“The Air that I Breathe”

Personal Reflections on Pollution in China

“Sometimes all I need is the air that I breathe.” I loved the 1974 hit “The Air That I Breathe” by The Hollies when I was a kid. The song is really a love song and has little to do with air pollution, the environment, or the main things I wish to reflect on in this short piece.

Earlier this year, The Economist reported, “Last year on a typically smoggy day in Beijing, Li Keqiang, the prime minister, declared ‘war’ on air pollution—a problem that has become a national fixation. Chinese leaders have been embarrassed by the damage caused to China’s international image by the city’s relentlessly grey skies. They worry that the smog could fuel dissatisfaction with the government and undermine stability in the capital, as well as affect their own and their families’ health.” If the problem of air pollution in China has reached a level that forces the central government to admit it is a problem then you can bet it is a serious problem.

That doesn’t mean the government is fully transparent about the problem of air pollution in China’s cities. Several months ago, the government blocked the U.S. Embassy in Beijing from posting its daily air quality index numbers. The only numbers they post now are those controlled by the central government.

Air pollution is a painful truth that the leaders of China cannot deny, and to be fair, they do not want to deny it; but the government still wants to be in charge of how such bad news gets broadcast. A few months ago, a well-known Xinhua News Agency broadcaster posted the results of her research on China’s air quality problem on WeChat. The video went viral and after a few days, was taken down. One could legitimately ask the question, “Why would anyone willingly subject themselves to such poor air?”

In 1991, I sold my car in the U.S. and hopped on a plane headed for China to teach for two years. Those years were not only pivotal in shaping my vision and passion for China and its church, but they also served to show me how much more enjoyable life was without having to rely on a car for transportation.

During those two years, I came across some research conducted by the U.S. government that contained information about lifestyles in America. The information detailed how heavily American communities are impacted by things like transportation. This study had a huge impact on my thinking and caused me to begin rethinking how growing up in the States had shaped certain patterns in my life related to transportation; how much time I spent driving, and how much money I spent on gas, car insurance, and maintenance. In contrast, my life in China was “car free” from those burdens and challenges.

After returning to America, I tried living in the suburbs without a car for a year and found it nearly impossible, even dangerous. (Try riding your mountain bike on the side of a busy road with cars and trucks whizzing by at 50+ mph.) I gave up in frustration and bought a used Toyota. After getting married and adding our second car, I felt a bit trapped. Life in the U.S. demanded we purchase a car. One day my brother-in-law, a transportation expert that now works for the State of California, shared a statistic with me that blew me away. The average American spends roughly a third of her income on transportation.

Fast forward to our move to China in the summer of 2010. I rejoiced before our move that I was able to literally give away our two vehicles. Living in China does not require us to own a car. Public transportation is cheap and nearly every store or service we need on a daily basis (grocery store, hardware store, restaurants, hair cuts, dry cleaner, tailor, computer equipment, bank, etc) is available within a 5-10 minute walk (no exaggeration).

I’ll be honest, my original intention in not buying a car in China was not that of environmental concern (carbon emissions, etc), but those concerns are also not insignificant. I don’t know how much I am contributing to reducing global pollution by not owning a car, but I am sure I’m not adding to it either.

My motivations for not buying a car were more lifestyle related. I wanted my family to live according the wisdom of Ecclesiastes 5:11-12: “ As goods increase, so do those who consume them. And what benefit are they to the owner except to feast his eyes on them? The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether he eats little or much, but the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep.” The average soul in China lives with so much less than we do as Americans and I believe there is a certain beauty, simplicity, and spiritual benefit to living according to this wisdom.

This post is not meant to be a sermon or a theological treatise on this issue, although I think both sermons and theological treatises should be part of our regular spiritual nourishment. This short piece is simply to point out that often as Americans, we are easily and more readily able to point out the flaws and problems of countries like China, myself included. On the other hand, we might not always see our own national problems so clearly especially when it touches upon lifestyle choices.

What does all this have to do with air pollution in China? I guess there are two points related to air pollution. First, it is true that many Chinese cities have high levels of pollution and breathing the air can be hazardous to your health. I have developed a mild respiratory condition over the last five years due to air pollution, and so have nearly all the members of my family. On the other hand, China’s cities, and even suburbs, are structured in such a way that living without a car, a very environmentally friendly thing, is much easier and convenient due to public transportation and many other factors.

Second, the “carless” lifestyle has probably reduced my blood pressure and increased my life expectancy. I honestly believe that years of my life have been shaved off by waiting in ridiculous traffic jams in the U.S. while being behind the wheel of a car.

God obviously does care about the world he created, both humanity and the environment. Proverbs 12:10 tells us that among the things that mark a righteous man is his care for God’s creation (in this case animals). This was God’s truth way before it was a political agenda. We are trying to live that out in China for God’s glory, in the midst of a polluted and sinful society. How will people be motivated beyond mere economic incentives not to litter, or to not dump toxic waste into the rivers and lakes, or to take a long-term view of protecting the environment? Part of the answer is the gospel. When hearts grasp the truth expressed in passages like Proverbs 12:10, society cannot help but undergo change for the better.

This piece was originally published on the China Partnership Blog on May 27, 2015 and reposted here by permission.
Image courtesy of Beijing traffic by Safia Osman, on Flickr