For in many communities in China, air quality problems are the norm, not the random exception. The hazy photos of residents donning masks to protect themselves from inhaling smog may seem like overkill to the average Los Angeles resident, but according to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, where clean air is often at risk, it's no laughing matter. To underscore this danger, the embassy has devoted a page on its website to monitoring smog conditions in the city, complete with a multi-colored chart describing the medical risks associated with air pollution.
It's also prompted at least one restaurant in a city south of Beijing to install its own air filtration system -- and to come up with a novel way of covering the expense.
The restaurant, located in Zhangjiagang City, in the Jiangsu Province, began charging for "air cleaning" after it installed an air filtration system. The restaurant defended the charge after patrons complained about being charged an extra fee of one yuan, or 15 cents at the end of the meal.
Since then, the restaurant has been told by the local government that the fee is illegal, since inhaling is generally not an option and therefore can't be sold to the patron as a commodity. But some comments on Weibo (China's popular social media) have suggest that Chinese patrons aren't that put off by the charge.
"[There] is nothing wrong with charging this extra fee," wrote one commenter. "The kind of dining environment decides the kind of pricing.”
For those of us old enough to remember when drinking water was free (come on, it wasn't that long ago), and didn't come in flimsy clear bottles that could only be found squeezed between the beer and the soft drinks in the convenience section, charging for clean air has an eerie ring to it. So does rational discussion about whether patrons who pay for a classier meal should also pay for breathing higher-quality air.
The discussion also seems to belie a point that NASA recently made when it wrapped up a 9-year-long study of air pollution across the globe. It found that nitrogen dioxide emissions from congestion and power plants could be pin-pointed from space quite clearly. Those areas that had either reduced their carbon emissions or were not as developed industrially (war-torn Syria, oddly enough was used as an example) did not exhibit the same nitrogen dioxide emissions.
The takeaway says NASA, is that "[when] governments step in and say we're going to build something here or we're going to regulate this pollutant, you see the impact in the data."
The same can said about human nature: It's a great barometer for those things that governments need to protect.
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.