The price of breath in Beijing

The price of breath in Beijing

Beijing’s smog-laden skies obscure the Forbidden City in a thick orange haze. Photo credit: iStockphoto.

By Lloyd Wright

If a frog is placed in a boiling caldron, it will immediately jump out to safety.  If the same frog is placed in water, which is slowly heated to boiling, the frog will tranquilly remain and eventually die from overheating. This biological anecdote is frequently utilized as a metaphor for our political state of affairs over global climate change.  As the planet slowly heats and succumbs to gradual change we unwittingly accustomize without sensing the dangers that await us.  The lessons from this phenomenon also encompass the state of our cities and the transport sector.

If a frog is placed in a boiling caldron, it will immediately jump out to safety.  If the same frog is placed in water, which is slowly heated to boiling, the frog will tranquilly remain and eventually die from overheating.

This biological anecdote is frequently utilized as a metaphor for our political state of affairs over global climate change.  As the planet slowly heats and succumbs to gradual change we unwittingly accustomize without sensing the dangers that await us.  The lessons from this phenomenon also encompass the state of our cities and the transport sector.

This past month’s events in Beijing provide a telling example.  The unbridled growth in motorized vehicles in the capital city of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), in conjunction with industrial emissions and winter meteorological conditions, conspired to create an ambient soup so toxic that the categories governing air quality proved inadequate to describe the severity. 

Certainly, Beijing does not have a monopoly on air quality emergencies, as Hong Kong has regularly endured such episodes as has a long list of other Asian cities including Delhi, Jakarta, and Tehran. 

Nevertheless, Beijing’s air has indeed reached unprecedented levels of danger.  On January 12, the level of fine airborne particulates in Beijing reached 993 micrograms per cubic meter.  The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that a maximum of no more than 25.

It was exactly one year ago that Beijing experienced a similar event.  However, as the number of vehicles in Beijing has increased, this year’s episode has reached a new pinnacle of despair.  And in lieu of dramatic and permanent preventative action, next year in all likelihood will be even more harrowing for the residents of the city.

To the government’s credit, actions were taken in the midst of this news.  Government vehicles were temporarily removed from the roads and some factory output was forgone.  However, it was not until a change in the jet stream this past week that the air in Beijing moved from being “extremely hazardous” to being merely “unhealthy”.  

These events ultimately define a city’s competitiveness. Despite Beijing’s historic richness, will tourists want to take a vacation in a city where breathing is marginally viable?  Will businesses place their offices in Beijing or rather choose a more livable alternative?  

It is possible that Beijing will take serious long-term action.  After all, Beijing is already implementing a scheme to limit new vehicle ownership, and ADB is currently working with national and local officials to develop transportation demand management (TDM) measures for the city.  The real question, though, may be not whether we will act, but whether it will be enough.  Once the insatiable economic and cultural demand for increased motorization takes hold, it is a rather difficult genie to put back in the bottle.  

Previous tragedies have indeed led to focusing of minds on real action.  In 1952, London endured a week of air contamination known as the Great Smog in which the contamination was so thick that mid-day light was blotted entirely from the sky.  In a single week over 4,000 persons succumbed to premature smog-related deaths and over 100,000 persons were made seriously ill.  In 1956, a mercury spill in Minamata, Japan lead to thousands of deaths and several times more persons with debilitating illness.  In both these cases, a wake-up call occurred for both citizenry and government that prompted a sense of urgency in realizing dramatic legislative and societal changes.

However, what about problems that do not lend themselves to mimicking a frog thrown in a boiling caldron?  Each day more people perish from automobile crashes than those killed in a moment of time during the 9/11 tragedy.  And yet, there are no headlines, or public outrage, or great stirring for action.  There is no rousing of resources or a waging of war to counter this loss.  

Rather, we call these crashes “accidents” and accept them as a part of modern life.  The continual yet isolated stream of roadway fatalities, regardless of the overall number, means that we do not have the instinctive reflex to do what it takes to change course.

Our lethargy to act, unless pressed by dramatic events, is said to be encoded in our genes from evolutionary biology as perhaps a means to moderate the use of scarce resources.  Unfortunately, the same caution and skepticism that served us well over the millennia may be inadequate for the scale and scope of human intervention in the twenty-first century.  

Perhaps, though, there is a lesson to be gleaned from our friend the boiling frog.  How we communicate our most pressing problems affects perception, and it is perception that guides whether we leap to action or we remain in the blissful bath of our own demise.  Let us hope that the sustainable transport community finds the right words and arguments to guide us out of the caldron.