city air

When I look out of my window, this time of year, it’s way too often a grey haze. So Jia Zhangke‘s short video hits home.

He explains his approach to the subject in this interview:

Should one deduce lessons learned from Greenpeace banking on aesthetic and poetic subtlety? In its checkered past it relied mostly on fear mongering and gung ho guerilla appeal for getting the masses engaged.  Sounds quite negative, isn’t it, fear mongering? Realistically, we should be fearful, and I’m entitled to say that living the depicted reality on a daily basis. But the mongering bit doesn’t work very well, our mental make-up responds with ostrich tactics to it rather than effective action. In a way exactly the opposite of what one would hope for. So, yes, in hind-sight (these kinda smart-ass assessments are often in hindsight) negative. Anyways, I doubt if the universal common ground he talks about is going to resonate enough with anyone breathing experientially clean air to get them politically active. But doing no harm is already quite something.

What I do know is that I personally like it a lot more than the kind of meaningless mega-event just announced by organizer Al Gore and creative director Pharrell Williams at the ongoing World Economic Forum:

Another feel good party, [a] huge, global event to raise awareness about the devastating effects of climate change. The concert, which the duo hope will be the biggest of its kind in history, will be held on six continents on June 18 and feature 100 artists. They say it will reach an audience of 2 billion via 193 broadcasters…The European stage will be set up in Paris, in the run-up to the highly anticipated UN climate change conference scheduled in the city for December (quote).

Happy symbolism and partying is not going to change a thing and like fear mongering risks harm. Done our bit haven’t we, actively participated in the biggest live event ever, wow.

Now, to put my personal experience – my claim that living in Shanghai makes me hyper aware of the importance of the air I breathe – into perspective:

Comparison between Delhi and other asian cities pm2-5 (the fine particulate polltion that is a bigger health hazard) micrograms-per-cubic-meter sorce: http://qz.com/307176/thirteen-of-the-20-most-polluted-cities-in-the-world-are-indian/

Comparison between Delhi and other asian cities pm2-5 (the fine particulate pollution that is a bigger health hazard) yearly daily average micrograms-per-cubic-meter
source: http://qz.com/307176/thirteen-of-the-20-most-polluted-cities-in-the-world-are-indian/

This table tells you what these AQI numbers mean:

Air Quality Index Levels of Health Concern source: http://www.airnow.gov/index.cfm?action=aqibasics.aqi

Air Quality Index Levels of Health Concern
source: http://www.airnow.gov/index.cfm?action=aqibasics.aqi

So China is not the world’s basket case. Other, more personally relevant figures from the same WHO 2014 update of its database

  • Cairo: 73
  • Kathmandu: 50
  • Shanghai: 36
  • Nijmegen: 16

Moving to Shanghai should have done me good after a total of five years in Kathmandu and Cairo? Didn’t think so, although my wife disagrees.  Now, whomever of us is closer to the truth, 36 for Shanghai looks wrong to both of us. WHO China data are from 2010 but I’m pretty sure things haven’t dramatically changed for the worse over just a couple of years, so something’s fishy. I googled a bit and accessed to other data sources. The US consulate in Shanghai monitors air quality since late 2011 and makes the historic records available online. This is what they tell you (I cleaned the database of missing values):

  • 2012: 51
  • 2013: 60
  • 2014: 47 (excl. Dec)

Greenpeace, using Ministry of Environmental protection data (the validity of which seems trustworthy), recently released this for Beijing:

  • 2013: 90
  • 2014: 83

And this for Shanghai:

  • 2013: 61
  • 2014: 52

Given that December is a bad month, the two sources are very aligned. Seems that the WHO database seriously underreports both Beijing and Shanghai air quality problems. No big surprise: these kinda international organization, ‘internationally comparative’ data efforts, relying as they do on a large number of country specific data sources, good quality, some rubbish, are always to be taken with a very big grain of salt.

High-rises opposite the Bund in the Lujiazui financial hub shrouded in haze yesterday source: http://www.shanghaidaily.com/metro/public-services/Warmer-smogfree-weekend-forecast/shdaily.shtml

High-rises opposite the Bund in the Lujiazui financial hub shrouded in haze yesterday
source: http://www.shanghaidaily.com/metro/public-services/Warmer-smogfree-weekend-forecast/shdaily.shtml

Before making a feeble effort to see the glass half full, let me share the 2014 figures for Tokyo (16) and New York (11).

Anyways, whatever the real comparison between Kathmandu, Cairo and Shanghai, the positive side of things is that Shanghai and national authorities are actively trying to improve air quality, not something one can claim for my previous places of residence.

To add to this positive view on this particulate matter, let me show you that breathing too much of those pollutants does fry your brain but luckily doesn’t kill the ability for the absurd, our core humanity is not at stake:

There is something about our avian roots that comes out when the critical centres have been blackened into submission.  Let’s end with an early 1960s hit, from then time great industrial town of Minneapolis:

About roger henke

Still figuring out the story line that would satisfy myself here. Listening to what my family and friends evoke, what the words I absorb, the images that move me, the movements that still me, point to.
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