(12e) China and its pollution

The Chinese capital Beijing is at present covered with smog and people need mouth pieces and air purifiers. But not only China has problems, also many other cities all over the world, although there are places were air quality improves. Here a comparison between London in the past and Beijing now and it seems to show our impossibility to learn from the past to prevent disasters.

Past: London

It is unbelievable: in China the pollution is about as bad as it was in 1952 in London when that air pollution, known as the Great Smog, killed about 4,000 people within a month, mostly young and old people while 100,000 people became ill due to respiratory problems, resulting as some researchers say in a total of about 12,000 fatalities. This was due to a rare weather event (creating windless conditions) but this weather event only made clear what was known for many years but ignored, and that was the large amount of air pollution.

First one believed it was one of many smog events (so nothing had to be done apparently) until the number of deaths became clear. One of the reasons for the pollution was the burning of coal to warm houses. But also a number of coal-fired power stations and other industries in the Greater London area caused much of the pollution. In addition, there was pollution from traffic. Afterwards, the government of the UK and London took action and as a result the air improved, although progress was slow and ten years later a last great smog event happened, showing that early actions are needed to prevent disasters in future, while when things are bad it can take many years to solve the problem.

But not all is solved: as London becomes larger and more people use cars, in recent years air quality dropped again whereby parts of the city disappear in brown air, and this even after the introduction of a Congestion charge (people using the car in the centre have to pay) to try to reduce the numbers of cars in the centre. But the present mayor of London stopped the extension of the charge over larger areas of the city, even when the results of the charge were remarkable with a big drop in traffic and thus improved air quality. But I credit him for promoting the bicycle, although when streets are considered too dangerous, fewer people than anticipated use them. And London has one of the best public transports, although it is becoming too crowded and too expensive to compete with the private transport but it is being expanded to meet the demands.
Blue sky with some clouds, so beautiful.

Present: China

At this moment, Beijing is covered by smog, caused by weather events (creating windless conditions) that makes clear what is in the air: pollution. And thus something that happened more than 60 years ago in another part of the world is happening again (is time running backwards?). As was in London, hospitals are overrun by younger and elderly with respiratory problems. And as in the past, only weeks and months later it may become clear the increase in deaths compared with a month without so much smog. That is, if ever these figures will be published because it may upset the people (although hiding them may also cause problems).

And thus I don't understand why China didn't enforce clean energy in our technologically advanced time while building its cities and industry. It wants to make everyone happy by providing work (a noble thing) so everyone will be able to drive a car and live in a large house. But I wonder why they enforce people who are happy living in a smaller place to move to a large city. If people are happy being farmers, why then condemn them to live in a city. And because people are forced to move to large cities, they are in competition for work with those who really want to live in a city.

Because the natural progress is for people moving from rural areas where there is fewer prospect for different kinds of work towards city where people can find work they like but where they can also meet friends. This however is only true when there is enough green space in the city and when people feel cities improve their lives, not harm them. Because when cities kill, people leave them. During the course of this natural progress, there is more time to build well organised cities with good infrastructure where pollution is low, with lots of green space and save buildings.

When people are forced to live in cities where they are forced to work in poor conditions to made cheap goods to be exported to foreign countries while the people earn too little to afford living in good houses within a clean environment, then this will result in anger as the government fears, certainly when people start dying.

Maybe the Chinese government will act after this great smog, but very likely not after the wind blows away the smog while few people may have died because air purifiers were used. Then it may be considered as a one-off event that is manageable and more work has to be created so there can be more profit.

Of course, it is the responsibility of governments to make sure everyone can work, but governments are also needed to enforce the creation of work is done with wisdom, and not only for profit. It is remarkable that in order to have successful Olympic games, China managed to enforce reductions on pollution (they were proud to announce they could see a blue sky for the first time in many years), while after the Olympic games all actions seem to have been abandoned and pollution returned much worse. Enforcing reduced pollution should start with companies, not with people as they can only buy what is available. And companies will not leave China even when measures to reduce polution are severe as they are in other countries because it is such a big growing market many companies don't want to loose out by leaving.

They should have known from past examples that it is unwise to built coal energy suppliers. New buildings should have been built that make advantage of green energy sources (e.g. sun (no longer possible with the levels of pollution), wind, water, ...) while having good insulation; this will in addition save on energy bills and thus make money (nowadays one always have to refere to profits or people don't like it).

I don't think that building large water power stations is a solution as it destroys the environment and angers people who have to leave their houses while I think local water power stations may be part of a solution. China, as a developing nation that earns so much money, should have invested the money in the development of clean energies that then can be sold worldwide instead of simply copying the West while it would have resulted in less brain drain as they could do research in their homeland.

But no, they forced people to accept indiscriminately the Western way of life with its good and bad. It is almost as if China is ashamed of its own past and therefore destroy it. They should not destroy so much of their past (except the mighty ones such as the Chinese Wall) when rebuilding cities but integrate the old in the new as many cities in Europe do. This can be a source of tourism while no-one wants to visit cities where one dies from air pollution.

China could have invented new ways of building green energy powered buildings. They could have enforced car manufacturers to develop and build cleaner cars to reduce pollution. They should build an extensive and payable public transport (maybe they do, I know they have fast trains that connects cities) so people are able to travel to many places while the use of cars should be discouraged (something that is very hard to achieve in a democracy because people may vote against politicians who propose this, but in China people do not elect their leaders and thus Chinese leaders are able to promote the use of green transport without fear they may loose elections).

Cycling can be so much fun.
China was ones known as a country of cyclists, but then the Chinese people started to regard bicycles and cyclists as backward and the use of cars was regarded as a sign the country is successful. However, they could have promoted the bicycle in the world as part of a solution for cleaner cities and as a solution for traffic problems; they could have invented a small motor to make cycling easier as is now used by many cyclists. Indeed, in many cities all over Europe the bicycle is now promoted as a fast way of traffic in cities. One day China may import the promotion of the bicycle as a way of reducing pollution and for fast transport in cities because also the West promotes its use. China should get over its minority complex and export its good inventions while not import only bad ones.

I no longer believe nuclear energy is environmentally friendly. Although I find it an interesting energy source, we have proven we can use it and now we should leave it and move forward. Indeed, it is very polluting and its waste lasts many centuries while it can be disastrous if something goes wrong. In addition, we don't want to use all plutonium for energy production because also other technologies rely on it.

Recently I heard about a decision by the Chinese government to destroy 700 hills and mountains around a city because industry had to be build and the hills prevented this. This will be done, whether the local people agree or not, and whatever the consequences. Because removing that many hills will most likely result in changes in the weather patterns, and thus maybe the city may become inhabitable as less rain may fall. But that of course is of no importance as long as the economy can grow. One would expect nature tourism to be promoted as well as sport such as climbing or mountain biking and thus tourism will create money. Of course, industry is needed but this should be done carefully while studying the effects of actions taken.

As China has the money, it should be able to implement new technologies to build example cities for the rest of the world, and then it could be its leader. While now it uses its money for old economies, buying oil, coals, ... all over the world while this has disastrous effects on local societies but also on its own society as the above shows.

Present: worldwide

But it is not only China: all over the world developing countries enforce bad decisions on their people in the name of progress. Small villages and towns are destroyed to build larger houses for the people, who then often can't afford buying them and thus have to work for others in order to rent or buy somethinng small, making others rich.

While promoting progress of countries is a good thing to do (e.g. people should be vaccinated against diseases), many decisions are taken that in the past have been proven to be wrong: forest are destroyed to exploit the land and build new or larger cities; as a result fertile soil is washed away while there are also landslides destroying buildings and killing people. Governments should control where cities are build, protect important habitats and punish those who destroy (many governments do their best but it is always difficult fighting against money).

But problems are not only in developing regions. In Europe, people still prefer using cars, especially those living in rural areas and thus there is air pollution (although governments interfere much quicker to prevent too much pollution). Also elsewhere, such as in Australia where a powerful woman doesn't mind destroying the whole country to be able to become the richest person on this planet, even when local people protest because they don't want the area to be destroyed. But of course, those local people don't understand it is for their own good while indead some areas need to be sacrificed for progress, but not when they are essential. And while she wants to become the richest person, she finds ordinary people should accept they are earning too much and thus should be happy with less.

In conclusion, is it really that humans never seem to learn until punishment such as extreme air or water pollution force them to change the way they behave? And thus, will the Chinese society topple because people will be fedup with a government that forces people accept pollution, whether water, air or ground pollution that is killing too many people? And will ordinary people only be able to change society after greed destroys itself?


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