Join 3,496 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


China and Pollution
October 23, 2009 10:56 AM   Subscribe

Lu Guang, a freelance photographer, took disturbing photos of the effects of pollution in China.

Birth defects and other problems affect heavily polluted villages, leading some to be called "cancer villages". Industrial polluters are often protected by a lack of transparency. Zhang Jingjing, one of the few environmental lawyers in China, has difficulty encouraging pollution victims to exercise their rights. Hu Jingtao has promised to "curb the rise in CO2 emissions", but whether or not any actual change has been enacted is yet to be seen.
posted by movicont (54 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
.


(that one's for the planet)
posted by orville sash at 11:00 AM on October 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


Wow, that was depressing. You know what cheers me up? Shopping at WalMart.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 11:07 AM on October 23, 2009 [3 favorites]


An enormously talented photographer. These photos punch right through my boundaries.
posted by bearwife at 11:13 AM on October 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


.
posted by Xany at 11:14 AM on October 23, 2009


.
posted by East Siberian patchbelly wrangler at 11:18 AM on October 23, 2009


Previously. To be fair, this site looks to have more of his horrible and beautiful photos.
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:22 AM on October 23, 2009


No, wait: I want to say more than that, but god help me, I literally do not possess the vocabulary to express all that is rushing through my brain.

Help?
posted by East Siberian patchbelly wrangler at 11:22 AM on October 23, 2009


Previously
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 11:22 AM on October 23, 2009


Chinese pollution will go down as one of the worst ecological and humanitarian offenses of all time. It's like a combination of The Jungle and Industrial Revolution London.
posted by Demogorgon at 11:26 AM on October 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


Also, Nadav Kander just won the Prix Pictet award for his photographs of China (and pollution).

It has become almost a cliche to take sweepingly large photos of industrialism at its worst in China. I'm not saying that it's unwarranted, just that it seems to be popular.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 11:26 AM on October 23, 2009


Stop. Buying. Crap.
posted by pakoothefakoo at 11:30 AM on October 23, 2009 [16 favorites]


Exactly. This is our pollution as much as China's. Neither the crap they make for us nor the resulting pollution stays in China.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 11:34 AM on October 23, 2009 [9 favorites]


Wow. just wow.

What we're seeing in China- rapid industrialization, fucking over pretty much everything and everyone to the benefit of industry- is pretty much like what was going on in the US under the robber barons. Thing is, this isn't just China's pollution. It's our pollution, too. It's robber barons by proxy, if you will.
posted by dunkadunc at 11:36 AM on October 23, 2009 [3 favorites]


I was recently in Beijing the thing that stuck me was I saw no birds.
Not even a pigeon there where a few ducks at the zoo but that was it
posted by SatansCabanaboy at 11:49 AM on October 23, 2009 [5 favorites]


One of the things I remember from my visit to China was a view out the train window on the ride from Beijing to Xi'an of a smokestack emitting a big, puffy plume of cotton-candy pink smoke.

From what I've experienced, there's always a way things are supposed to be in China, and the way things actually are, and these two things are rarely the same. So even if this industrial pollution might be technically illegal, it happens because that's the way it is. Maybe the company's paying off the local government, but don't the people that live there care that they're being poisoned? It makes me wonder sometimes.
posted by reptile at 11:50 AM on October 23, 2009


It's our fault there is corruption in China?
posted by meowzilla at 12:02 PM on October 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


> don't the people that live there care that they're being poisoned?

They don't have an option. They aren't part of the political process, if they demonstrate they are shot / deported / intimidated.

Most of them are just trying to feed themselves. In short it is not that they don't care, it is that in most cases the industrial pollution will kill them slower than starving to death.
posted by mrzarquon at 12:07 PM on October 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


A light-hearted take on this tragedy.
posted by kozad at 12:17 PM on October 23, 2009


meowzilla said: "It's our fault there is corruption in China?

No, meowzilla, it isn't our fault there's corruption there, but it does make me feel kind of sick inside to see these photos on my Macbook (made in China) while listening to my iPod (made in China), drinking coffee from a coffeepot (also made in China) and so on ad nauseum. China sells shit because we buy shit. We buy shit and we want it cheap, so we don't buy it locally, because local costs more thanks to unions and regulations and environmental issues. China wants a profit from selling shit, so they cut corners, and they don't stop cutting corners because there aren't enough regulations or inspectors or environmental activists to stop it, and China has too many people willing to look the other way and too many people willing to bribe them to do so. All in the name of making cheap shit so we can buy shit cheap. Some of it isn't our fault. But a hell of a lot of the blame can be dropped at our feet. We demand cheap shit and a pristine environment, and we know intellectually that those two things do not go hand-in-hand but so far we've been perfectly content to keep buying cheap shit and pretend it's all OK because we've outsourced our pollution and what's out of sight is out of mind, and more importantly it isn't our baby playing in the grassless yard as the ash rains down.

The saddest part of this all is that because we depend on China so much for all of our cheap shit, we can't simply ask them to stop doing it, because they've got us over a barrel - even though we're the ones who happily climbed on top of the damn thing in the first place.
posted by caution live frogs at 12:17 PM on October 23, 2009 [21 favorites]


The extent of industrial pollution in china cannot be understated. I spent a month over there as part of a Fulbright exchange and, wow. It was the FIRST thing I noticed, mostly because I noticed it while still in flight. Descending into Shanghai, you could literally see the stark line between vibrant and blue and dull and gray. All the night photographs I took are filled with little specks of light : reflections of the flash off of particulate. I didn't see a cloud for the smog in any major city of the dozen I went to, nor really any birds. The only time I saw sky was floating through the three gorges in the middle of nowhere. Of course, the water is completely not potable in any part of the country I visited, though that's actually not unusual for many parts of the world.

And, this was the month immediately PRIOR to the Olympics, AFTER the pollution control push.
posted by absalom at 12:28 PM on October 23, 2009


Not every cost has a dollar sign in front of it.
posted by Eideteker at 12:37 PM on October 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


We need to simply mandate that trading partners uphold environmental standards on par with or stricter than our own, and if not ... no imports. And hire some government workers to inspect and enforce, with a watchdog agency to guard against bribery. And a public awareness campaign so people know their dollars are creating deformed kids. So easy!

Oh. Never mind ... that's not easy at all. Forget I said anything ... *sigh*
posted by freecellwizard at 12:45 PM on October 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


Not buying Chinese goods is only a solution if you can get almost everyone to do it. The only way for the rest of the world to accomplish that is tariffs on industries that pollute and abuse their workforce. This is, like climate change, a problem that can only be solved with international agreement. Act locally by all means, but don't make the mistake of thinking that anything but unrelenting pressure on your congress and president (or foreign equivalent) will lead to a lasting solution. Don't expect the Chinese to clean up their own mess until we take some of the fiscal incentive for corruption away from them.
posted by BrotherCaine at 12:46 PM on October 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


Does every citizen of China have their own well (I'd sure as hell dig one)? How long does it take before the pollution seeps through even the bedrock?
posted by BrotherCaine at 12:49 PM on October 23, 2009


I only hope that whatever alien civilization eventually finds our burned-out husk of a world stumbles on that awesome crystal cavern.
posted by odinsdream at 12:54 PM on October 23, 2009


but don't the people that live there care that they're being poisoned? It makes me wonder sometimes.

We here in the first world have the luxury of having ~30,000 sq meters per person as the foundation of our livelihoods, much of it productive.

China has an additional BILLION people attempting to draw a livelihood from a similar resource base, resulting in 7000 sq meters per person. Now, as the Japanese, Taiwanese, Koreans, and Israelis have shown you can get far in this world moving up the ladder to advanced manufacturing, substituting labor and capital for raw materials, but that's not going to materially address the extreme overloading of the country that we see in China, India, Bangladesh and the dozens of other countries with too many people on not enough land.
posted by mokuba at 12:54 PM on October 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


On-topic, though.. assume the best: Act/Buy locally actually works, everyone stops buying chinese goods. What's the end-game there? Why would that make China stop polluting? Wouldn't they just barrel through their own industrial revolution and eventually start manufacturing things at break-neck speeds for internal sale and use? The consequences seem just as dire.
posted by odinsdream at 12:55 PM on October 23, 2009


That video of Wolverine in 30 seconds? That's how I feel right now.
posted by ooga_booga at 1:02 PM on October 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


Look, I agree that environmental degradation is perhaps the single biggest crises facing humanity today. I do what I can - I try to maintain as small an environmental footprint as I can, I recycle obsessively, every year I give as much money as I can afford to the state parks here in CA, and so on. And I have friends in China, who are affected by this pollution. However, I still feel uncomfortable by the tone adopted here. Yes, what is happening over there is appalling and intolerable on so many levels. And yet - what right do we here in the West, have to cluck our tongues or sneer at the Chinese? Have we not done the same, if not in scale, then in kind for hundreds of years? And I'd argue even on the scale we did worse - we raped Africa with no regard to the environment or human life (certainly African life), and have ravaged pretty much every continent. All this in a short-sighted race to we achieved a certain standard of living. Now that we are there, we turn around and tell the Chinese: you cannot do the same. Yes, logically, we can say that they should not repeat our mistakes, and that two wrongs don't make a right. And that sustainable development is guaranteed to get us a higher standard of living long term. But the reality is, that it's cheaper (short term) and faster to rape the land. We did it - and we can't even say that we didn't know what we were doing. Heck, look no further than the last administration - that's last year. We here in the U.S. have dragged our feet on the environment - or worse, went backwards. The majority of our people voted for this - that's how GWB won. If we, the richest country on earth, the biggest consumer of resources have had a position that we cannot sign international agreements to help save our planet because we don't want to slow our economic development - how can we possibly be in a moral position to sneer at the Chinese and make demands? We - whose economy is already way ahead - we don't want to sacrifice even the growth trajectory. The Chinese have the right to prosperity, just as we do. Or should the whole world tighten their belts and make sacrifices so that we here in the West can protect our privileged position? This sound rather like the big polluter who got rich, and now wants to prevent the peasants from climbing out of poverty, because it will spoil the beautiful views from his palace.

By no means do I overlook the price the Chinese are paying for this, in their own health and future. And by no means do I ignore what it means for the planet. But perhaps we should do less lecturing and think of ways in which we can share wealth and expertise with the Chinese (and the developing world in general), so that the economy can thrive, while the environment can be protected for the good of all. One thing we don't need is sneering commentary about what developing countries do to feed their people.
posted by VikingSword at 1:40 PM on October 23, 2009 [6 favorites]


Actually, the great thing about Asia is we get to buy cheap shit from them at no environmental cost to us, then we get to ship it back to them when it's broken.
posted by Vindaloo at 1:45 PM on October 23, 2009 [3 favorites]


We will not be remembered kindly, if we are remembered at all...

Smokem' if you got'em...

.
posted by PROD_TPSL at 2:01 PM on October 23, 2009


We here in the U.S. have dragged our feet on the environment - or worse, went backwards. The majority of our people voted for this - that's how GWB won.

GWB won on terrorism, Iraq, and maybe the economy as a distant third, and he barely won. US attitudes towards the environment were on the cusp of shifting to the position that the environment was more important than the economy. Granted in recessions that position usually flips back.

Yes the US engages in some hypocrisy with our attitudes about the environment compared to our historical record. Just because we are self serving on the issue, does not necessarily make us incorrect. If we sign on to reduce emissions and give China a free pass (deserved or not), we create a huge fiscal incentive to outsource even more pollution to their soil. I'm not sneering at China, or thinking they are any worse than the excesses of the US industrial/manufacturing sector. However, they are going to have 30-100 years of cleanup and containment on their hands even after they stop polluting as a best case scenario. You are right that we need to share whatever green technology we have, but the best way to see that happen is to create a fiscal incentive to create internal demand in China for resources to reduce pollution. Otherwise there are going to be a lot of pictures of smiling politicians shaking hands, but not much actual cleanup happening.
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:19 PM on October 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


OTOH, treating Asian leaders as if they should be ashamed of their actions seems like a particularly culturally insensitive attempt at persuasion.
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:20 PM on October 23, 2009


Those photos are haunting. They remind me of Jacob Riis's work.
posted by shinyshiny at 2:21 PM on October 23, 2009


More than./////////
posted by Mblue at 2:45 PM on October 23, 2009


We need to simply mandate that trading partners uphold environmental standards on par with or stricter than our own, and if not ... no imports.

Ah, but then where would we find the cost savings? Oh, I guess you didn't mention the living standards. Never mind, China still wins on cost cutting then (but transpiration across huge distances takes its toll on cost savings).
posted by filthy light thief at 3:49 PM on October 23, 2009


I'm unable to find a link to it, but back in the day, satellite photos of China seemed to show long white lines of unidentifiable objects next to train lines. The CIA freaked out about it, wondering what was happening. It turned out that the white lines were the garbage tossed out the windows from the train. The thing is, it's not just passengers throwing the garbage out bits at a time. Nearly all of the long distance trains I rode on had rubbish bins at the end of the car. When they were full, the attendant would come by, take the bag out, replace it with an empty bag, tie off the bag, then throw it off the train.

During the year I lived in China (in Wuhan, a pretty large city that know one ever knows when I mention its name) I saw things that were pretty much downright disturbing. At one point there was a die-off in the East Lake, and literally all of the fish floated to the surface, belly up. We as teachers were asked to tell students not to buy fish for a couple days, because almost immediately, people collected the dead fish and began selling it.

From the bridge over the Yangtze (which Wuhan is divided by), on some days, the sky was the same color of brown as the river, and you couldn't see the dividing line between them. And this was ten years ago. I shudder to think what it's like now.

It's been explained to me that there is a cultural difference, heading back hundreds/thousands of years when it comes to viewing the planet. Only recently have western countries begun to take the view that the planet is our responsibility, that we have to act as stewards. In China, and also Japan (though less so recently, sort of) there is an idea that the earth exists to be used. This manifested itself most clearly when I was on a trip to Wudangshan, walking along the path and I saw a family telling there young child, no dear, when you throw your garbage away, you have to throw it further off the path. Try it again. At which point, they gave the kid his ice cream wrapper, and he threw it again, down the ravine, and the parents were happy.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:05 PM on October 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


My mother and I took a guided tour of China in the early eighties - when western tourism was still in its fledgling stage. Outisde one of the last hotels we stayed at, there were two workmen in uniforms building some new addition to the facility. "People building everywhere," the tour guide explained with a polite smile. I think a lot of people expected that China would grow quickly in the coming years.

Man, we didn't have a fucking clue.
posted by Joe Beese at 6:09 PM on October 23, 2009


Politics and morality aside, that's just horrifying.

Maybe for its next "five-year plan" China could concentrate on tidying up a bit.
posted by bwg at 6:29 PM on October 23, 2009


Gidorah: I spent three weeks in Wuhan. It is quite small! Only ten million. It was pretty bad - it's turning into an industrial hub for the west, I do believe.
posted by absalom at 8:01 PM on October 23, 2009


It's been explained to me that there is a cultural difference, heading back hundreds/thousands of years when it comes to viewing the planet. Only recently have western countries begun to take the view that the planet is our responsibility, that we have to act as stewards. In China, and also Japan (though less so recently, sort of) there is an idea that the earth exists to be used.

I helped out planting rice in rural Japan (this was pretty far out in the boonies, real rural Japan) a few years ago, and we all ate snacks and other stuff bought from the Lawson convenience store in town. When we were finished, the farmers gathered all the plastic bits of trash and threw it into the bushes and bamboo thickets that bordered the rice paddy.

Throwing out trash is a real challenge in Japan. There are no trash bins on city streets, so you usually have to wait until you get to a convenience store to throw anything out. It's also difficult to get rid of unwanted household appliances, so there's usually an informal dump in the middle of the forest where people take old tvs, washing machines, fridges, even cars.

However, in terms of environmental degradation, there's little difference between Japan and Canada. Companies in both countries follow and adhere to the usual ISO guidelines.

But Japan used to be an environmental hellhole, especially in the years following World War II. The nadir of this "development above all else" policy was Miyamata disease.

By the 1970s it was so bad that government decided something had to be done, and as a result industry cleaned up its act. Tokyo itself has radically cleaned up its air quality over the past 20 years. Diesel trucks will soon be severely restricted in the city core. Tokyo Bay has been cleaned up and is full of fish.

So if Tokyo can do it, China can do it, and that gives me hope.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:10 PM on October 23, 2009


The thing that makes me scared is how this environmental degradation is not just limited to China - pollutants hitch a rid on the Jet Stream and cross the Pacific Ocean to the west coast of North America.

The situation has become especially bad over the past ten years. The Sea of Japan is one region that is being affected particularly badly (compared to other regions of the planet) by climate change. As part of the phenomenon, every October about a billion giant Nomura jellyfish hitch a ride on the Tsushima Warm Current, and cause major disruption to fisheries off Japan's north-central coast.

Nobody knows why these jellyfish blooms have happened so frequently and so intensely over the past decade, but it's often thought that agricultural pollutants and nitrification from ag runoff are to blame - there's exponentially more nutrients in the Yellow and East China Seas, so there's more plankton, and more jellyfish.

"Yellow Sand" in springtime is also worse. I didn't even notice it ten years ago - just a light yellow dusting on the car - but now the air in April, May and June is foggy and smoky from pollutant particulate (from China) trapped by the dust in the air, and it really affects my asthma when I visit.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:33 PM on October 23, 2009


On some days, almost a third of the air over Los Angeles and San Francisco can be traced directly to Asia. With it comes up to three-quarters of the black carbon particulate pollution that reaches the West Coast,

I remember reading an article many years back by one of the scientists who first started noticing this affect. He was monitoring the yearly improvement in air standards in California using remotely piloted vehicles to take air samples. Then one year the pollution got worse, and it was the type of pollution he hadn't seen in many years--lots of particlulate material including mercury.

He was completely confounded, until he figured it out.
posted by eye of newt at 8:58 PM on October 23, 2009


Absalom, actually Wuhan is pretty big, by western standards, it's just that there's nothing there for tourists (which actually made it a pretty nice place to live). And it's been a manufacturing center for most of the modern era. Lots of light manufacturing and car manufacturing. And I totally understood the spitting. Better out than in, especially when you blow your nose and it comes out black.

And Kokuryu, the garbage cans are starting to come back, finally. Public garbage cans are popping up again in Tokyo, and on train platforms. For a good while, they removed the garbage cans from the platforms, but a lot of stations put them back. On the other hand, garbage collection rules are pretty involved. But yeah, the garbage situation is absurd. With the fees for picking up large appliances, it's not uncommon to see TVs, refrigerators, and washing machines dumped in ruralish areas near highways.
posted by Ghidorah at 9:06 PM on October 23, 2009


"It's been explained to me that there is a cultural difference, heading back hundreds/thousands of years when it comes to viewing the planet. Only recently have western countries begun to take the view that the planet is our responsibility, that we have to act as stewards. In China, and also Japan (though less so recently, sort of) there is an idea that the earth exists to be used."

For thousands of years China has practiced careful methods of irrigation and cultivation. They even practiced crop specialization, land terracing,in some places they had triple crop seasons all of which led them to be able to support their population.
For a long time they were the most advanced civilization on the planet.
And now there's this.
Worse than when opium hit them. Amazing what systemic change can do to people.
But then I live in a system where I piss into fresh potable water in any restaurant, public facility, etc. I go into.
We're ruled, ultimately by the systems that we choose to maintain us no matter how brilliant or contentious we are individually.

I remember being on the beach listening to someone drone on and on about terrorism and how scary it was, what the president needed to do about it, blah blah blah, and meantime he flicks his cigarette butt into Lake Michigan. Like its not our drinking water. Vague far off longshot threat - scary. Crapping in your own drinking water - perfectly fine.
That "can't eat money" quote from Sitting Bull is dead on. What irritates me is the assheads responsible will have long since died with the most toys and go to their graves thinking they'd won.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:29 PM on October 23, 2009 [6 favorites]


'conscientious' that is.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:29 PM on October 23, 2009


From the James Fallows link:

After stalling, the Chinese government recently accepted a World Bank estimate that some 750,000 of its people die prematurely each year just from air pollution. Alarming upsurges in birth defects and cancer rates are reported even in the state-controlled press.

God damn!
posted by delmoi at 2:59 AM on October 24, 2009


Vindaloo: Actually, the great thing about Asia is we get to buy cheap shit from them at no environmental cost to us, then we get to ship it back to them when it's broken.

Related FPP: e-waste dumping on Ghana, India and China.
posted by Bangaioh at 4:56 AM on October 24, 2009


Oh humans. What's wrong with us?
posted by A Terrible Llama at 10:17 AM on October 24, 2009


After stalling, the Chinese government recently accepted a World Bank estimate that some 750,000 of its people die prematurely each year just from air pollution. Alarming upsurges in birth defects and cancer rates are reported even in the state-controlled press.

I can't tell from your comment whether you're surprised by the number or by the second part -- that it's reported? Because it doesn't get reported in the US much, or maybe I'm blocking it out, because I can't imagine that it's possible that various populations in the US aren't medically affected by pollution--birth defects, lung cancer etc. but really compared to Balloon Boy you never see that at all unless it's a single-serve in depth investigative report. But it's certainly not like "the obesity epidemic".

A classy thing that's happening in our community is an effort to expand the landfill into the poorer community next to us. In terms of the world, they're not the least bit 'poor' but dumping your garbage on the next tier down is a real class move.

Poor communities are a crap use of advertising dollars, I guess.

Sorry, I don't know what's wrong with me today.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 10:25 AM on October 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Five hours later, I realize this God damn! was what I was responding to.

Sigh.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:37 PM on October 24, 2009


On the other hand, garbage collection rules are pretty involved. But yeah, the garbage situation is absurd.

The complex rules around garbage collection in Japan, plus the lack of public garbage receptacles on most city streets is pretty logical: there really isn't any room for garbage collection in Japan, and garbage really is a major pain in the ass. If you create garbage, you have to be prepared to deal with it yourself, or, better yet, don't create it in the first place. Until recently, Japan was a culture based on recycling. While they invented tissue paper, they made sure it came from a fast-growing, renewable source, the mulberry tree.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:30 PM on October 26, 2009


I couldn't find much info on composting in Japan, but it looks like they have very little infrastructure devoted to collecting organic wastes from homes (1% rate of composting by weight). I'm surprised given how little space is available for landfills.
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:42 PM on October 26, 2009


Portrait of a Polluted Land
posted by homunculus at 7:58 PM on November 6, 2009


« Older Fox News's bent on the news is well known, but rec...  |  Something vivid and sweet for ... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments