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Polluting the three most important things in life

The view from the Four Seasons bar in Guangzhou of the Canton Tower. If you look closely through the smog, it's there... (photo: Amy Huva, 2013)

I’m visiting China for the first time this week, as a friend recently moved to Guangzhou, the third largest city in China, which is about two hours north of Hong Kong.

I wasn’t sure what to expect beyond a huge metropolis that probably had motorbikes and people everywhere, similar to my other experiences travelling through South East Asia. I knew it would probably be pretty polluted, and that living in Vancouver for two years has probably set my standards pretty high in terms of feeling the right to demand a clean environment to live in.

But the scale of the pollution has really shocked me.

A few days ago, the air quality index was reading 163, which falls into ‘moderately polluted’ and it’s recommended that you don't exercise outdoors. This level of ‘moderately polluted’ meant I could no longer see the skyscrapers in the New Town centre from the apartment we are staying in, however people I asked about the pollution dismissed it saying ‘oh it’s not as bad as Beijing!’

I haven’t seen the sky here at all since I arrived, and it seems constantly overcast and grey like it might rain, except that it’s mostly smog. The smog rolls in, the smog rolls out, and people don’t seem to think much of it.

Above: a good smog day. Below: a bad smog day in Guangzhou (photo: Amy Huva 2013)

It seems to get taken as the ‘price of progress’ that you can’t drink the tap water (it contains heavy metal pollutants), that if you want to eat any vegetables grown in the ground you should wash them in a solution of lemon juice, salt water and baking powder, and if you want to eat anything off a tree it needs to be peeled, especially if you’re eating an apple.

That this is seen as an acceptable price to pay for economic progress blows my mind. It may have been the only way in the very beginning of the industrial revolution when the only readily available fuel was coal, but technology has changed so much since then that progress no longer needs to come at the expense of a liveable environment.

It makes sense that the Chinese government is currently leading the world in renewable energy investment – this pollution is killing their people and decarbonising should be their number one, most urgent priority.

There are three things in life that are essential; air, water and food - in that order.

If you don’t breathe for about 2 minutes, you’re dead. You can survive without drinking water for about a week, and you can survive without food for a few weeks, but without all three of these, we are all dead.

With the technology that humanity now has to move away from burning fossil fuels that are polluting and killing people daily and super-charging our atmosphere towards more extreme climate change, this level of pollution should no longer be the ‘price’ of progress, and it doesn’t need to be. Because there are no jobs on a dead planet. 

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