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A Foretaste: What We Can Learn From The Yellow Dust From China

It’s that time of year again.

If you want a good look at the future, according to the course we have set right now, this is it. Take a good look. It’s someone else’s grandfather on a bicycle, wearing a facemask. Someday, that’s going to be your grandfather—or your mother, or you—wearing a mask. Your eyes are going to be burning too, but you won’t pay it as much mind after the first few toxic springs.

At least, I haven’t. When I snapped the picture of him as he passed by, my eyes were stinging, but I wasn’t paying it much mind. This is my third spring, my third time witnessing the annual pouring out of poison yellow dust from the Gobi and Taklamakan Desert over Korea, over Asia… hell, this stuff even gets as far as North America some years. You can find pictures of it haze from it hanging over the Grand Canyon, if you look around online. This thing is semi-annual, and reports of it go back a couple of thousand years.

My eyes were stinging because I had been out of doors for over twenty minutes. My eyes were stinging because of what’s in the Yellow Dust: a poison lacing of cadmium, copper, lead, sulfur dioxide, seasoned with traces of other vile heavy metals. It’s what happens when you have exhaust fumes, and the pollutants of heavy industry, dumped by people whose government did not regulate their activities, right?

I mean, this dust comes from China: China, the polluted. China, the irresponsible. They must be dumping toxins in the desert, right? That’s what most people I’ve talked to seem to think. And not for no reason: there’s a legendary story of one fellow who handed a Beijing official a glass of water from his local river. He explained that this was the water he and his people had to drink from.

The water in the glass was black.

The official, in front of everyone, downed the glass of foul water, and vowed improvements. Improvements have been vowed many times in China, and many of those vows have turned out to be impossible to keep. One of the most failed of those vows was the promise to clean up the Huai River basin. The Huai is a horror: foul water that still tastes like metal after you boil it and skim off the scum, and with it goes a cancer plague. This is the price people pay for local industry, for MSG factories and tanneries and paper mills. They pay with their stomachs and intestines, having to make room for tumors and sickness.

But the shocking thing is this: the poisonous Yellow Dust isn’t poisonous because of the dust itself. It’s not as if the Gobi and Taklamakan are huge seeping pits of toxic waste. No, it’s poisonous because of the wind. It’s air streams that carry it through highly-polluted industrial regions—far from the desert—that cause the dust clouds that reach Korean to be so heavily laden with heavy metals and toxins.

At least according to this article, care of Joel, that’s how it works. (Assuming I’m understanding it correctly.) It’s business as normal that is at the root of this situation. Factories with smokestacks. Not secret dumping in the desert. Not any hidden plot. It’s just smokestacks, pollution in the air, and a wind blowing through it that becomes a bad wind blowing through it. Just Plain Old Dirty Developing World Industrial Smog (With Chinese Characteristics).

When it reaches Korea, it makes a blue sky like the one I looked up into this morning, into this, which I found myself looking into by mid-afternoon:

Now, whose fault is this? Is it the Chinese government, for not being more strict about the environment? Is it the fault of the Korean government, for not pressuring China to be more responsible? What is China supposed to do? Shut down all those factories for weeks at a time? Block the wind somehow?

The problem is not the dust storms themselves: they’ve been happening for thousands of years and probably nothing can be done about them.

The problem isn’t that expecting the businesses to close is unreasonable: after all, businesses that are that unstable, that dependent on natural phenomena, tend not to stay afloat very well. Emissions can be reduced, but they can never be eliminated completely.

The problem, in fact, is elsewhere: it’s at the intersection between nature and industry. It’s been put together in the normal, blockheaded, stubborn way that we’ve been doing it in the West since at least the time the first Luddites took smashing the looms that were taking their jobs. (And our tanneries date much farther back still.)

What’s so blockheaded about it is that we’re being so defiant about it. “Okay, wind is gonna pass through. These chemicals are going to get redistributed. Well, damn it all, what are we supposed to do with these chemicals? We’re going to release them into the environment, damn it! We can take it. We need this.” It’s a lot like a teenager who, being told he is grounded, proceeds to make a defiant mess of his bedroom to protest. Nobody has to sleep in there but him, though.

Why would we ever release our chemicals into rivers? Why would we belch our smoke into the sky? These things are limited, these things are expensive. Priceless, yes, but let’s be pragmatic. They can probably be cleaned. But the price is exhorbitant. In the long run, it’s far cheaper, and far more intelligent, to take environment into account. To find a way to lock up your poison byproducts, or retool them to good use. Or find a new way to make what you’re making, with less poison as a byproduct. Instead of cutting down forests, find a way to make forests part of the process. Engineer trees that rejuvenate quickly, or produce energy via souped-up photosynthesis; instead of overfarming, work with countries that can produce surpluses without degrading their environments, and figure out some kind of tradeoff. Finding instead some way to use the mess in a marketing ploy is downright disgusting; it’s the epitome of short-term thinking. I take it as evidence that we will get what we deserve when the really bad stuff hits the fan.

Another example is plastic. Most of the plastic we use—no, almost all of it, really—is made from what’s left over when we make petroleum. Now, the thing about plastic is that it doesn’t break down the way you imagine it would. It does break down—it’s not bio-degradable, but it is degradable.

The problem is that it doesn’t break down into anything natural. It breaks down into smaller and smaller pellets, tinier and tinier bits and pieces. When this is in water, say, ocean water, it gets out into the environment in a huge way. And what’s more, it’s a veritable magnet for pollutants: PCBs and other nasty stuff clings to this stuff at over a million times the ambient concentration of toxins in the water. Is it just me or does this sound like a potentially useful property, if we can learn to capitalize on it? Perhaps it will be, but for now, what you get is little hunks of plastic that look a lot like bird food, floating in the water. Everywhere in the water. The oceans are full of this stuff.

And then birds eat this stuff. Some of it they regurgitate into the hungry mouths of their offspring.

Think I made this up? Watch this.

This is how ecocides happen. This is what leads to people shrugging and buying facemasks when confronted with micro-disasters. Now, consider the fact that people run across whole seas of plastic bag spills out there in the Pacific ocean—apparently, mostly Anglo-American plastic bag products, too. No major studies on the effects of these things breaking down and invading the environment has even been conducted. It’s not limited to any country’s national waters, so nobody particular cares about it, perhaps. But it’s going to affect all of us, that is very likely something we’ll see within our lifetimes.

What is shocking, again, is the sheer idiotic stubbornness of the plastics industry. We have known for years how to make biodegradable plastics, but nobody much is doing it. That plastic bag most of you Dear Readers brought your groceries home in? It’s a petrol bag. It’s a poison bag. People are still making these things, can you believe it? The sheer persistence, the sheer dedication… to something fundamentally stupid.

But given the kind of denial we’re seeing in Washington, I am leery about expecting progress. Given the fact that Kyoto is mostly for show, and not all that very effective in its present form, I am withholding faith. In any case, any conception of “cleaning up” or “fixing the mess” that doesn’t take into account a long-term replacement of a pollutive industry with a less-pollutive one, of a toxic product with a non-toxic product, or of a stubborn approach to a canny, co-optive approach to the environment… any effort to fix the problem that doesn’t include massive change in the way we construct, pursue, and feel about business in its relationship with nature is doomed to be nothing more than a failing, frantic, desperate stopgap measure.

In the meantime, face masks are cheap, but the skies are going to be dark in my town, off and on, for the next few weeks. And most people, of course, simply go on about their business… I just hope a few people make their business all about finding a new way to put together our world so that dust storms don’t somehow become invading poison storms.

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