Beijing's 21st Century Pollution

Kneitz Agnes's picture

P { margin-bottom: 0.21cm; }A:link { } Beijing is one of the largest conurbations in the world, almost spreading over the size of Israel. Besides the mere size, it has a number of geographical disadvantages that impact urban problems and add to the severity of modern environmental challenges. It has no river but is dependent on ground water wells and distant mountain springs. In part this unusual location was chosen for aesthetic reasons. Western and Northern ranges provide incredible scenery during clear days but seal air pollution during thermal inversions. On top of the smog, a dry monsoon climate with sandstorms from the Gobi desert and land degradation in Northern China pose a problem for cleanliness. Traditionally, such dust was pacified by sprinkling used and night water on the streets. For a sanitizing 21st century city such practices are politically unacceptable. Subtending development that outgrows itself almost every day is a Sisyphean task.

China’s opening unleashed an industrializing force that lifted people out of poverty, while straining urban carrying capacity through the influx of humans and a "overnight" plastification of a scale comparable to what the US experienced in the second half of the 20st century. The beyond-cheap material allows for everyone to acquire a convenient and modern living standard, without any knowledge of its toxicity. Plastic waste (like cardboard) is not recycled but reused. Smaller items litter, some end up in unsecured landfills where scavengers pick through them. Within homes, plastic vapors might turn out as the “21st-century lead paint,” that enters human bodies through food packaging, a trend amplified by a preference for warm drinks and hot (street) food. In addition to plastic, old bikes and new shared bikes are the latest issue. They moderate car use and increase public health, but commodity prices are low and metal is heavy. Piles of broken or vandalized bikes line streets to an absurd degree unjustifiable as “storage” of raw materials.

Coal-fired heaters supporting central heating systems; cooking fumes; and uncounted cars pump fumes into the air — garnished with occasional fireworks. Given the notorious reputation of Beijing’s smog municipal planning is involved, but planners often just restrict the poor working class and migrant workers. Their unknown number obscures calculations of the city’s energy metabolism. Humans are under constant threat by health risks that intumesce at the same rate as Beijing itself. As seen in Western metropolises since the 1880s, invisible chemical pollution of water, air, soil, and food in an era of modernization and weather control are adding onto the classical visible risks through dust and burning residue. Elsewhere the gradual replacement of the latter had contributed to changing attitudes towards urban livelihoods, but in 21st-century Beijing both kinds of health hazards co-exist. Digital technology allows citizens to check their phones for the daily levels of dioxins or sulfates.

Some plant species mediate chemical risks. Homeowners deploy them as air purifiers alongside technical solutions. The omnipresence of individual health risks produced a vibrant community of environmental entrepreneurs that account for city folk's legendary creativity. Government also implements such simple natural solutions. Beijing has been afforesting extensively for about two decades. Mainly as protection against sandstorms, a large green belt also provides leisure spaces. Parks, tree-lined boulevards, and compounds beautify residential areas, spreading positive energy and enhancing urbanites’ quality of life. The re-naturalisation even contributes to raising the city’s sinking ground water table.

Tree cover and growing flora also manifest in microclimatic change. For the individual, felt temperatures are affected by increasing humidity; locals recognize a difference during night time. Warmth and moisture support the city’s mosquito population, making these hours less quiet, but feed a growing bird population. Pest control — to get rid of the nuisance and to prevent the spread of mosquito-borne diseases — yet again adds toxins to an urban ecosystem in flux. This is sprayed with infamous repellents like DDT or DEET, leading some residents to wonder about the contents of the spray trucks that water the boulevards and those that cool and moisten the hot and dusty streets.

Luckily, humans adapt. Perceptions change, as observed in Western 19th-century urbanites, too. High-risk environments become accepted as new reality by those lacking economic and political tether; traditional symbolism becomes reframed. Instead of beginning conversations with questions about food, weather — meaning smog — is the new topic for small talk. Those with resources and related mobility leave the area either permanently or seasonally. These new “pollution refugees” relocate or escape for a holiday, creating a classic dilemma of environmental injustice while also stressing previously clean areas.