In December, the Chinese government issued two Red Alerts for air in Beijing. And the media – both internationally and nationally in China – clamored over the news. This massive media coverage can certainly be good for raising awareness on the issue, but there are a few adverse effects that hurt the environmental movement overall.
Firstly, it sensationalizes environmental issues so that we only care about them when something severe happens. If we only care about the environment when dangerous events occur, then we’ll never fully change our attitudes or behaviors.
Secondly, constant bombardment of environmental devastation makes us numb to the degradation – just as we are often numb to violence that is so prevalent in the news. For some, the degradation is a part of everyday life so it seems less possible to change. This was an overarching attitude I found in interviewees towards Beijing pollution a few years ago for my undergraduate thesis. “没办法,” “meibanfa,” “there is nothing to be done” or “there is nothing I can do” was the main attitude, which I interpreted as apathy.
Many interviewees commented about air pollution in Beijing, “It’s not that bad,” or “It’s getting better,” even when data showed it was getting worse. I couldn’t understand how they could think so little of what seemed like a huge apocalyptic event. I asked one of my friends if she went outside during one of the worst days, she said “Yeah, probably!” I was stunned! But she remarked that the air did not seem any different than any other days.
This “meibanfa” attitude also impacted some of my interviewees’ behaviors. Since the air pollution was an everyday phenomenon, there was no urgency to exert protective measures. Some said they wore masks if they saw the PM 2.5 level was high on the news, but oftentimes they wouldn’t think about it. I made observations one smoggy day on the bus and counted the number of people with masks. Out of around 40 people, only 3 wore masks.
This sense of “meibanfa” also reflected ideas of collective action. Interviewees didn’t think fellow citizens would reciprocate their “green” actions, and thus their individual efforts would not change the situation. So there was no point in trying. My interviewees, regardless of whether they supported or criticized the government, often felt the government was the only entity that could change the situation.
I learned three things from that summer and my interviewing experience. Firstly, the Western media was obsessed with dramatizing the air quality situation. I had become a victim of this media drama as well. I entered Beijing that summer expecting citizens to be fed up with the air, ready to revolt against the “airpocalypse.” Some interviewees pointed this out to me—that the Western media was just a bullying China. While I thought that maybe Western journalists hoped to bring the attention to these issues to creating positive change, it also seemed that they wanted to portray China as a nation fraying from social unrest and environmental degradation.
Secondly, I realized that maybe “meibanfa” is a global phenomenon (though it has mainly Chinese characteristics). We are so used to hearing scary data and news events of environmental disasters that we don’t care anymore, or have accepted that the world will end in a giant mega-hurricane-smog-tidal wave event and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. So as much as I resent Western media for dramatizing China’s air situation, maybe we do need these reminders of the circumstance’s urgency. If we accept effects of climate change as part of everyday life we may be less likely to act.
Thirdly, this international shaming of China’s pollution has distracted from other environmental issues taking place in the country (and worldwide). Climate change does not just consist of pollution and emissions. Issues of land rights, desertification, and biodiversity are often given little attention. For instance, the recent deal reached in Paris, while historic, has largely ignored issues of indigenous peoples’ land and environmental knowledge rights. As another example, the landslide that occurred in Shenzhen and the Tianjin explosion last summer have shown us that man-made environmental disasters take many more forms than just air pollution.
So while smog envelops Northeast China and our newspapers, I urge reporters and citizens to think more deeply about the different aspects of climate change and the impacts media has on our behaviors and policies.
Smog over the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing, July 2014.