sunlight blocked out by a global post-asteroid dust cloud could probably relate.
Beijing, Tianjin and other northern provinces were affected by the pervasive gray fog, with flights canceled at Beijing Capital Airport and traffic disrupted in several areas as a result of the low visibility. Currently, the fog is spreading south to a number of other provinces, going as far as Jiangxi and Hunan.
Of course, whenever something resembling Don DeLillo’s Airborne Toxic Event occurs in China, people are quick to lament the country’s air pollution problems (official US Embassy air readings for Beijing over the weekend? Hazardous).
For its part, the Global Times says that the public should keep a stiff upper lung and continue about their business, for the time being:
Solving air pollution is an important part in eliminating environmental pollution. Solving the problem requires time and breakthroughs won’t emerge soon. The public should know and accept this fact…Nobody likes air pollution, but China cannot singly pursue improving air quality.
No one can neglect air pollution, but the condition in China is not mature enough to make eliminating air pollution its top goal in social development. However, it is not its last goal either. The goal will get increasingly closer to the core of China’s social development as it moves forward. It will probably be a main theme of China’s modernization at a higher level.
Oh, well that sounds very reasonable. We suppose the hundreds of thousands of deaths that come as a result of air pollution work out pretty well for those urban overpopulation problems. If you can’t stand the smog, get out of the furnace, right?
To date, the best explanation we’ve found for why exactly any society would be willing to put up with extreme pollution comes courtesy of Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World by Patrick Smith.
Using the example of the former industrial hub of Kitakyushu in Japan, Smith argues that the national will to develop has a power that should not be underestimated:
A retired Nippon Steel executive I knew once estimated that there had been more than a thousand industrial chimneys in the city. They produced what became known locally as nama ito no kemuri, “the smoke of seven colors,” each color identified with one of the big industries…”We were proud of our seven colors,” this kindly man remembered, “and that the smoke in the air was also in our lungs.”
“The Japanese miracle” is the name we give to the country’s not-quite-rational postwar behavior. There was noting miraculous, of course, about it. The “miracle” was the consequence of a compulsion. Nothing seemed to dent Kitakyushu’s pride and drive.
…While I was talking to Fujimoto, the retired chemical steel executive, a few of his friends joined us…I mentioned an old photograph I had seen…It showed the Yahata works on its opening day. In the foreground, as if in a class picture, were a few dozen dignitaries in formal attire.
…All the old Nippon Steel men knew the picture. I wondered aloud what it meant to them. A man named Nobuyushi Tanaka replied: “This was the country’s first steel plant–an integrated steel plant. We were poor fishermen and farmers, you see. This is where we began to make ourselves modern.”
The disconcerting thing is, of course, that when a country the size of India or China gets the irrational drive to modernize within them, people living elsewhere also have to suffer a rather serious case of second-hand smoke. If an American politician ever proposes erecting a giant air filter somewhere in the Pacific, please remember that you heard it suggested here first.