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Geologic Column
Eating Dog and Breathing Hard: China, 2006
Fred Schwab

Our 12-hour flight from Chicago descended through Beijing smog. Air pollution would be a constant presence throughout our four-week visit to China in April.

My wife and I had come to visit our 26-year-old son Jeffrey, who is teaching English at Yichun University in rural Jiangxi Province in southeastern China (19,000 students, annual tuition and dorm fee, $1,000). I also wanted to supplement my rudimentary knowledge of China's history and economy, its growing environmental crises, and its increasing hunger for natural resources (see Geotimes, October 2005) with a firsthand look.

We encountered traffic-choked Beijing during a one-hour taxi ride ($7) from the airport. The driver apparently couldn't find his brakes, so he just used the horn and accelerator. Everywhere, we were besieged by hawkers selling massages, Olympic hats ($.70), postcards, DVDs and $2 "Rolexes." In the new China, everyone is a capitalist.

Beijing is one of 99 Chinese cities with a population of more than 1 million people. Like the rest of urban China, it changes each minute. The capital's population is 13 million people (1 percent of China's total), but it has 5 percent of the 25 million automobiles (the United States has ten times that). Cars and coal-fired electricity plants contribute much of Beijing's air pollution (a concentration equal to that of New York, Chicago and Atlanta combined).

Beijing doesn't monopolize bad air: Sixteen Chinese cities rank in the top 20 most polluted places on Earth, but Beijing is cleaning itself up for the 2008 Olympics. Energy-inefficient automobiles pay higher taxes. Coal-burning power plants are not being cleaned up or converted to cleaner fuels, but are being moved from the city center.

Dust storms contribute air pollution across Beijing and much of northern China. Deforestation and desertification has increased their frequency and intensity. A storm two days before our arrival dropped 300,000 tons of sand. Storms inflict $60 billion of damage annually. Reforestation is under way.

Contrasts are surprising. A notice in our hotel room desk was titled, "Alleviate Global Warming: Choose Moderation of Air-conditioning." It meticulously outlined how much greenhouse gas reduction would result if we turned up the thermostat a single degree to, "Cool the Earth, Green the Olympics." Do they know something our own government seems yet to be convinced of?

Water purity is uncertain. Most people purchase bottled water. Sewage systems are archaic, and water treatment substandard. Yet each city has immaculate, beautifully landscaped parks funded by modest admission fees. In a nation where 600,000 citizens die yearly of lung cancer, parks are equipped with exercise areas and are crowded from dawn to dusk.

We cruised down the Yangtze River for three days through its fjord-like gorges. Our ship left from Chongqing, China's largest city (34 million in an area roughly equal to that of Los Angeles, which has a population around 10 million). We docked just upstream from the legendary Three Gorges Dam project.

This masterpiece, begun in 1994 and scheduled for completion in 2009, is surrounded by tight security. A 2-kilometer-long, 200-meter-high dam (resistant to magnitude-7 earthquakes) is the centerpiece. The resulting 600-kilometer-long reservoir, with a capacity of 40 billion cubic meters, will displace 1.1 million people.

Built primarily for flood protection, the Three Gorges Dam will also be the world's largest hydropower facility. Typically, the first 12 generators were purchased from the West, but the Chinese then built 14 additional units. The Three Gorges Dam is the most expensive human construction project in history, costing a whopping $30 billion. Keep in mind that floods in 1998 displaced 2 million people, killed 3,000 and caused $26 billion in damages.

On our tour through the country, we took seven intra-China flights, nervously anticipating rickety aircraft, Quonset hut terminals and gravel parking lots. Instead, however, we flew in new Airbus and Boeing planes and landed at state-of-the-art terminals. Flight attendants did NOT offer "beagle or spaniel," as opposed to "chicken or pasta." I did eat dog one evening, which was surprisingly tasty, though deceptively described by my son as rabbit.

Immense differences persist between rural and urban China. During a terrifying three-hour bus ride to our son's city ($3), we passed huge mounds of trash dumped along the roadside, even in town centers. We swerved to avoid trucks, bicycles and Volkswagen-sized potholes. Bikes are everywhere (up to a billion, compared to 100 million in the United States).

At our son's university, we evaluated the students' English proficiency. Conversations revealed major societal differences. America's affluence is embarrassing. My wife's lecture to journalism students generated silence when she discussed freedom of the press. I discussed the environment, suggesting that it was government's responsibility to respond to the people rather than vice versa, particularly when it comes to recycling, waste disposal and improving the quality of life. Students stared blankly.

The Chinese endure life's hardships and governmental control without complaint, perhaps because much has improved over the past two decades. Something has to give, as this wonderful and burgeoning country of 1.3 billion (one-fourth of humankind) finds its place in the world. If China's oil consumption (6.5 million barrels of oil per day, compared to the 20 million barrels per day consumed in the United States) were to match our own on a per-capita basis, not a drop of oil would be left for anyone else.

The Chinese know that the indiscriminate spewing of waste into air and water and voracious burning of fossil fuels cannot continue. As sleeping giants like China and India come online, the global community must work with them to better manage energy resources, curb environmental damage, and coordinate population and economic growth.

Schwab is a professor of geology at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. E-mail:

"China's Changing Landscape," Geotimes, October 2005

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