Thursday, 12 December 2013

Is Smog Egalitarian? Chinese State Media Seems to Think so

China as depicted by Disney World - it may be fake but at least my lungs are safe...

There’s been a lot of news coverage recently of the terrible pollution problem being endured in a number of Chinese cities. On 6 December, the highest possible health warning for Shanghai was issued, with pollution levels reaching 20 times what the UN deems safe for humans to breathe in. Flights were cancelled, children were forced indoors and visibility was reduced to mere metres.

To put a merry spin on this epic public health crisis, CCTV, the state television network, has published a column outlining five ‘unexpected gains’ brought by the smog. These include: smog has united the public against a common enemy, it’s given the nation time to reflect on the consequences of its economic boom and, my personal favourite, everyone’s sense of humour is coming out as people turn to jokes and sarcasm to deflect from the crisis. Western media outlets are finding the whole list a bit hilarious since it seems somewhat absurd to think that health-ravishing haze is improving Chinese people’s English-language skills (number five on the list).

Out of all the points though, for me, the most interesting was number two: the suggestion that air pollution is a great equalizer, poisoning the lungs of both the rich and the poor. The idea that massive environmental catastrophes are egalitarian is one that I’ve encountered numerous times, most notably in the work of esteemed sociologist, Ulrich Beck. However despite this argument being quite widespread, it’s also incorrect.

In Beck’s renowned book, Risk Society, he defines the current late modern age as one in which human and technological productivity has led to the reduction of material need. However the growing productive forces of modernisation have also unleashed new hazards and potential threats. The threats that characterise late modernity are things such as radioactivity, toxins and pollutants that evade human perception. They cause systematic, geographically dispersed harm but are mainly invisible. So, for example, while a volcanic eruption is a highly visible and localised event, radiation is invisible and its effects far-reaching.

In agreement with the Chinese television network, Beck also argues that late modern risks are egalitarian. As he pithily surmises: “poverty is hierarchic, smog is democratic.” Smog clouds don’t distinguish between rich lungs and poor lungs, they poison each equally. Beck concedes that wealth and class do play a part in the distribution of risks. For example, risks from radiation and toxic chemicals are connected to working in industrial plants, work associated with the lower classes. However, ultimately, the risks of late modernity are unavoidable irrespective of class due to their invisibility and their wide reach.

Beck makes a good point that working in certain industries will increase your exposure to risks and that these occupations tend to be dominated by the lower social classes. However I think Beck understates the ability of wealth to mitigate risk. Beck argues that, “in the water supply all the social strata are connected to the same pipe.” But what about all the rich people who can buy and import bottled water? Or all the rich people who can move away from areas with toxins in the water or pollutants in the air or encroaching sea levels, living instead in plush chalets on idyllic mountain-sides? And while it’s true that smog poisons the rich and poor equally, the rich can afford significantly better healthcare and thus the consequences of the smog are reduced. Not only are risks not evenly distributed but their consequences are not universally endured either.

I realise that the CCTV column is just a light-hearted attempt to bring some optimism to a grave situation but by describing environmental disasters as egalitarian, it absolves the originators of risks of their responsibility. The late modern, Western world creates most of the world’s pollution and yet it’s the poorer countries that are paying for it. While America and Europe unthinkingly pumps CO2 into the air, Bangladesh and Thailand are struggling to cope with ever-rising sea levels and increasingly catastrophic natural disasters. Describing environmental catastrophes as equalisers suggests that we all bear equal burden for resolving the disaster but it’s the wealthy, polluting nations that are creating the risks and therefore they should be the ones striving to nullify them.

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