By Meaghan Winter
I wasn’t in Beijing long before I began mentally composing letters urging the UN to mandate a worldwide one-child policy. Sure, forced abortions are oppressive, I imagined conceding, but so is not being able to breathe. Airborne particles of coal-given sulfate caught and diffused the sun’s light, so most days I saw not the city but an expanse of muted yellow-gray. The smog felt urgent. We can’t have everything, I thought, and we’ve already decided we want industrialization, so what are we going to give up?
Much of China’s population lives in its eastern plains; mountains catch air currents moving from factory towns so that coal and dust and carbon particles hover over low-lying Beijing, where millions of vehicles cough plumes of exhaust as they gridlock the city’s looping highways. China doesn’t regulate factory or vehicle emissions. On my walk to work one clear morning I saw mountains in the distance. I’d been there for weeks, but never seen them before. They’d been hidden by the haze.
The US embassy in Beijing regularly posts air quality ratings, and by mid-June going outside was routinely described as “hazardous.” As a kid I knew from its smell and aluminum detritus that the Bronx River was polluted, but my life didn’t rely on that river. As an adult, environmental degradation was abstract, an intellectual concern—more a vehicle for second-hand despair or self-righteousness than a threat to my survival. In Beijing, the air quality rating changed my day, then my outlook.
Environmental degradation was abstract, an intellectual concern—more a vehicle for second-hand despair or self-righteousness than something that impacted my survival.
My coworker, an Italian economist who often wore a t-shirt that said Free Hugs, wagered that humanity has two generations left on earth. I said four—my first trace of optimism, he said. Science doesn’t support his guess or mine, and yet our senses shoved at us nothing but reason to doubt our collective survival. On the street, we smelled soldiering iron, burning rubber, paint, exhaust, fresh concrete, rotting trash. From our rooms we looked out at pink-gray smokestacks. On the crowded subway, our crushed bodies imprinted strangers with our sweat. As New Yorkers fill idle moments commiserating about commutes or rents, the economist and I defaulted to speculating about the end of the world. Nothing lives forever. “Extinction is the rule” became our catchphrase.
When I returned to New York, my friends listened to my proclamations that no one should have children because the world is ending as though I was explaining that aliens had planted radios in my teeth to wage a telepathic lawsuit. My trip had been stressful; maybe that was it. And after being home for a while, my visceral, animal-like response to an unhealthy environment receded. I could see the sky and plants. I could run outdoors in the city, an impossibility in Beijing. I remembered that reproductive rights are a big deal. News stories did remind me that we each contribute to destruction, but statistics cannot do what a sore throat can. Once more, pollution and climate change became abstractions, fodder for conversation or characters in a political soap opera. When I entered stores, again I saw not the debris for which we’ve traded our future but salad tongs and jeans and laptops.
News stories did remind me that we each contribute to destruction, but statistics cannot do what a sore throat can.
A couple months later, one night soon after Hurricane Sandy hit, I decided to walk home through an industrial tract that separates a friend’s Brooklyn neighborhood from mine. It was after midnight; I knew I was foolish for walking alone. As I rounded the corner onto a normally desolate stretch, cars and trucks idled in a queue whose end I couldn’t see. Drivers loitered outside their vehicles, talking and arguing, some angrily. The storm had disrupted deliveries and there was a run on gas. I hurried past the usual warehouses and piles of scrap metal and, in disbelief, past block after block of cars. Only headlights and voices and the smell of chemicals cut through the dark.
For the first time since arriving home, my intellectual understanding of environmental degradation melded with my lived experience. My visceral response to Beijing came back to me. What may seem like abstract or future or faraway problems are in fact concrete, current, here. How lucky I’ve been, and how limited my mind, that only occasionally have I really and completely realized that my life relies on the health of the environment. Extinction is the rule, I thought, pausing in the dark. We can’t have everything, so what are we going to give up?
Meaghan Winter is a writer and teacher based in New York.