Gotta’ love me some pollution! I’m an expat who’s lived in Asia for about 15 years, and in some of the more polluted parts. I’m also rather health conscious and trying to level up my diet and exercise regimen. I feel like I’ve got some obstacles that might be making that a bit more of a steep incline, and chief among them in the bad air.
Let’s just put this in perspective.
Here’s today’s real time air quality map of Australia, which is having extreme bush fires.
See that purple rectangle. That’s Taree in New South Wales, which is on fire at this moment. Let’s move in closer.
Hot damn! A score of 197 for particulate minutia lower than 2.5. That’s the kind that’s so tiny it can go through the lungs and straight into the blood stream.
And here’s where I live:
Not as bad as Taree, but we’re still in the red. The main problem here is the proximity to Bangkok, which is too highly polluted for my tastes, and having lived in China for nearly five years, I’m somewhat of a connoisseur of thick, soupy pollution. Here’s what Bangkok looks like today:
Lookin’ good! In China they call this “fog”. To their credit, I do think a certain times of the year there are instances where the smog will be blanketed in fog, so the deliberate misnomer isn’t 100% false.
Now let’s compare the pollution map of Australia to that of Thailand:
Holy crap, you’d think the whole country was on fire.
But it’s even worse in China.
By Gad the whole country is a wood-burning stove.
Pan back even further to see the contrast between West and East:
The reason we can compete with Taree with its brush fires is that our farmers are doing a lot of their seasonal burning off of the old crops, and that’s all over the place. And anyone who lives in these parts should know that ordinary people are fond of burning their garbage, and it’s not at all uncommon to see enormous plumes of smoke coming from someone’s backyard. Burning shit is fun. And when I lived in Cambodia, I lived near a clinic which liked to burn its medical waste in the lot next door, by the street, where I’d ride my bike. Call me biased, but I tend to favor burning plants over burning medical waste, household garbage, used toilet paper, and an array of plastics and rubber and anything and everything synthetic.
In China I visited a small city where a friend worked, and each evening there’d be a huge bonfire in the very small center of the city where the locals would throw their diapers, plastic cups, wrappers, shit paper, and, well, you get the idea. I wondered about the people living in apartments immediately adjacent.
OK, OK, I’m not just whinging, I did do some things about it. They have masks that can filter out the super fine particulate at Watson’s for $1, and I got an air filter, and I drink a lot of hibiscus tea (it has the highest concentration of antioxidants of any beverage, and by a good margin). I’m annoyed that I can’t go swimming though.
The Elephant Choking in the Room
Yeah, climate change. That’s a real prickly one. I have a few friends who are convinced a global cabal of corrupt scientists are working in cahoots to fleece the governments and people of the world in order to get funding for their bogus, exaggerated, alarmist “research”. That may seem much more plausible when you are looking at a deep blue sky and white puffy clouds. I had days in China that looked like the Jehovah’s Witnesses were right all along, the second coming was at hand, and hell fire was reigning on Earth. Pollution was so bad in the first city I taught in, one fine summer, that I could see it in the classroom between myself and my students. White powder would collect on my keyboard every few days. And when you are up close and personal with that level of pollution, you believe it has the power to ruin everything, including the atmosphere, which it has completely obliterated.
The city I lived in was so damned polluted — while historically and comparatively being labeled a back garden of Xi’an (home of the Terracotta Warriors) — that you could look directly at the sun most days without hurting your eyes. The sun was a blurry orb seen as if through layers of gauze. Turns out you could pollute lakes, rivers, oceans, and even the sky if you tried hard enough, and if it was profitable.
The flip-side of the argument about the cabal of rip-off scientists is that the cabal of oil and coal companies, which are the richest and most powerful in the world, are colluding to produce fake and skewed science in order to keep business keeping on, profits flowering, and fuck everyone else and the planet. Which one believes may be a bit dependent on what one sees when one looks out ones window.
Global warming or not, everyone agrees that sucking down pollution is horrible for your health. According to the Air Quality Life Index report coming out of Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, if you live in Bangkok you can kiss away 2.4 years of your life (as compared to if the city met WHO guidelines for maximal pollution levels). If you lived in Chiangmai, it’s 3.6 years, and Chiangrai 3.9 years. I’ve lived about 5 years in those cities, and another year in Rayong, which is a little better because it borders the gulf of Thailand. When we’re talking about shaving off years of my life, I can’t just be “whatevers”.
It’s impressive how passionate, motivated, and mobilized people are who denounce climate science (while usually embracing science in every other regard). You’d think, or at least I would, that you’d wanna’ err on the side of caution when dealing with potentially devastating extreme weather, the fiscal consequences, and just the discomfort of living in a hotter general environment. I mean, if this were smoking, and maybe it was bad for your health, where I live it’s the equivalent of smoking with reckless abandon in an elevator stuck between floors. Look at this world map!
Science vs Plausible Sounding Arguments:
There’s a world of difference between actual scientific, peer reviewed findings published in scientific journals, and what this or that politician or celebrity extrapolates from half-baked news articles encapsulating those findings. If Al Gore made a claim that didn’t come true, or exaggerated something, or got something wrong, that doesn’t mean that the underlying, international, historical science is bankrupt. It means he’s not a scientist. And for the record, climate change is even more difficult to predict exactly than the weather, because you can’t put the biosphere of the Earth in a petri dish, with multiple other biospheres in other Petri dishes, and conduct repeatable controlled experiments with limited variables. It’s impossible to perfectly predict the future. This doesn’t mean that we shit-can science in lieu of feel-good statistical gymnastics performed by non-scientists, and more specifically non-climate scientists.
For us people who are shit at math, which means we aren’t good at science either — we can’t perform the experiments, do the research, compile or analyze the data — there’s a little bit of faith involved, as in who do we believe. Do I believe NASA or Lord Monckton (an outspoken critic of climate science, who has an MA in classics, and a diploma in journalism studies). He’s also kinda’ bug-eyed, which is on par with his highest qualification, but a bit low of me to bring up. Do I believe every significant scientific body in existence, or industry funded fringe scientists (or pseudo-scientists) who get equal billing in TV debates, because each side should get half the time, even if one side represents a consensus of scientific opinion, and the other a tiny sliver of naysayers.
I’ve worked with people who believe in the flat Earth, shape shifting inter-dimensional reptile aliens (and that George Bush was one of them), and that we evolve from aliens who combined their DNA with primates in order to create a slave colony to mine gold for planet Nibiru. There are plausible sounding arguments issued from credible seeming people for just about any belief, no matter how patently ridiculous. You’d almost think people were conducting experiments to see what cockamamie idea they could pass off. And this is coming from someone who once spread his own conspiracy theory in order to see how long it would take for someone to email it back to me (back in the days when we mostly communicated by email). And that’s not mentioning my hoaxes on the art world, some of which have been unwittingly picked up by supposed authorities on art, and more than once. And there are others. I’m even featured in Snopes in connection with the infamous KFC mutant chicken hoax, because somebody ,in order to bolster the hoax (and without my knowledge, mind you) used a mock mutant chicken photo-manipulation I made, and it went viral. The short of this is that it’s not so hard to fool people with utter bullshit.
But when millions or billions of dollars, and some geniuses in statistics and marketing get together to hoodwink the public, they can really pull one over on us. Our only defense is to be able to sift through the arguments ourselves, and choose the side with the best and most comprehensive arguments and evidence, that’s if we can find it. This is further complicated when people we might trust as authorities on some issues are not equipped to tackle whether climate change is real or not. You might trust me on some art matters, but don’t listen to me when it comes to science. In the end, no matter who we listen to, anyone and everyone is going to appeal to the facts, and those are ultimately of a scientific nature. Not surprisingly in the least, theories of global conspiracies and the fact that nearly every conservative is a denier aside, the best arguments come from the real scientists themselves.
When there’s an argument, such as about volcanoes or cow farts, all we need bother to do is look up what the rebuttal is. It may go a step or two further, but the last and winning argument always belongs to the side of the scientific community. In order to not believe the international scientific community, including every significant scientific body, we need to believe that science itself is bankrupt and it’s all just a bunch of frauds milking the government dole. “They want to keep their jobs”. Or we can look at the actual arguments, findings, and scientists’ refutations of every one of the arguments put forth by the deniers. Just find whatever you think is the silver bullet that can finally kill the myth of climate change, type it into your search bar, plus “response” or “refute” or “debunk” or “rebuttal”, and see what comes up before congratulating yourself for having your feet planted firmly on the ground with a full grasp on reality.
Here, for example, is a science reporter explaining why climate change indeed exacerbated the incidence of brush fires in Australia. What makes his video more convincing than that of the one by, say, Paul Joseph Watson, which blamed it on environmentalists, is he tackles Watson’s grievous errors, as well as those from various politicians and wannabe authorities online. In other words, you get the better arguments, which are more comprehensive as they give more context, and take the oppositions best arguments into account.
If you can’t watch the video, or don’t want to, the short of it is that the fires are being caused by lightning strikes in remote areas which are very difficult for fire fighters to get to. This is happening more because the brush fire season has become longer, there’s less rain to combat it, and that is because of climate change. Arson is not the main cause, because there aren’t any more arsonists this year than any other, on average, and they set first where they can get to, which is also where firefighters can get to. And no it’s not because environmentalists opposed controlled burning, because the controlled burning happened to a great degree.
We can all be forgiven for falling for this or that very carefully crafted bit of misinformation, because that’s exactly what some of the best minds and most motivated people are engineering to occur. I, for one, believed that eggs were a perfect protein, and only recently learned that is just a slogan cooked up by the egg industry. Somehow it slipped into my common sense folder without me realizing it was just advertisement. It comes as no surprise that people who have something or everything to gain from molding public opinion do so in their own self-interest. There’s a bit of a war over what we are supposed to all believe, and how we are supposed to act, and science is taking hits from both the left (when it says biology is real) and the right (when it says we actually can affect the temperature of the planet). Speaking of the latter, last time I was in a plane looking down on a city, nothing is more obvious than the fact that we can radically alter a landscape, rivers, and even the sky. It seems more nutty to believe that the only thing we can’t change is the atmosphere, especially when we remember how the ozone layer was growing, until we banned or limited chlorofluorocarbons, and that fixed it. So, we can put a hole in the atmosphere with chlorofluorocarbons, and we can fix it by scaling them back, but no matter how much CO2 we pump into the atmosphere it won’t make any difference?!
Science can’t answer everything, but for the stuff that falls well within its terrain, like biology or climatology, I think we’d all be a little wiser to be inclined to believe science rather than its detractors. In any case, if you live in this part of the world, it would be nice to be able to go outside without gacking on fine particulate matter.
And, honestly, I’m a little annoyed that I have to dole out cash to combat pollution which is being made by other people brazenly out of selfish self-interest.