If you think people aren’t damaging the environment, you haven’t lived in Shanghai.
Even the seabirds don’t fish in the Huangpu River.
Today I saw ten dead fish floating in the water.
I know fish live there; I’ve seen them jump from the water and make little splashes, sending ripples larger than themselves into the muddy, slightly greasy flow around them. But they don’t live very long.
I’ve also seen a single plastic sandal, capsized like a boat in that river. I’ve seen cellophane wrappers from cigarette packages. Styrofoam packing material, floating like fake Hollywood rocks. A brightly colored Gala apple, dancing on the surface like a sick Halloween invitation to bob for apples. Bamboo shoots like Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s stakes. Aerosol spray cans.
The water is unclean.
Oh, it flows. Pristinely white cruise ships dock along the Huangpu's entire length, huddling conspiratorially together like gossipy fur-clad heiresses. Short boats carrying coal float just feet above the river's surface, chugging up and down the river all day and all night under their burdens, proudly flying their Chinese flags. Their laundry is hung to dry on deck, and it flutters in the toxic breeze like Tibetan prayer flags. Hulking ships from Australia or other locales carry steel car parts, clothing, Siemens refrigerators, Nike shoes, iPhones--nearly everything the world buys and sells.
But it’s not clean.
The air smells and even tastes like burnt metal sometimes. Coal smoke sends its toxic fumes into the already deadly air. Sometimes the air smells of dust or smoke. It’s worse at night when I come out of the metro and head for home after work. I wonder if this is why the government shuts down the metro between 10 and 11 pm: Are they trying to limit the people out in this airpocalypse? Or is it a secret curfew to keep crime down?
Sometimes my throat hurts for no reason.
I have recurring rashes: one above my collarbone and one in my left armpit. Sometimes the skin at the corners of my mouth and nose is raw and peeling. I get painful canker sores inside my mouth more often here than in any other place I’ve ever lived, but that could just be my body reacting to the 24 million person germ pool! I have tried Tiger Balm, hydrocortizone cream, and my go-to in the Peace Corps, bacitracin ointment. I take allergy pills regularly. Nothing works. Just when I think I've had my last canker sore, I suddenly find myself slurring around another one. The rashes go away for a while, but then they come crawling back like cockroaches.
Whenever I talk to my students about the environment in China, I force myself to admit that the U.S. isn't perfect, either. Spokanites used to push their broken down cars into the Spokane River. Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring, that beautiful rainbow of steam and water, was once treated like a garbage pit. It’s hard to believe that America the Beautiful, Home of the Hippy, once treated its natural treasures this way. But it's the truth, and if I can, I want to save my students from making some of those same mistakes.
Still, health is the number one reason why ex-pats leave Shanghai. (http://www.echinacities.com/expat-corner/Get-Out-of-Dodge-5-Reasons-to-Leave-China) When PM 2.5 (the particulate matter portion of the air quality index) reaches 50 micrograms in the U.S., they caution parents to keep their children inside. An average AQI in Shanghai is 150. Daily. You can't keep your kids in all the time. Some ex-pats talk about the fact that their formerly healthy children now have asthma. And according to The Atlantic, even some Chinese want to leave.
But leaving China doesn't mean you'll escape the problem. The Weather Channel reported last year that air pollution from China has reached California. This has been confirmed by UC Irvine. Some reports claim that a quarter to a third of the pollution in California can be traced back to China. Not that California isn't producing its own share, but China’s problem is not isolated. It’s on America's shores. We can't point a finger and say, "It's over there. It's not us, it's them," because it is us. Pollution doesn't stay inside political borders. It doesn't need a passport or a visa. No border patrol is keeping it out, or putting it on a truck or a boat back to wherever it came from. Its master is the wind and the tide. And us. But we've let it get out of control like a spoiled child.
I get so angry when Americans say climate change or global warming is a hoax, because they are straight up lying to themselves. Suicidal individuals suck on a tailpipe when they want to die. I don't want to die, but I'm huffing emissions from cars and factories every day no matter where I live. Scientists in every country have concurred: the weather all over the world is increasingly extreme. A co-worker from the Philippines told me they just had hail for the first time in history. Hail. In the Philippines. In the tropics. What the hell is hail doing there?!
A lot of people in Spokane and in the U.S. don't believe the scientists. They seem to think science itself is one big hoax. Well, if you don't believe the scientists, then talk to the oldest man or woman you can find! Ask them if the weather in their hometown has changed in their lifetime. I guarantee they will say yes.
Notorious for denying anything negative about itself, China admits that the pollution here is extremely hazardous. In addition, they are perhaps starting to be even more concerned about the effects of environmental degradation on their economy. The English language China Daily newspaper states that pollution costs equal about 10% of China's GDP. Whether the Chinese want to or not, they are paying for pollution. They can choose to pay for organic food and electric cars, or they can sacrifice their GDP. But they will pay.
As a whole species, we will pay.
Stephen Hawking, not usually a glass half empty type, has just predicted that humanity won't last another 1000 years on this planet, and that finding another habitable planet is the only thing that will save us. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/04/28/stephen-hawking-humanity-1000-years_n_7160870.html)When I've talked with my students (teenagers in danger of dropping out, adult English Language Learners) about pollution, I get them to think of a fish tank. Some of my students have kept fish as pets, and most know that when the tank gets dirty, you need to clean it.
“Why?” I ask.
“Duh. Because the fish will die if you don’t!” a high school student answers.
“Okay, so what does the cleaning involve?”
“You must have new water,” a Chinese student answers.
“Exactly. Now imagine that our Earth is our fish tank, and we are the fish,” I say. “What happens when our tank gets dirty? Where will we get new water?”
This is when the room falls silent. This is when even the lippy teenagers get genuinely thoughtful faces.
I don’t want to scare my students. I’m usually positive and light.
But they all need to hear this.
“There IS no other water,” I tell them.
Sometimes I show them a picture of our beautiful sapphire and emerald home at this moment. It's suspended in the black loneliness of space like a lost child. Unique and limited, precious and finite in an infinity of God's stars.
“This is it. If we continue to pollute our fish tank--our planet...We. Will. Die.”