OK, it’s time to state the obvious. The air quality and the general natural environment in China’s urban areas is poor—very poor. It’s terrible in Beijing, very poor in GZ, and getting worse by the day in Hong Kong. (The Hong Kong media have frequent articles discussing whether the HK pollution is local or from Guangdong Province, which further complicates matters because many HK business now have manufacturing facilities in mainland China near HK.)
Clean air and potable water are real challenges here. The cities are dirty with dust and exhaust. (For example, my kids feet and shoes are filthy (photos forthcoming) with soot and dust everyday, so I now have a dedicated toothbrush to use on their toenails for their daily footwash.) There are other public health issues. My environmental law students informed me that a study was just released that stated that the average Chinese consumes about 5kg of pesticides a year. In addition, peeling lead paint is common, seat belts are rare, and occupational safety equipment is virtually absent.
Candidly, for the first time I wonder if it’s healthy for us to be here for an entire year. (I myself take Vitamin C daily and use a Neti Pot to help maintain good health.) Vermont has some of the cleanest air and best food systems in the U.S., so I’ve been planning our detox diet for some time (lots of fresh air, fresh veggies, all organic, no processed food, raw foods, ice cold tap water). I think we’ll be fine and make it through the year no problem, but I think that it would be extremely difficult to get better here if someone actually got sick..
What can be done? I had been thinking that, given the population of China, environmental impacts could be mitigated by changing individual behaviors due the the significance of their aggregate impact. While I think this remains important, my prelimiary view now, consistent with other scholars, is that absent greater and more centralized control of environmental law and policy by the national government, severe environmental degradation will continue to occur. Environmental law in China is really controlled by provincial governmentrs and local interests, leading to, at best, inconsistent environmental policies and enforcement without the mandate and resources of a national government. This problem of lack of central control is excascerbated by the unrelenting force with which China pursues econconic development as its measure of success and its means to become noticed and respected by the world, and seeks to raise the standards of living of Chinese. Though I think China is correct that the rest of the world does value economic growth above environmental protection, and the notion of sustainability (i.e., finding the happy medium between development and nature) lacks major players in the national and international decision-making process in the East or West.
I also think perhaps the western world should perhaps ease up on “nation-building” and maybe put our efforts into public health concerns, broadly defined…envrionmental protection, potable water, stopping the spread of HIV/AIDs, ending genocide.