The news can make certain parts of the world sound like an apocalyptic hellscape. For instance, you might have seen an article like this in your newsfeed recently:
As an example of funny ad placement. And smog.
Beijing, we’re finding out, has the kind of pollution that makes it seem like you’re downwind from a freaking volcano eruption. But, a picture like that doesn’t get across the reality of life in a place where the air actively hates you. We sat down with an anonymous source who works as a magazine editor in Beijing, who told us …
#5. When It’s Bad, The City Disappears
Pollution levels are measured by the Air Quality Index, which goes up to 500. Or, rather, 500 is as high as the scale measures: It’s the level at which “everyone” in the city is at risk for serious health problems if they decide they need to breathe that week. On a bad day, Beijing breaks right through that ceiling. At the time we talked with our source, during Beijing’s first official smog “red alert,” he said, “Pollution levels got up to 700 … I’m not even sure how that happened … Today’s the nicest day we’ve had, and it’s 401.” That’s right — a 700 on a scale that only goes to 500. At its worst, Beijing’s air reached levels of bad that the people who measure filthy air for a living hadn’t even contemplated.
“Beijing-style” is the new “up to 11.”
If you’re an American and are trying to compare this to anything you’ve breathed recently, don’t bother. The absolute smoggiest parts of L.A. (the most polluted city in the U.S.) hit 130 on a bad day. Most of the city hovers from 40 to 70. In other words, a “bad day” of smog in Beijing is five to 10 times as bad as the smoggiest days L.A. will ever see. Take a look:
It’s like the whole city uses Instagram’s “cataracts” filter.”
That’s Beijing on a bad day — our source adds, “Even on an OK day, you can’t see the sun.” But, that’s not on its worst day — because on that type of day, you can’t even see the skyline. A photo of it would just be a square blotch of blurry nothing. Or, as our source puts it, ” … I was driving, and visibility was down to, the news said, 100 meters. It was not 100 meters; I could see out to 60 feet safely. Headlights were useless. It’s not like fog — it’s brown. You can’t see through brown. A few times there were reports of it grounding flights.”
Yeah, that’s the other thing: When Beijing’s smog gets really bad, it’s a schedule-fucker on the level of a snow storm (“My girlfriend [a teacher] just got her first smog day; it’s like a snow day but with more cancer.”) In 2011, smog forced the entire Beijing airport to close. As a result, Beijing residents (Beijingers, seriously) can check out the daily smog forecast alongside the daily weather forecast. “You look out the window … you can see when it’s going to be smoggy. There’s a forecast online. Depending on how windy it is, winter is the worst … It’s more … savory. The air tastes more savory. It’s kind of like when you blow the dust off a book — like that smell and taste.”
“Mmmm … today tastes gray and crunchy.
So, yes, we’re talking apocalyptic levels of smog here. Last December, a woman went walking in the woods, and the smog was so bad that she got lost and had to be rescued by the police. “We have a red brick building like a block away. If we don’t feel like looking up the pollution index, we can pretty much guess where it is by whether or not we can see the red brick building.”
#4. Smog Has Spawned A Whole, Ridiculous Industry
When the smog problem in Beijing started getting out of hand, a whole horde of entrepreneurs stepped in to service the new demand for air-cleaning products, such as face masks. “Face masks with Hello Kitty on them. Some look straight out of WW2. I know some people with multiple face masks for different outfits.” They also buy them for their babies, of course:
“I was born in the smog. Molded by it.
I won’t see the light until I’m already a man.”
“I got a Facebook ad telling me that for just $1,000, I can buy a product that will lower my home air pollution to safe levels. In the schools, they buy these giant bubbles for the kids to play in at the gym … it’s really just laughing our way through what will eventually kill us.”
Yes, on bad smog days, Chinese kids enjoy recess from underneath a goddamn dome:
It’s like when you played under the parachute as a kid, but on China-scale.
And, if you’ve really got money to burn, a Canadian company has started shipping bottled fresh air to Beijing. (Yes, like in goddamned Spaceballs.) Their first shipment sold out in four days.
It’s a great gag gift (i.e. a gift for those who are gagging).
Our source preferred not to spend $1,000 on a giant fancy air-filtration system for his home, and he obviously didn’t have dome-money. Instead, he spent around 40 to 50 bucks on the poor man’s answer to that. “Somebody basically took a fan and an air filter … it’s basically just an air filter tied to a fan, with a little piece of Velcro. It’s fantastic. We got it right before the [red alert], and it’s already black.”
Cheaper than a lung transplant, even in Beijing.
And, just like in America, where there’s a legitimate health crisis, there’ll always be dubious (or outright bullshit) snake oil flowing in to meet the demand. “We were having dinner … they had something called ‘anti-smog noodles’ … not to be offensive, but they’re not going to work. You’re not going to eat some noodles that’ll make your lungs OK. [There are] lots of ‘therapies,’ [including] Paida, slapping therapy, fire therapy, snake wine — everything that, they’ll tell you, will ‘get the smog out of your body.'”
Now, the government does have options for fighting the smog that are a little more effective than snake wine, but …
#3. The Only Fix Is To Just Shut Everything Down
Here’s a picture from the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
It’s been eight years already. Smog also alters time.
The sky looks that nice because the Chinese government enforced harsh restrictions on the people of Beijing to temporarily reduce the smog. This mostly means forcing factories and businesses to shut down and cars to stay off the roads for a few days or weeks. When Beijing issued its “red alert” in December 2015, ” … they most recently sent in a red alert, which sent a lot of restrictions … they shut down factories outside of Beijing, and they shut down construction sites, stopped kids from going to school … “
They also split the driving population in half, based on their license plates, so that each person could only drive every other day. This was in response to Beijing’s highest pollution levels in 13 months and to a social media campaign shaming the government via image macros:
Above: a good day.
… and a bad one.
If you’re surprised the authoritarian Chinese government can be so easily shamed into action, that actually gets to the heart of the problem: They don’t act until they’re shamed into it. The pollution regulations are nearly impossible to enforce on a day-to-day basis (too many people, too many polluters), so the government has to pick its pollution-related battles carefully. So, they pretty much only enforce those regulations when national prestige is on the line, aka the Olympics. During those events, failure to comply was punished with prison time. Our source was surprised when they instituted a red alert a few weeks ago; the smog wasn’t nearly as bad as it had been earlier that year. But, Beijing’s smog had gone viral again with Western media, and the government didn’t want to look bad.
Giving credit where credit’s due, the Chinese government has also progressed a fair amount on the free-speech front as a direct result of the smog. Just a few years ago, ” … you weren’t allowed to mention Beijing had a pollution problem. You called it fog. It’s very strange. It used to be one of the most sensitive topics in the country.”
“Just suck it up. No, not literally. That shit will kill you.”
In 2012, the American embassy in China started testing the air quality and posting the results on Twitter. The Chinese government demanded they stop, because the Americans’ numbers were consistently worse than what the government was reporting.
But, after that, China’s censorship of smog discussion got, as our source puts it, “less dystopian.” That said, they’ll still step in if someone’s complaints about the smog get too ballsy. One woman made a documentary about the subject called Under The Dome. “It got 300 million views in a week. At first, the state media praised her … but then, it got too many views, and they censored it, they scrubbed it from the Chinese Internet … it got yanked off video-sharing websites, file-sharing websites. You can talk about pollution … just try not to be too popular when you do it.”
#2. Yes, The Smog Kills People
Whenever an aid organization or other do-good body wants to make the pollution in a city such as Beijing seem extra bad, they point out how many cigarettes a day breathing that city’s air “equals.” For instance:
But, a day in Beijing isn’t as bad as smoking 40 cigarettes per day: On a bad day, it’s more like smoking one cigarette. That might not seem super serious to those of you who are actively smoking as you read this article. But, really think about that number: That’s one cigarette per day for every child, every sick elderly person, every asthmatic kid, everybody. The high pollution levels in Beijing take an estimated three years off each citizen’s life.
“It’s because they’re clogging their noses with cloth!” – China government spokesperson.
Our source has a better comparison for what a day of Beijing air is really like:
#1. Your Consumer Products = Their Pollution
So, how in the hell does it get like this? “You’ve got people burning rubbish,” says our source. “That’s about 4 percent. Obviously, vehicles … that’s about a quarter. It comes from many places, not to mention Chinese gasoline regulations are pretty loose, which doesn’t help when you’ve got so many cars.” But, a lot of this pollution — probably most of it — comes from nearby industries.
Such as that factory, which made your recycling bin.
Think about it: How many of the gadgets in your room, right this second, were made in China? We’re going to guess somewhere between “most” and “all” of them. None of the stuff we buy from China comes into being without a little pollution, and a bunch of the factories emitting this pollution happen to be located around Beijing. “There’s a place called Yiwu down south — it’s where Christmas is made, Santa’s actual workshop. Where every bit you have … [is made] in Yiwu, the Santa hats … everything. It used to be a nice place … this tiny town is polluted … to say it’s polluted in Beijing is wrong, it’s the whole of northern China, an area about the size of New Hampshire to North Carolina, just covered in a gray fog … “
In 2006, between a one-fifth and one-third of all of China’s air pollution came from the production of export goods, aka things we paid them to build for us (at least 20 percent of that pollution was courtesy of goods meant for the U.S.) Again, that’s in 2006, before everyone in America had a smartphone and a tablet, of course. Our contribution to Beijing’s smog problem sure as fuck ain’t gone down since then.
And what happens in China, doesn’t stay in China. Scientists have already noticed significant amounts of pollutants floating over to our West Coast from Beijing and environs. We guess it’s only fair that they export smog to us, too, alongside all the iPads.
For more insider perspectives, check out We Hoard Your Stuff: 5 Truths Of Professional Recycling and 5 Horrifying Things Only Garbagemen Know About Your Town.