Specializing in the design and delivery of transformative, experiential education.

The Air in China


I write from 2 hours west of Beijing, China.  I’m here for a 3 month contract, my second time working for this client.  However it’s the air I want to talk about.

I’d like to have a lot of climate change deniers come here and spend time…live, eat, walk, exercise, work.  I was born in Calgary and lived there for my first 21 years, and then moved to Vancouver where I’ve spent my adult life. Never really noticed the air.  Only it’s temperature and speed.  Never noticed the actually character, quality of air itself.   In the immense and deep forests of BC’s west coast, I often appreciate the rich oxygen content and cleanliness that I imagine the air there has.  But I don’t actually notice it. 

The first times I really noticed air were seeing air pollution in Mexico City, New York and Vancouver’s occasional summer thermal inversion haze.   Kid stuff compared to China.  Particulate matter (PM) of 2.5 micrometers or smaller are the most dangerous as they can lodge deeply in the lungs.  The air quality index numbers, if I am comparing right, says that an average day in Los Angles has a PM2.5 rating of around 40.  The air I'm breathing today started at a PM2.5 rating of 257, "Very Unhealthy".  At a rating of 300 the label becomes "Hazardous".  Hazardous air. 

Right now where I am it’s noon.  The sun is up there, somewhere, but my eye cannot actually discern which part of the sky in which it might be located. 
I want to get hysterical and scream this!  I can't see the fucking sun!!  A deep lymbic part of my brain gets really alarmed by this lack, as it is designed to....this is a threat.  The sun is suppsed to be there, the sun is supposed to be there. 

I am not seeing smoke, and I am not seeing weather.  It is simply filth and dirt and airborne toxic soup that is so dense I can’t tell where the fucking sun is.  I swear to express my shock, my horror. 

To suddenly not being able to locate the sun in the sky is and should be, a profoundly disorienting and frightening experience.  Akin to suddenly not having gravity hold me down to the ground. Not being able to breathe, being paralyzed, losing a major sense like sight or hearing or the loss of a loved one suddenly.  Something deeply rooted, no, the very something that was needed for roots to root within, is suddenly gone. 

I have a little pulsing pain in my right outer calf muscle right now as I write, and notice that I’ve wondered very quickly whether it is the haze…the toxic air particles, now in my body, messing with my leg.  This is where my thinking is going. 

This is apocalyptic.  Science-fiction horror show stuff. 

The impact on my psyche both times I’ve been here is immense and deeply disturbing in ways that nothing in my life has ever touched before.   I’ve visited the garbage dump in Guatemala City in 1990 and talked to residents there.  I spent about an hour being shown around by a young boy.  At some point I realized how tense I was, seeing the poorest of the poor people I’d seen in 6 weeks of Guatemala travel.  I stopped walking and took a deep breath and tried to deepen my awareness and presence.  I gagged immediately and almost vomited.  The combination was of the smell and sight of a landscape made completely of human waste and garbage and barely dressed children, youth and adults searching through it to survive. Birds and people rushing each garbage truck as it prepared to dump its new load.  My body and spirit sought to reject all of it outright…too overwhelming to take in for a young man from a privileged life.

A few years later I stood in a clear-cut forest for the first time on Vancouver Island’s west coast.  The whole terrain had been burned after being cut.  From my vantage point on top of a huge blackened stump, I surveyed the destruction and lifelessness and felt deep feelings of revulsion, hopelessness and guilt. 

Experiencing the air in China toady is mixture of the same kinds of feelings and psychology, but on a completely other level.

It is completely horrifying.   The haze drapes everything.  It is a shroud, a veil that robs me of the simplicity of greeting the day on good terms.  I can't. 

No action or body function is more basic to life than breath.  I am indoors, where I have been all day, wearing a filtration mask to protect me from the air inside my guest home here. 

China is awash in ‘the haze’.  China is the manufacturing engine of global capitalism. 
China makes my stuff, and your stuff.  Air is a global and shared phenomenon.
I am part of this.  You are part of this. 

I’d like to bring climate change deniers to come and live here for a few weeks…experience the sight of this air, the psychology of it…to feel the feelings and notice the thoughts that the haze produces.  

I see unusual birds about, enjoying their unique sounds, shapes and colors, and suddenly realize they too are breath beings.  All the vegetation here, the trees that are full and green, and home gardens people are growing, all are breath beings.  When it rained a few days ago I was happy, thinking it would clear up the sky.  But then realized the particulate matter would simply be washed into the soil, into the tomato plants, carefully planted trees and flower beds, right into the water table and aquifer below us here.  There is no ‘away’. 

I am just here for 90 days.  The locals here are living this nightmare full time.  I want to scream at everyone, “Get out, get out!!!  This will kill you all!”   I can't feel simple joy in seeing little kids here, anywhere here.  My attempts to connect with them lack a basic element I've always experienced with children.  The primal goodness and vitality of children, their very basic nature, for me, is tainted by the haze...I just can't feel good when I see kids. 

I might be one of the only people in this town wearing a mask today, and I’m a long way from feeling okay about wearing it around town. The mask is an admission, an acknowledgement.  I think that it why it is so rare to see them being worn.  I am a stranger and brief visitor here to this nation with a 5,000-year history.  I know nothing of China but I do know something about people.  I think I understand why I’m maybe the only masked one today in this town.   

It is horrifying. 

Deniers, come over here and breathe with me, and feel everything alive in you react to this threat.

There is no denial sufficient to avert this haze.