Shanghai is not loving us back.

I’ve tried writing this post almost 5 times now. At first, it was just boring. Then I got preachy, then I just got stuck – I think the professionals call it “writer’s block.” But I think what has really been stifling me here is Shanghai. Literally. The smog is choking our lungs and clogging our brains.

That’s right. What I’ve been trying to figure out is a way to write about the pollution that isn’t boring: “The air is really bad here,” and isn’t preachy, “you know, you all need to recycle more,” and isn’t melodramatic, “WE ARE KILLING OURSELVES IN THE NAME OF PROGRESS,” and isn’t nonchalant, “I’m afraid to bring my kids outside today but no worries, tomorrow might be better.” While you are dealing with Superstorms, beach days in January, and snow in July, a faint reminder that, “this doesn’t seem right.” We are dealing with days that look like this:


This is not right. This is what the same picture looks like on a clear day.

Nolan's view
Nolan’s view

The US Consulate monitors the air quality and like a good, US government agency has developed a nifty, color coded, number system to keep you informed about the pollution. They measure particles in the air and assign the overall air quality a number from 0-500. The air can range from Good (0-50), to Moderate (51-100), to Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups (101-150), Unhealthy (151-200), Very Unhealthy
(201-300), and finally, Hazardous (301-500). Good is green. Hazardous is red and a rainbow of colors is in between. The Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection also measures the particles in the air and also uses the same number system but the phrases they use to qualify those numbers is different. For example, the Chinese say 157 is “lightly polluted” whereas the US Consulate says 157 is “unhealthy.” That would be cute if they actually both measured the same number at the same time but the Chinese number is always at least 20 points below the US number. Right now the US Consulate is reporting a reading of 179 but the Chinese say it’s only 157. Either way, I can look out my window and tell you I don’t want to breath the air out there.

I read an article recently about the pollution in Beijing. The author mentioned that it gets particularly bad there because the city is surrounded by mountains and the mountains trap in the air. But, he went on to say, a good coastal wind came through and dispersed it all. So, since their epic air quality reading of 700something, it’s actually been quite pleasant. Great but dispersed it to where? Looks like Shanghai.

But the larger point is, we can’t just keep thinking, as long as it’s dispersed, we’ll be ok. (Because I do like to think this way. It helps me sleep better at night.) Or, if I can just move my kids out of this city, they will be fine. Or, good thing I live 7000 miles away, I will be fine. Eventually, it’s going to catch up with all of us. WE ARE KILLING OURSELVES IN THE NAME OF PROGRESS! Is that being melodramatic?

China is the world’s fastest growing economy and the standard of living is improving for millions of people and that is great, but at what cost? Can we (the world, not just China) progress without killing ourselves? Or is the destruction of earth part of the process of progressing? The super skyscraper they are building next door is being touted as “environmentally friendly.” It’s going to use rainwater to power the heating and air conditioning systems. The glass they are using and the design will help keep the heat in in the winter and the heat out in the summer. There will be landscaped public gardens to improve air quality. And so on. But at the end of the day, it’s a 121 story building. (Fun fact: They poured concrete continuously for 63 hours to set the foundation.)

I am reminded every day, when I look out the window and wonder if I can take my kids to the playground, that pollution (and global warming) is a very real and VERY big problem. But the truth is, even in spite of this daily, in your face reminder, are my habits going to significantly change? Sadly, probably not. (And I think this is where my writer’s block kicks in.) How can I admit that as I sit inside again
because it’s another day of grey, chalky air and then casually toss my disposable diapers (the fourth and fifth of the day) in the trash. Why am I not willing to make big changes? Can I really be that selfish? Part of me feels like those people who don’t vote because they say their vote doesn’t matter (and then complain about how their tax dollars are spent). I am just one person. What difference would I really be making? But I, along with all of you, do matter. So here’s where I’ll get preachy…reduce! Reuse! Recycle! You better or we’re all done for! Save us all before it’s too late!

If you told me today, my son had cancer and one thing that could help him was using cloth diapers, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this. I’d be out getting cloth diapers. So I guess part of me wants to be nonchalant about the whole thing. My kids are healthy today and like the author in the Beijing article pointed out, people who smoke are breathing in much worse pollutants in much higher concentrations and it takes years for them to die. (He wasn’t as blunt as this but that was his point.) So I could be like the Chinese and just go about my business and explain it away as no big deal. We’re not going to be in Shanghai forever.

Al Gore was right. This global warming is inconvenient. It would be terribly inconvenient for me to start using clothe diapers. And terribly inconvenient to refuse to take a taxi anywhere. And unspeakably inconvenient not to fly anywhere. (Because, after all this pollution on my brain, I have decided, with no facts or stats to back me up, that airlines are the worst of the worst. Think of all the waste. All those plastic cups with a sip of bottled water in them. All those meals that people pick at but don’t eat. All the silverware and individual salt packages and plastic wrap on the blankets. The tiny toothpaste containers and the plastic wrap around them. Really, next time you fly, look at how much useless waste there is. And I’m not even talking about the huge gas guzzling, metal birds themselves or all the vehicles at the runway spitting out carbon dioxide.) But I digress...

I’m not one for New Year’s Resolutions (and if I’m really struggling for a blog topic someday, I’ll get into that). But this year, I think I have to start being more green. I’m not going to make any grand promises or unrealistic goals because if I didn’t keep them or reach them, I’d have to lie about it here. And I don’t want to lie. But I am thinking twice before I stay in the shower just because it’s warm and it’s my only
minutes alone. I am buying a thermos at Starbuck’s instead of using a paper cup for 45 minutes and then throwing it away. I am keeping a reusable bag in my purse so I never have to use a plastic bag. I am reducing my use of paper towels. I am only one person and I am starting with perhaps insignificant things but I have to believe, I make a difference. I don’t want to be stuck inside forever.

So there. I feel like I’ve written alot but haven’t said much. I did get a little preachy, a little melodramatic and maybe even (gasp!) a little boring but we’re choking here in Shanghai and when the cool, coastal breeze comes and disperses it from here, be warned, it may be headed your way.

2 thoughts on “Shanghai is not loving us back.”

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