Beijing Pollution and Keeping Our Brothers

If everything has a price, how much would you charge me for the privilege of watching you inhale – deeply and fully – the detritus at the bottom of my Webber grill?  Just so we’re clear, it’s mostly ash, with little bits of burned squash (danged slices always slip through the gaps in the grill…), and likely some mouse or rat poo, since it hasn’t been used in a while.  Also, it definitely smells like lighter fluid, because I always use too much.  All of which is a bit of a digression, since the issue on the table is: how much?

Maybe some of you would do it for a number in the low five figures, while others would hold out for more, but it’s actually not worth that much to me.  Don’t get me wrong: I’d probably laugh pretty hard at your lunacy if you did it, but I wouldn’t pay much for the spectacle since last week we all got to watch every person in Beijing basically do this for free.  Except that it wasn’t nearly as funny, because they didn’t do it by choice.

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Think I’m exaggerating?  Look at these pictures (to save you time, the stories are all basically the same).  When air pollutants reach a concentration of 25 micrograms per cubic meter, the World Health Organization considers it dangerous.  When pollutants reach a concentration of 300, the U.S. government tells children, the elderly, and those with respiratory problems not to go outside.  When concentration levels reach 500, most measuring devices can no longer record how bad pollution is, because a concentration of 500 micrograms per cubic meter is unthinkable.

In Beijing last week, they reached a concentration of 886 micrograms of particle pollution per cubic meter.

Let’s put that in some perspective.  Did you look at the pictures to which I linked?  If not, permit me to describe them.  They’re pictures of gray brown.  There’s no discernible sky and no discernible ground in some of them, leaving us to trust the editors that they’re even right-side-up.  In one there’s a light that vaguely resembles the moon; this is of course the sun, which would seem to indicate that this apocalyptic cloud of brown is actually a ‘clear’ and sunny day.  The pictures, to be blunt, show air so unremittingly filthy that my initial sensory response is actually tactile: I can’t imagine what it’s like to breathe that, but I’m almost certain one could feel it by swiping one’s hand through the air, and my fingertips tingle as I wonder how that must feel.  On the hands, that is.  I can guess how it feels in one’s lungs – probably a lot like it would feel to snort my Webber.

If that doesn’t repulse you, do the math.  We think of air as lacking mass, but in Beijing last week, the air weighed nearly a milligram per cubic meter.  A man of average size breathes about 6 liters of air per minute, at which rate he’d go through a cubic meter of air in about 2 hours and 45 minutes, if each breath drew air distinct from the previous breath (dubious, but humor me).  Over the course of a 24 hour day, if he breathed at a constant rate, such an average man would breathe between 7 and 8 milligrams of solid pollutants.  Compare that to the 10mg dosage of the active ingredient in my 24-hour antihistamine pills (Claritin), and consider that the full dosage of Chinese air pollution is lodging in the lungs of the weak and the strong, the old and the young, the committed communist and the dissident Christian alike.

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I know, Chinese social policy is not something we can directly control, and if such a powerful state wants to fumigate its citizens, that’s their God-given (Mao-given?) right.  If the United States didn’t care enough to stop genocide perpetrated with machetes in Rwanda, there’s no logical reason to think we’d stop a geopolitical rival and potential belligerent from committing mass suicide.

Even so and logic notwithstanding, I can’t help but wonder if there’s not some role we’ve already played in this murky brown drama.

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I’m not interested in wading into the morass over global warming; scientists agree it’s happening, but many evangelicals don’t believe them.  This is fact, and I’ll not waste time on it.  But I will argue that evangelical skepticism about climate change helped to shorten the lives of thousands – and maybe millions – of Chinese Christians last week.

The first link in this argument is the fact that some estimates say there could be 100 million house church Christians in China.  I don’t trust any numbers that claim to show a distribution of where they live, but 100 million would represent about 1/13th of the population of China.  If we take a wild guess and imagine that this ratio holds true in Beijing – which has a population of roughly 20 million – that would make it conceivable that Beijing is home to more than 1.5 million Christians.  All of whom saw their lives shortened last week.

So how can I possibly blame evangelicals for that?  Because we’ve allowed widespread skepticism about climate change to keep us from trying to stop pollution, that’s how.  Look, it doesn’t actually matter what you believe about climate change; anti-pollution treaties are good for creation and good for people.  Unfortunately, Republicangelicals tend to see anti-pollution treaties as fighting a problem that they don’t acknowledge (global warming) instead of one that’s obvious (Chinese people being dosed with coal and diesel in quantities like Claritin).  The result is that when the world’s countries try to act on pollution (after all, you don’t think that mass darkness over Beijing will magically dissipate at the edge of Chinese territorial waters, do you?), the United States is never viewed as a serious partner, which undermines the whole process.

We can’t make China fix their pollution.  That’s not the way international relations work.  But we absolutely can stop being their excuse not to do something about it.  And when I write ‘we,’ I mean evangelicals.  Democrats already want this, and if evangelicals would push for it, the Republican ability to ignore global pollution catastrophes would be mortally wounded.  This is completely within the power of evangelicalism.

Many will object to my line of reasoning, and argue that I don’t understand the cost to jobs/the economy/small businesses of cracking down on pollution at home in order to have more leverage abroad.  My response is this: air pollution like we’re seeing in China kills people.  Not in the long run; in the short run.  How many people do you think died last weekend from that gray-brown darkness?  Most likely, nobody on earth knows (and if China ever announces figures, we all know they’ll lie).  But many of them were your brothers and sisters in Christ, and they died in part because we’re busy arguing with scientists instead of keeping our brothers.  It’s an old sin, and I’m worried that it is ours.

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