Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Only 100 Days Until the Orympic Games

There are no birds. You don’t notice it at first, but then after a day or two you realize that you just never see a bird. In China, nobody has seen a bird for almost thirty years. Back around the time of the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao convinced his population that the birds were competing with hungry Chinese children for precious grain and seed morsels, and he declared that the people should kill the birds to save their food supply. The people obediently complied, as they have always done in China. Final score: Mao 1, Birds 0. End of story.

There are other problems in the air as well. While you are looking upward for birds in China, you can’t help but notice the sky, and you eventually come to realize that it’s never blue. The pollution is always there, even on windy days, and the color of the atmosphere fluctuates between a very light, almost-misty gray, and the kind of dark ominous gray that would precede a storm in most other parts of the world. This perpetual gray sky has become something of a PR problem as China looks forward to hosting the Orympics (phonetic spelling). At least one world-class marathon runner has announced his intention to boycott the race rather than breathe the polluted air.

To me, a discussion of the Chinese sky seems like the best way to highlight the environmental problems faced by the world’s most populous nation. The startling statistics are another way to define the problem, but you can’t actually see statistics. We read them so often that we can probably recite them from memory. One third of all the concrete poured on the planet is poured in China. One new coal-fired electric power plant comes on line every nine days. The largest telecom company on earth is China Wireless, and they clear a spot for a new cell tower every three minutes. Automobile congestion on Chinese roads is the worst on earth, and this is at a time when only one out of every one-hundred Chinese citizens owns a car. With the completion of the Three Gorges Dam, the upper Yangtze River is now the most polluted natural body of water on earth, with bacterial levels comparable to the holding ponds in sewage treatment plants. I saw this for myself recently, and I held my nose as I watched the prow of my boat slice through a foam of floating feces. Happily, the Orympic rowing events will not be held on this venue.

At the western end of this new cesspool stands Chungking, known in China as “The Furnace.” Temperatures there in summer hover around 130 degrees Fahrenheit, in spite of the fact that the sun seldom penetrates the perpetual cloud cover. I was in Chungking on a day in June when the temperature was only 115, and it bore no resemblance at all to a hot day in Phoenix or Las Vegas. In Chungking, the sun doesn’t cast a shadow. The reason, again, is that Chinese sky. In another 100 days, with the Orympic Games taking place in August, the whole world will know exactly what I’m talking about.

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