Dealing with pollution in a rapidly growing economy

The 2008 Beijing Olympics could have fooled most people into thinking China was a clean, fresh paradise rising to world domination, but not its own citizens. A dark cloud has come over China (again) recently, and that cloud goes by smog (Read the New York Times article here).

Much of the nation’s transportation networks have been shut down because of what Chinese officials are calling a “weather condition,” CNN reports. Twitter tells a different story, however. A Twitter account which tweets live updates of air quality standards in Beijing is reporting “crazy bad” conditions. The government, however, has yet to respond to the crisis, which has now spread beyond Beijing and into more rural areas.

Smog may sound simple and harmless enough (derived from smoke + fog), but in reality its a photochemical haze caused by combustion engines, manufacturing and soot (there are many types of smog; learn about them here). In the 1950’s, smog killed 12,000 people in London. It’s not something you want to play outside in.

Yet, smog has been an ongoing problem in China (and many other places) for years. The Communist Party ordered scrubbers to be placed on all smokestacks and cars prior to the 2008 Olympics, but many of those companies have since removed them.

Needless to say, people are unhappy.

In fairness, many of the complaints coming from Chinese citizens sound eerily like those coming from our own: ““The government is just so bureaucratic that they don’t seem to care whether we common people live or die. And it’s up to us, the common people, to prod them and to put pressure on them so that they can reflect on their actions and realize that they really just have to do something” says one Chinese citizen.

Sound familiar? It should.

When Obama put the breaks on the new clean air standards, specifically new standards in ozone reductions under the Clean Air Act, many Americans were singing a similar tune:

Daniel J. Weiss, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said, “Today’s announcement from the White House that they will retreat from implementing the much-needed — and long-overdue — ozone pollution standard is deeply disappointing and grants an item on Big Oil’s wish list at the expense of the health of children, seniors and the infirm” (Read the entire New York Times article here).

Again we find ourselves in the manufactured social-balancing act: jobs (money) or health (environment)? To those of us who know the separation between the two is as thin as paper (if existent at all), we can only hope officials in the US and China wake up to it, as well.

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