cultural smog

I am in Tianjin where the smog is thick. It creates grey on grey cityscapes and irritates eyes and throats. My niece, a lovely and talented young woman jokes that, “Chinese people have iron lungs,” instantly showing up the dystopian anxieties that animate cyberpunk and urban fantasy (as popular literary genres, not simply as lifestyle choices).

I remember similarly edged jokes from my mother’s relatives and friends when we went back to the UP, where iron mining and tree harvesting for the paper mills had reshaped the wild north. “That,” they said with a half apologetic laugh when they glimpsed our pinched noses, “that is the smell of money.” Continue reading

more on smog

Previously, sections of the Municipality had reported dangerous levels of carbon diaoxide, but on April 15, 2013 and for the first time in its history, Shenzhen recorded dangerous levels of air pollution in every part of the city.

Shenzhen is not alone in its unhealthy rush to a narrowly defined standard of wealth. Indeed, concern in Shenzhen follows upon the outrageous levels of pollution that were reported in Beijing. But as David Roberts reminds us, this level of pollution is just one example of a worldwide trend:

The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) program sponsored by United Nations Environmental Program asked environmental consultancy, Trucost to tally up the total “unpriced natural capital” consumed by the world’s top industrial sectors. (“Natural capital” refers to ecological materials and services like, say, clean water or a stable atmosphere; “unpriced” means that businesses don’t pay to consume them.) …The biggest single environmental cost? Greenhouse gases from coal burning in China. The fifth biggest? Greenhouse gases from coal burning in North America.

Moreover, our respective industrial sectors thrive on coal:


I feel like I parrot myself at every opportunity: the United States and China are the same country. Really. The similarities are of kind, while our differences are merely of scale. And so the question remains: how do we fix shared problems, rather than getting settling for the politics of blame?

suddenly smog…

Yesterday, blue skies, today notably grey, so I asked a cabbie what he thought was the reason. Many cars. More than yesterday? Well, he said, in the north they call it mist, but here we call it smog. He nodded. That’s why visibility is so poor today. Too many cars.

of smog, environmental and political

As the Universiade closed, Shenzhen’s clear skies and bright sun caused a friend to jokingly speculate that, “Even Heaven is cooperating with the Municipal Government [to put on a great universiade]”. Nevertheless, a mere 24 hours after the Universiade closing ceremony, the smog was back. And yes, it rained yesterday, so there were cloudy grey skies, but. The smog is back.

Alas, the smog is not only environmental. I remain unclear as to why Longgang’s “Crystal (水晶石)” stadium not only lost the opening ceremony to Nanshan’s “Silkworm Cocoon (春茧),” but also lost the closing ceremony to the Window of the World theme park. Now, I can understand moving the opening ceremony to the Cocoon because the stadium has been explicitly heralded as the perfect match to Beijing’s Nest, allowing Shenzhen leaders to deploy universiade internationalism to assert the Municipality’s position within domestic politics。 However, why move the closing ceremony from a state of the art, technically cutting age sports stadium to an aging theme park? This decision baffles me.

According to closing ceremony directory, Luo Wei, the venue for the closing ceremony was moved six times and the program was changed 45 times. He expressed dismay at the process until Guangdong Provincial Party Committee Secretary, Wang Yang (汪洋) reminded him that the Window of the World theme park boasts beautiful reproductions of famous global tourist spots and that the closing ceremony would be a huge party for all Shenzhen’s international friends to go wild.

And there’s the rub. Shenzhen’s boosterism not withstanding, both the Central Government and Guangdong Province have participated in staging the Universiade and in that shuffle, Longgang District, which remains the poorest and least developed of Shenzhen’s Districts, lost the opportunity to take center stage in an international event. Nevertheless, they’re footing the bill for constructing the Olympic Village. Such are the inequalities of “face projects (面子工程)”. Sigh.

coastal thinking

this past weekend, i was in seattle visiting friends and revisiting my past. yes, the older i become, the greater the twists and turns of who i thought i was and who they thought i was and the distances between all that thinking. mahsheed reminded us that scientists (of the empirically experimental sort) contend that memory is 70% recreated and 30% actual content. however, little is known about how and why that particular ratio or how and why some information is shunted onto one side of the equation or even how recreated memory is plotted… yes, this is the basis of my anthropological musings.  i’ll see your “hmm” and raise you three.


caveat given, i’ll move onto thoughts inspired while walking in seward park.

moss on fern green

walking in seward park (as it was when i walked along the salmon river, oregon a year ago), the ferns, red cedars, and douglas furs viscerally reminded me that i was in a coastal ecosystem. mud cold water seeped into my shoes, pulsing bark tempted me to raise my eyes, and a great blue herron stilled my circumnavigation of washington lake.

in contrast, while walking in shenzhen, i find it difficult to remember that we inhabit an estuary. i walk through smog and landscaped greenspace, note new buildings and speculate about economic boomings of one sort or another. i frequently read about mudflat wetland protection, the deep bay oyster industry, marine pollution and mangroves. all this to say, shenzhen’s ecological status strikes me as an abstraction, a category of thinking rather than an experience immanent in the environment itself. thus, my mind invokes “estuarine ecology” as a critical standard by which to hypothesize what might have been and imagine what could be. 

the difference is where lived – right brain or on a path at dawn. now, what to make of it?

shenzhen smog 2010.1.28

view from my window

several hours ago, a heavy smog descended on shenzhen. this smog irritates my throat and eyes, but i can’t identify a smell. at the time, several colleagues mentioned that it smelled like someone was burning something.

the ongoing diminishing of shenzhen’s air-quality has been a persistent theme in this blog. i can honestly say today is the worst day i’ve seen here. nevertheless, at work, most talked about the smog as if it were excessive, but “normal” as in “within expectations”. as i walked home, children were playing in huanggang park, people were chatting, and the traffic moved as usual.

does anyone else know what has / is happening? i tried surfing in chinese but haven’t seen anything. i did, however, come across a blog entry that classified shenzhen’s air quality as “relatively bad” and suggested that people limit their outdoor activities!

i also managed to come up with a timeline of worsening smog (灰霾) conditions in shenzhen:

2009 there were 115 smog days, apparently 39 fewer days than the 154 recorded in 2008.

2007 there were 158 smog days in shenzhen, but the city nevertheless got a “good” air quality rating;

2003 there were 131 smog days and the same article stated that the smog days have been increasing since the 1990s as there were only 8 hazy days in the 70s, and 58 in the 80s.

all this and suddenly the nytimes discovers that shenzhen is one of the top 31 places to visit in 2010. on the list, shenzhen is #20 and apparently getting “greener”! that said, the same article also managed to mention the nanshan kempinski without mentioning the houhai land reclamation area, so clearly the author’s focus was more the affordable luxuries of dongmen and the recent proliferation “legit” massage parlors than it was on environmental transformation. nor did the article mention that shenzhen is the capital of chinese theme parks. presumably shenzhen’s self promotion as a “chic” tourist city of “splendor and happiness” is finding a wider audience!

of plants and smog

shenzheners are developing an environmental consciousness. indeed, the shenzhen 2030 development strategy calls explicitly for sustainable development. so now we encounter billboards to protect endangered species. the irony, of course, is that these billboards have been raised at the former new houhai coastline. about 10 years ago, the elephant would have been standing on the beach. 20 years ago, said elephant would have been up to its knees in water, possibly even deeper.

save endangered species billboard

moreover, only five years ago, if memory serves as well as i hope, the elephant would have been standing beneath “blue skies and white clouds.” these days, smog is an all too often topic of conversation in shenzhen. most folks blame the cars, and then quickly remark that cars are necessary, both for convenience and building the economy. all of us, however, lament that the environment has deteriorated so obviously, so quickly.

at the same time, shenzhen’s furious pursuit of garden cityhood proceeds. recently exotic plants abut the new roads and construction sites of the houhai land reclamation zone. although beautiful, these plants irritate me. unlike the once ubiquitous and local banyan tree, shenzhen’s palms and bushes and flowering trees don’t provide shade. they also require large teams of gardeners, who water the plants with an irrigation system that stretches along the ever changing coastline. these plants confound me. i wonder where their gardeners live and how much they earn; as far as i know, the blue uniformed gardeners in central park, live in dorms in the park itself, but there aren’t any dorms on the landfill, only temporary construction dorms. the extent of the irrigation system also has me wondering, given the city’s water shortage, who isn’t getting water if imported fonds are. and if perhaps, we’ve reached the final coastline.

this afternoon, on the landfill, i stopped to talk with several people. one, a migrant worker who had just came to shenzhen and lived in one of the nearby shanties, said that it was nice to walk on the coastline where the air was fresher. true enough. i actually breathed in salty air. a second interlocutor, was an old shenzhener, originally from ningbo, who like like me, enjoys photography. he showed me some of the pictures in his very nice camera–flowers, parrots, traditional architecture, and old village rivers.

“unfortunately,” he said, “shenzhen is a new city, so there isn’t much beauty here.” as i understood him, beauty referred to things natural and manmade that had a graceful harmony. he admitted that all shenzhen’s glass buildings were impressive, but not yet beautiful, unlike shanghai, where old sections of the city had been preserved and improved. his comments had me wondering if we wait long enough, shenzhen will become beautiful through age. although with all the upgrading and razing of older sections of the city, this path to beauty may not be the most efficient and shenzhen may as well just stick with its the newest is the most beautiful aesthetic. speculation aside, we agreed that the smog had become a serious problem that would become even more serious, “unless the government takes serious action.” as we separated, me to take more pictures of houhai and him to continue searching for beauty, he exhorted me to visit other cities, especially shanghai, “where the environment is really beautiful.”

i am not sure if shenzhen’s utopian origin sets residents up for disappointment, or if memory creates beauty where it may not have been; i’ve been to shanghai, and i remember smog, in addition to the lovely buildings. i do think that the utopian impulse behind the city’s construction continues to inform longterm planning. the idea of shenzhen as a sustainable city is, if it is nothing else, a call to create a better future. and yet. houhai continues to transform the south china environment and climate at a pace unplanned, and more than likely, with unforeseeable environmental consequences.

pictures of plants and smog here.