On Air Pollution

Air pollution is omnipresent and omnipotent – in a bad way, that is. It is everywhere from the ground to the clouds. Rich or poor, indoors or outdoors, day or night, air pollution pervades every part of life. PM2.5, or particulate matter of 2.5 microns or less in diameter, is now akin to a curse word synonymous with cancer, coughing, and the layer of dust that covers many of China and India’s metropolises. But to the average citizen, air pollution may seem to be this thing that pops up just once in a while: either the Shanghainese skyline looks like The Day After Tomorrow, or the air quality index (AQI) is lower than the valedictorian’s GPA in the “APEC blue” that results from the shutdown of factories before leaders from other countries come for international meetings.

I first became acquainted with the pollution problem in December 2013. The sky outside was yellowish-black and the air smelled acrid of sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, and many other noxious chemicals. We were sitting in our history classroom, with only a minute left till class. It was awkwardly quiet, as if everyone acknowledged how scary the situation actually was. Even the sounds of vehicles passing by that we sometimes hear seemed to have disappeared. All was silent.

Looking at our phones, we saw news referring to the deathly pollution by its media-assigned moniker, “the airpocalypse.” That sounds pretty sinister, I thought as I imagined the blood-curdling screams of people as they suffocated in a dank, dingy chamber filled with malodorous pollution. The teacher walked into the classroom donning a large, black object that reminded me of those gas masks from either futuristic alien-invasion movies or documentaries of one of the many wars from the early twentieth century. This was the beginning of what was probably one of the most memorable and inspirational classes I had in middle school, though morbid it may have been.

He powered up his computer and opened his slides as the mildly gray automatic projector screens creeped down the whiteboard at their signature slow speeds, monotonously humming as if it were as bored as we were.

“Look outside,” he said. We uniformly turned our heads. Yea, yea. We saw that already. “That, class, is the subject of the day.”

A picture of a polluted Shanghai skyline materialized on the screen as I heard my shocked classmates silently mumbling expletives. I could almost smell the sulfur dioxide wafting out of the PowerPoint just like how the cracks between the window and its frame whiffed in the awful gas by some thaumaturgical sorcery that probably has to do with regions of high and low pressure. At the same time, I couldn’t believe that I had been deceived for so many years into thinking that it was only fog and not a carcinogenic cocktail of various pollutants. After all, what does the government have to gain from this blemishing of the facts? Sure, it increases the country’s short-term potential for growth, but causes environmental problems that last longer than our lives.

He moved on to a slide about the composition of the smog that we now see: volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carbon dioxide, ozone, and all the good stuff. He introduced the effects of each compound. The list of negative health effects for each compound was long enough to be difficult to remember: increased rate of heart disease, increased risk of lung cancer, coughing, and other nasty-sounding medical terms. The history teacher hastily vocalized the list of things we didn’t really understand as if he were reading off the lyrics for some incomprehensible rap song. With his characteristic goatee and his slightly disheveled hair, what he said seemed to be hugely fitting. The flabbergasting ramifications of air pollution on our health did not come as a surprise, but the fact that our lives were actually being shortened this moment by the adulterated, grimy outdoors air was hard to believe.

Chit-chat commenced. Not of the gossip that one would expect from middle schoolers with too much free time and nowhere to spend it, but instead a serious, self-motivated, and intelligent conversation on the airpocalyptic situation. Surprising, I thought as I talked to my friend whom I was sitting next to.

In my eighth grade innocence, I asked, “How do you think we could stop pollution?” My friend immediately and resolutely shook his head, and a brief condescending glance from him told me that he thought my question was ludicrous. As if trying to stop himself from bursting into criticism of my allegedly farcical question, he slowly and in a forged calm tone said, “Nope.” As I reflected on the Chinese air pollution problem in the few days after the airpocalypse (before forgetting about it), I realized that it was a lot easier to talk the talk than walk the walk. We may talk about going on our daily commutes in an eco-friendly manner, but no one realistically has time to bike tens of miles twice a day. Being the romantic idealists that we humans are, we may also convince ourselves that electric vehicles are the ultimate solution when in fact there is a long way to go in terms of utilizing clean energy. In order to achieve environmental security, we must not only innovate perpetually, but also question our currently established beliefs to avert regression to the past.

As much as I detest the poisoned air, I am also deeply grateful for the lessons it has taught me. Without having experienced this travesty or listened to my history teacher’s lecture, I would have been aware of the situation. I would just have been another one of those people who blow off climate change as a “third-world problem” simply because it hasn’t yet reached their doorstep. It’s easy for a person living in a developed country to accept pollution as an inevitable byproduct of human development, citing previous examples of smog in Britain and the United States. As one of the most adaptive species, we must not only develop, but develop our means of development.

Ever since learning of the dreadful effects of air pollution, I became obsessed with all things air quality-related. Every day I wake up, I check the AQI and look outside my window to confirm its accuracy. (I don’t buy into the government-reported AQI because making it too high would invoke cumbersome mandatory pollution alert response policies.) Sometimes I even press myself against the edges of my windows to take a sniff sample of the air. Weird, huh?

The invisible plague of pollution affects all of us, whether we are in China or Chile, India or Iceland. It profoundly modifies our lives. Sometimes, it shuts down the city. Sometimes, it works us up, forcing us to obsessively check the AQI every couple of minutes. And sometimes, it gives us cancer. We can still bring about change if we all join forces against illegal polluters and campaigns for more sustainable use of resources, environmental stewardship, and greater safety measures. But if we ignore the issue as we have for the past decades and subscribe to the development ethic, we will eventually reach a point of no return. A quote from Pastor Martin Niemöller on speaking against Nazis is equally applicable to these environmental nodi. “Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.” If we do not speak up against polluters, the particulate matter that we turn a blind eye to today will one day, in the not-too-distant future, come back to haunt us. By that time, there will be nothing that we can do. The horrifying experience of the 2013 Shanghai Airpocalypse is a reminder of our duty to the environment to all of us. And if we fail to protect the environment, it is only poetic justice for the environment to naturally retribute.

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