China, October 14, 1999
Beijing should be called Smog City
Its midday in Beijing, but you wouldn't know it by the shadows. Even
though there are no clouds in the sky, the sunlight isn't bright enough to
indicate the time of day. No, I'm not going blind, though it is hard to
see, and no, its not winter, though there is a chill in the air.
See, the sun, in all of its warm and illuminating glory is stymied in its attempts to reach the streets of Beijing by a thick, choking, stagnant cloud of smog that sits over the city on windless days.
I can vividly remember the first time I saw air pollution this bad. It was a dawn surfing session off San Clemete, just south of Los Angeles, on the first day of a So Cal surf trip. Looking north, I saw this brown mass of air float out over the ocean. My fellow surfers answered my quizzical look with a laugh. They said it was LA smog taking a dip in the ocean before on-shore breezes would blow it back on the city later in the morning.
I can still remember the intense feeling of sadness that we could alter our environment in such a destructive way, and still laugh at it. Also, it was a perfect lesson on the concepts of air pollution, smog, and acid rain, which until that morning, I never understood.
Now here I am, a decade later, in one of the most air-polluted cities on the planet, breathing in that foul brown cloud on a daily basis. Each time I come back from a morning run with a sore throat and black phlegm, I wonder how many years off my life this traveling experience is taking from me.
To give you some example of what 12 million people hooked on coal to heat, cook, and power can do to the air, when the wind blows you can see the sky clearly, and the Great Wall is visible snaking up the mountains outside the city. On a windless day you can barley see the tops of nearby buildings and visibility at street level is a few hundred meters.
Oddly enough, all that haze does produce a nightly spectacle. Looking west at the setting sun, its brightness made pale and bearable by the smog filter, turns from a dull yellow bulb into a fiery red ball before disappearing for another hazy night.
Oh, and I'm also doing my best to promote further air degradation, taking taxies all over the city. In fact, I am writing this very article while sitting in the middle of another endless traffic jam of idling cars, trucks, and busses all belching into the night sky