The front page of the New York Times today features an astonishing story about Beijing that begins: "Residents across this city awoke to an environmental state of emergency on Tuesday as poisonous air quality prompted the government to close schools, force motorists off the road and shut down factories." Abstractly, it is the kind of story you read, consider for a moment, and go about your day. "Smog," you think. "Just awful." Had I not visited Beijing last year, I'd have thought the same thing, and immediately forgotten about the problem. But having been there, I'm thunderstruck by how horrible things must actually be this week for the government to admit there's a problem, let alone close the city down.
Beijing is the kind of city where you're never more than ten minutes from a marvel of human history. The Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, Lama Temple, the Summer Palace—they all just seem so impossible, so immense, so stunning to behind and impossible, really, to comprehend. The city's parks are splendid, and the food and the vibe and the people—it's a terrible place to have to leave.
But the air pollution is scary. Not the way weepy environmentalists find everything not made of hemp to be scary, but scary in a humanity-cannot-survive-this sort of way. If you don't believe humans can be the cause of climate change, visit Beijing.
Nobody warned me about China's pollution problem in advance, and I'm not the sort of person who notices that kind of thing. When I close my eyes and visualize the word "pollution," I see a toxic waste dump (or what I imagine a toxic waste dump to look like), with barrels floating on a lake of sludge. Anything short of that tends to escape my attention. So upon arrival, I thought, "Wow, foggy day."
Within two days, my eyes were burning. It wasn't like seasonal allergies, where your brain acknowledges the discomfort, you complain a bit, and then go about your business. This was alarming on a visceral level. My eyes were burning simply because I was using them. And that deep part of your brain that knows when something is definitely Not Right was at red alert. Whatever was burning my eyes wasn't natural—wood on fire, say—but artificial and chemical, something that human beings did not evolve to handle.
It didn't ruin my trip, and I don't want to sound (too) apocalyptic about all of this, but it did give me a new appreciation for the urgency of addressing human environmental impact. At the top of this post is a photograph I took of the city that is representative of every photograph I took there. This is what Beijing looks like on a clear, sunny day, when nobody is particularly worried and the city government wants everyone to go about their business. I can only scarcely imagine how much worse things must be for them to panic.