Smog-Fueled Unrest

Smog-Fueled Unrest

I’ve always assumed that the greatest challenge to curbing pollution is that the problem is largely invisible. To a large extent we don’t see pollution; outside of a handful of hazy days in most North American cities, air still looks like air, water still looks pretty clean. That is, until a certain tipping point is reached.

In Beijing, that point was reached long ago.

I distinctly remember the heavy grey air that welcomed me on my first visit to the city in 2004. Pollution’s link to human health has never been clearer than when I blew my nose after 48 hours of being in Beijing and (pardon the TMI) noticed that the tissue was covered in something black. There’s no denying the impact of humans’ decisions on the environment while strolling through Tiananmen Square.

The problem has been in the making for decades, a consequence of rapid industrialization and urbanization with too little regard for the environment. And while American media often covers western governments and NGOs that speak out against China’s environmental track record, rarely do they talk about the mass number of protests happening in the country about environmental issues. According to Chen Jiping, a retired Communist Party official, pollution has become the main cause of social unrest in China.

Quoted by Bloomberg, the retired official told reporters “The major reason for mass incidents is the environment, and everyone cares about it now. If you want to build a plant, and if the plant may cause cancer, how can people remain calm?”

China now sees between 30,000 and 50,000 demonstrations a year about the environment according to Jiping. Increased use of mobile devices and the internet have been important tools for protesters to coordinate efforts and magnify their voices.

Increasingly the public is demanding transparency and input into projects that affect the environment and public health, and in some cases their concerns are being heard. In October, the city of Ningbo scrapped its plans to produce paraxylene at a China Petroleum & Chemical Corp. plant after hundreds of residents clashed with police. Last summer, the city of Qidong halted plans for a waste discharge pipeline project after thousands protested.

And it seems that in the capital, the government is also taking note. Pollution is the focus of a two week session of the National People’s Congress now under way in Beijing, with Premier Wen Jiabao stating that the country must balance economic development with environmental protection.

How China will do this while maintaining economic growth remains unclear. While some leaders are calling on reducing the number of cars on Beijing streets and imposing heftier taxes on drivers, I can’t imagine that alone will be enough. Burning coal remains the main source of pollution in China’s capital city. Reducing the number of cars would be a great start, but tackling energy sources lies at the heart of the problem I suspect.

In a city where anti-toxin masks have become just another part of the attire, it’s good to hear that environmental activism is high. But it makes me wonder: Is a thick cloak of smog and tissues covered in black boogers what it takes to inspire the masses to speak out against environmental destruction?

I would hazard a guess that the environment is not the number one reason people are demonstrating here in North America. Sure, there have been mass protests and a strong public outcry surrounding the Keystone Pipeline both in Canada and the US, but what about all the small local projects that are affecting our environment? It’s time we look at what’s happening in China, not just as a warning sign for the consequences of pollution, but also for inspiration when it comes to making the environment an important social issue.

March 12, 2013