Pollution? So what…..

As Americans love to talk about the weather, so do the Chinese about pollution lately. If you haven’t heard, China has a bit of a pollution problem, but recently it’s been more of an epidemic. It’s been the talk of the town, and only because at this point it’s impossible to avoid. Some foreign friends of mine living here are even packing up and getting out, and it’s got me and the rest of us thinking about it too.


Now before I start bashing, I want to be clear that the problem is twofold, meaning that it’s certainly not only China that’s to blame. Certainly the current horrid residual effects have had a long history leading up to this point. In fact, if one was to point the fingers, I have no problem pointing it at myself and the culture I grew up in. Westerners consume an astronomical amount of goods on an individual basis, so much so that the majority of the world would look (or looks) at it and be astonished, if not appalled. But we’ve convinced ourselves that we all need a giant house with 2 cars, rooms and closets packed full of clothing, computers/pads/smartphones, Xbox, Playstation, etc, etc, etc. It’s called “First World Problems” and it’s quite amusing, true, then saddening. Check out this 1 min video.


The average American consumes 13x more per year than the average Chinese, and 370x more than the average Ethiopian. 370x!!!!!! And where does (at least half) that stuff get made? Yup, the good ol’ PRC. So it’s no wonder why the skies are the ugliest shade of gray-yellow I have ever seen in my entire life. Granted, China has it’s own issues of resource abuse, corruption, use of copious of amounts of coal energy, back-scratching, etc., but that’s certainly not the root. By the way, which country is the biggest investor and researcher of green technologies? China. So let’s not all point our fingers too quickly.


Don’t get me wrong, I like to live it up too, and I’m as guilty as anyone. But what does the world think of the US when they see a video of Black Friday at Wal-Mart online?


I see this style of consumerism coming on strong in China, and in a country of over 1.3 billion people, that’s pretty freakin’ scary. Several of my students often have multiple cell phones, usually an iPhone 5 and a Samsung Note sitting at there desks at any given time. When asked why they need to live in such mobile extravagance, the answer is that it’s cheaper to have 2 mobile plans, one for texting and one for calling, so they can take advantage of each. Go figure, pay an extra $800 for a phone you don’t need and is annoying to carry so you can save a few dollars a month on phone charges. Apparently they’ve never heard of dual-sim card phones yet. These same phones are constantly interrupting my class so said students can go out to meet the postman and get his/her daily delivery of Tic-Tacs swathed in 17 layers of bubble-wrap. This is only a slight exaggeration, but it’s often the same attitude I (we) often have towards “stuff” in the west. “I don’t need it but it’s so cheap”. “As long as you can make the monthly payment it’s ok”. Enter sub-prime mortgage crisis. Check one of my students stupidly counterintuitive Iphone accessories:

Stupid Iphone Accessory

Stupid Iphone Accessory

I think we are going backwards here. Something has to change. I love what Russel Brand has to say about it. I’m not a fan of his movies, but I respect his passion about change.


Thanks to the brilliance of modern marketing, we are convinced our current consumption habits are very “normal”. We have to understand that the way we consume things is NOT “normal”. In fact, it’s highly abnormal when compared to the majority of citizens on this planet. If you, who are reading this right now, make $10,000 per year, you make more than 84% of the world. $50k? Congratulations! You’re in the 99th percentile, not to mention your standard of living is likely much higher. We need to redefine “normal”.


So what? What’s the big deal? Well, for the first time in history Shanghai’s pollution level went off the chart…..literally. There are several stations in all major Chinese cities that measure the amount of particles in a cubic meter of air. 25 is considered normal and healthy, and even up to 100 is considered tolerable for most people, but after 150 the real negative effects kick in. The highest the (and most outlandish) level on the chart is 500, which several cities have been surpassing, and sadly for the first time, Shanghai recently did too.

Shanghai Pollution Tops 500 ug/m3

Shanghai Pollution Tops 500 ug/m3


So this is my home, I can’t go outside not because it’s cold, raining, snowing, typhoon is coming, earthquake, apocalypse, no…….I can’t go out because I will start coughing as if I’m in a burning house. I ridiculed people for wearing those silly face masks outside everyday, afterall, they do look ridiculous.


Chinese pollution masks, get into the smog the safe way.

Chinese pollution masks, get into the smog the safe way.

Nowadays, I’m an avid supporter and wearer of the mask after seeing how much residue builds up on the outside after a few days of use…..sigh.


So back to the solution. China has a few. The easiest one is to change the chart, redefine which levels are “actually” unhealthy. A little ignorant but effective to the gullible. Next: propaganda. Tell everyone how pollution can benefit people. Click here for the top 5 reasons. My favorite reason: it makes Chinese people more funny, cuz they’re always joking about the pollution. I’m unclear as to whether this was the Chinese government’s first attempt at sarcastic humor? Doubtful.


For now, the pollution has subsided a bit, and the talk has died down as it’s no longer ‘trendy’, but it will be back shortly if nothing changes.


China has finally acknowledged the problem though. The government even set up a website for people to monitor pollution levels in real-time, and surprisingly it matches closely to what the non-government ordained readings measure. That’s progress in my book, however they did have the audacity to say the reason for the terrible pollution was “due to low levels of wind”. You might as well say that farts stink because of gravity.


I wish I had more solutions, but I want to be clear that I’m not talking about buying a Prius and recycling our plastic bottles. How about avoiding bottles altogether? I try to take my Nalgene bottle everywhere now because I hated it when I had to toss several pieces of plastic in the trash each day, all of which won’t break down for the next several millenia, just for a sip of water. I just had to change my thinking about it, and how everything I do each day impacts the environment. Even things like turning off lights and A/C (or anything electrical really), showering faster, flushing less (gross right?). What if everyone on the planet cut there consumption by 25% today? If everyone conserved a little, the cumulative total would be astounding.


We need a total reform of our minds, and all I can do at this moment is propagate my beliefs.

That’s my environmental rant for the year. All I know is the problem doesn’t start with China, but the effects are killing me slowly.

Any solutions? Please leave your comments below!


  1. People into he U.S. have definitely noticed, and in fact I have been asked about it multiple times, including today. I agree with you – short of a revolutionary change in consumption, this won’t change anytime soon. It is sad to see how often ‘consumers’ is used to replace ‘people’ or ‘citizens’ in discussions here in America.

    By the way… sounds like you might need to reinstitute the cell hone shoe box!

  2. Hi there:
    Totally agree with your thoughts and opinion. If we all, or majority can reduce our consumption by 25%, it would make a huge difference but the thing is that people think differently. Hopefully people will realize and change their consumption habit before it it too late.

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