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Andrew Burger headshot

Beijing's “Airpocalypse” Offers Dismal View of Life in Megacities


Laissez-faire capitalists would have us believe that "free," unregulated markets and the relentless pursuit of economic growth are the best means of enhancing overall quality of life for the world’s 7-plus billion people [update]. Others note that every system has, and needs, governing rules and that given the authority by their populaces, governments need to provide an essential counterbalance to unbridled greed and the pursuit of monetary and material wealth by individuals and organizations.

Aiming to move beyond GDP as a measure of a society's overall economic performance, the Inclusive Wealth Index (IWI) factors social and natural, as well as produced, capital into the equation. Results of the second biennial Inclusive Wealth Report revealed stark differences in 140 nations' economic performance over the decade to 2012 as measured by GDP and the IWI.

Economic abstractions aside, living conditions and quality of life in megacities around the world offer a stark vision of just where unbridled industrialization, ideas of 'laissez-faire' economics and the relentless pursuit of GDP growth lead. It's not a pretty, or encouraging, picture. As The Guardian's Ian Wainwright recently reported from Beijing, air and other environmental pollution in this capital city of some 21 million has made it “almost uninhabitable.”

Beijing's "airpocalypse"

The Chinese capital's “airpocalypse” offers a dismal view of what may well lie ahead for those living in mega-cities around the world. In his Dec. 16 report, Wainwright also reveals the extraordinary degree to which pollution is affecting residents' lives and the built environment, as well as offering examples of the incredibly extreme, outrageous and outrageously expensive solutions being proposed by scientists, engineers and urban planners.

Wooed and ushered into the global economy by multinational businesses, the U.S., EU and other governments, China has been industrializing at an unprecedented rate to become the uncontested manufacturing base for a global economy. Nearly three decades since opening its doors to world markets and beginning to institute legislative and regulatory reforms that would create its own version of a market-driven economy, China is now home to the world's second largest economy in GDP terms.

While this has created boundless wealth for a few and improved material and economic conditions for the masses generally, it has come at a tremendous cost in terms of human and environmental health. In a Guardian article, entitled “Inside Beijing's airpocalypse – a city made 'almost uninhabitable' by pollution,” Wainwright offers a portrait of what relentless and rapid industrialization and GDP growth is having on Beijing's residents, businesses, institutions, and fundamental ecosystems and services.

One illustration: Beijing's top-flight international private schools – where tuition and fees for primary and secondary education can run in excess of $30,000 per year – are in a competition to build domes that encase students in “an artificial bubble.”

Spending extraordinary amounts to shelter students from the toxic air and environmental pollution found outside is seen as a necessity in order to stem an exodus of students' families from China's capital. As Wainright reports:

The “International School of Beijing lavished £3m [~$4.67 million] on a pair of domes covering an area of six tennis courts, with hospital-grade air-filtration systems, following the lead of the Beijing satellite of exclusive British private school Dulwich College, which opened its own clean-air dome last year.

“Paper face masks have been common here for a long time, but now the heavy-duty kind with purifying canister filters – of the sort you might wear for a day of asbestos removal – are frequently seen on the streets,” Wainwright writes. On bad days, bike lanes are completely deserted, as people stay at home or retreat to the conditioned environments of hermetically-sealed malls.
“It’s as if the 21-million-strong population of the Chinese capital is engaged in a mass city-wide rehearsal for life on an inhospitable planet. Only it’s not a rehearsal: the poisonous atmosphere is already here.”

A bitter irony

Encasing facilities in protective bubbles and equipping homes, schools, hospitals, shopping malls, offices and all types of buildings with hospital-grade air filtration systems is just one of a myriad of extraordinary and extremely costly initiatives being made to cope with Beijing's increasingly life-threatening environmental conditions.

In his report, Wainright also offers examples of the outrageous, and outrageously expensive, prospective solutions scientists and engineers are proposing and city leaders and planners are considering.

Whether it's climate change, deforestation and land use change or industrialization, there's bitter irony in our pursuit of GDP growth and our search for and efforts to implement increasingly complex and expensive measures to assure cities and our planet are habitable for humans. While it may seem increasingly ludicrous, even borderline insane, it's great for GDP.

*Image credits: 1) NRDC; 2) NASA Earth Observatory

Andrew Burger headshotAndrew Burger

An experienced, independent journalist, editor and researcher, Andrew has crisscrossed the globe while reporting on sustainability, corporate social responsibility, social and environmental entrepreneurship, renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean technology. He studied geology at CU, Boulder, has an MBA in finance from Pace University, and completed a certificate program in international governance for biodiversity at UN University in Japan.

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