Last week, dense layers of smog choked much of eastern China, with air pollution in more than 100 cities measuring well above levels the World Health Organization considers hazardous to human health.
But apparently every cloud, even the toxic ones, has a silver lining.
According to an op-ed published by the country’s state-run media network, CCTV, smog is actually making Chinese residents smarter, funnier, and more informed. In what has to be one of the more stunning attempts to turn lemons into lemonade, journalist Wang Lei argues that while air pollution is the “universal enemy,” in some ways the smog is improving the lives of citizens, even as it jeopardizes their health and safety.
There are five benefits of China’s widespread air pollution, Lei writes:
1. Smog unites people against a common enemy.
2. It promotes equality, because it harms the lungs of both the rich and the poor.
3. Smog has opened people’s eyes to the price China has to pay for becoming the “world’s factory.”
4. It’s made people funnier because they have to use sarcasm and jokes to cope with it.
5. Learning about smog has increased people’s knowledge of meteorology, history, geography, and physics and even strengthened everyone’s use of the English language.
“Would you know that 60 years ago the haze claimed 12,000 lives in London?" Lei asks. "Would you even know the words ‘haze’ and ‘smog’?”
On Wednesday, air quality in the eastern city of Nanjing was recorded at 354 on the Air Official Index. For some perspective, U.S. experts consider anything above 150 to be unhealthy and anything from 301 to 500 to be hazardous.
Last week’s toxic smog was only the latest episode in a country that’s known for its terrible levels of air pollution. In October, the city of Harbin was forced to shut down temporarily when smog levels soared to 40 times higher than international standards set by the WHO. In January, Beijing was also temporarily shut down when its AQI shot up to the absurd level of 755.
Enacting sweeping reform to address the pollution has to start on a national level with the country’s leadership. One small victory in that arena occurred in September when China’s State Council unveiled its “Atmospheric Pollution Prevention Action Plan.” The plan calls for caps on the country’s coal and steel industries, as well as its car emissions.
According to Susan Egan Keane, a senior analyst with the National Resources Defense Council, the plan may be a “step in the right direction,” but its guidelines don’t go far enough. Keane says even if they’re strictly enforced, the reduction of particulate pollution would still leave air quality levels higher than those recommended by the WHO. “It’s progress,” she says. “But it’s still not healthy air.”
Instead, Keane recommends the Chinese government impose more stringent guidelines, aggressively pursue alternative technologies such as solar and wind, and enforce energy-efficiency policies in the private sector.
Even for those who back China’s air pollution plan, there’s still the question of implementation. “It’s always kind of a puzzle in China,” Keane says, “whether and to what extent the good laws that appear on the books actually get enforced.”