What It’s Like to Live Under a Red Alert: Thoughts About Beijing’s Pollution

Airpocalypse -- while my phone camera corrected the yellow tint of the air, you also can't see the skyscrapers that are just beyond that intersection.
Airpocalypse — while my phone camera corrected the yellow tint of the air, you also can’t see the skyscrapers that are just beyond that intersection.
A bunch of you have sent concerned messages about Beijing’s recent pollution struggles, and others have asked what it’s like to live under a red alert. So six months into our China journey, Imma take a break from posting only about our vacation lifestyle and talk a little about the pollution here.

Day four of Beijing living.
Day four of Beijing living.
Let’s set the stage for a sec first: We touched down in Beijing in a thick cloud of haze, and that haze didn’t abate for four days. At the time, we were wide-eyed with trepidation about that, but people told us that this was unusually bad. A bartender we met, in fact, asked us on our third day in town, “Don’t you think the pollution talk is all pretty overblown?” We were a bit taken aback, given we had to prance (or walk slowly, so as to not inhale too much air) around outdoors in our face masks, but the cloud blew off the next day, and we had a couple of weeks of glorious blue sky. Then the haze returned for a couple of days, and blew off for a couple weeks. Rinse, repeat, with an extended period of beautiful blue skies thanks to the military parade, until last week, when the worst pollution of the year descended on the city: the sky turned a murky yellow color, and it was hard to make out buildings across the street.

This state lasted approximately three days, and then a cold Mongolian wind blew it out. It’s a super odd feeling to go to bed in a toxic cloud and wake up in what is basically equivalent to crisp mountain air, but that’s exactly what happened. (Side note: another time, a few days’ worth of bad smog blew off during our dinner – we emerged from a restaurant to star-studded skies that had only two hours earlier been completely hidden by thick haze. What a trip.) The pollution count on that blissful reprieve of a morning was about 10, which is pretty much pristine. During the dark days of last week, the pollution count passed 600 (or higher, no real idea, since the scale basically maxes out at 500; most of the U.S., for comparison, rarely tops 50). Not great timing, since Paris was hosting global climate talks rightthatverysecond. Also, the public was so rattled about the pollution that when another polluted period was approaching earlier this week, the government declared a red alert — the first ever. This shut down schools, banned outdoor cooking (lots of restaurants roast lamb on the streets here), and required cars to drive on alternating days. The air never got as bad as last week, but it was bad enough that most people wore masks when they were outside, and you definitely wouldn’t want to do much more than walk from your house to the subway, for instance. No jogging. No running for the bus.

So what is it like to live in this cycle, and what is it like to function when the air is that bad?

Well, for one thing, everyone here, or at least everyone that I interact with, thinks about the air on a daily basis. All of the foreigners and most of the Chinese people I know have air filters in their homes. Most people have apps on their phones that tell them what the pollution count is, and they’ll frequently comment on the state of the air. They’ll say this year is less bad than years past, or talk about what the air was like here when they were young. Talking about the air, at least with us foreigners, is smalltalk fodder. I never thought much about how odd that is, but today I remembered that despite living there for three years, I had no idea what the New York City air pollution was like until I moved to China and looked it up for comparison with Beijing. Pollution went from being a thing that never really crossed my mind to something almost always on my mind. And that goes for when the air is good, too — the mood lifts visibly in this city on blue sky days, and people carpe the effing diem. Beijing is one of the best cities in the world when the air is nice. It feels effervescent.

More personally, for the first couple of months here, my mood was directly correlated with the pollution. If the sky was blue, I felt like my life was together, my future was bright, and the songbirds were basically gonna come over and do my laundry while whistling zippity doo dah. Levity, in other words. No task too hard, no obstacle too great. When the smog hit, everything was terrible — I hated the crowds, I hated riding my bike, I hated that I dropped a chopstick and didn’t know how to ask for a new one, I hated that my future plans are nebulous at best, I hated that I couldn’t find a damn smoothie bowl in the whole city of Beijing, because HOW WILL I EVER BE HEALTHY AGAIN. I was basically an adult version of Reasons My Son Is Crying.

View from school during airpocalypse. On a clear day, you can see all the way out to a mountain range from this window.
View from school during airpocalypse. On a clear day, you can see all the way out to a mountain range from this window.
I was eager to break that cycle, and Rob was eager for me to stop bitching about the smog all the time, so he did a bunch of research on how bad breathing the air actually is. Some story he dug up said being outside all day on bad days is sort of the equivalent of smoking half a cigarette a day. That helped. I don’t want to smoke half a cigarette a day forever, but I’m probably not gonna die if someone forces me to do so for the next year or five. It allayed my fears enough to brazenly ride my bike in 200 pollution weather, thinking, “bad air, don’t care.”

Then airpocalypse hit, and The Economist posted a story about how breathing Beijing’s air is actually like smoking 40 cigarettes a day, and I promptly lost my mind. “THIS IS A PROBLEM,” I declared to my Chinese teachers. They were like, yeah, duh, but what do you want us to do about it? I was like, “I’M NOT LEAVING MY HOUSE.” And they were like, enjoy dying alone. Anyway, since Rob is a much more skeptical internet user than I am, he did some research on that figure and learned that it’s way off, sort of — air pollution does not actually compare well with smoking cigarettes, it’s just that if you live forever in Beijing’s air, you can expect to die three years early, which is how early you’d die if you smoked 40 cigarettes a day. Not sure that makes me feel better, but it does make me feel like I overreacted a little by posting that questionable article on Facebook in a woe is me moment. Beijing air: somewhere between half a cigarette and 40 cigarettes. In real life absent of hypothetical analogies, I hyperventilated every time I climbed a staircase from the subway to the outdoors, and I was convinced that I actually got winded quicker. Also, my face mask turned gray, which is gross. I got a new one.

As for the red alert, living through airpocalypse made the red alert feel relatively mild. Because the government pulled a bunch of cars off the road, the pollution hit the high 300s, but not for long. Probably for the best that delicate-lunged children were more or less required to stay inside, though.

Hazy in Krabi
Hazy in Krabi
For all the pollution awareness in Beijing, though, my biggest and most depressing revelation this year has been how pervasive this problem is — this is not just about Beijing, or any given city in China. This first dawned on me when we drove from Beijing to Inner Mongolia — and never broke free of the haze (although it thinned out). Same went for taking a high speed train from Beijing to Shanghai. But this is also not just about China. With the exception of Taipei and Chiang Mai, every city we’ve been in so far this year — and this includes cities outside of China, like Seoul, Bangkok, Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh City — has suffered at least one bad pollution day when we were there (and I’m inclined to think we just got lucky on Taipei). Even Krabi was soaked in a cloud of fumes for the first several days we were there, because the Indonesian fires were raging, and the blow-off was seeping waaaaay beyond its borders. One of the bleak factoids we all traded last week to get through our funk was that Dehli’s scale had topped out at 999 — which means the pollution was likely much higher. That is hard to fathom.

What’s more, it’s likely going to get worse elsewhere — China’s economy is evolving, and it’s getting richer, which means manufacturing is moving to cheaper countries. And with it, so moves the pollution. And in case I need to spell it out for you, that implicates all of us in this problem — we don’t have the pollution problem in the U.S. in part because our manufacturing sector is relatively small. We have, effectively, exported our pollution.

In my opinion, that makes China the least of our worries. China is actually working on this problem, and it’s cleaning up its air faster than the west did when the west was the manufacturing center of the world — the country improves each year. This is likely why we’re all fixated on China — because China can and appears to be actually dealing with this. India, on the other hand, seems kind of hopeless — a decentralized government and miles of bureaucratic red tape make a policy-based solution all but impossible.

I guess the too long didn’t read version of this rambling post is that living in Asia has made my environmental convictions less theoretical and more of the we-need-to-act-now variety: we’re destroying the planet, y’all, and I see it, in real time, every day. We gotta knock it off. ASAP. And it’s gonna take regional and global cooperation, and large-scale clean energy innovation, to do it.

One thought on “What It’s Like to Live Under a Red Alert: Thoughts About Beijing’s Pollution”

  1. Thanks for your insights Laura! What an experience to see this global pollution problem first hand. I agree with you, we have to take this problem seriously!

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