Johnny Nash soulfully sang a hit song by that title in 1972. The tune didn’t refer to air pollution, but rather to the sun coming out after a rain storm. The song was popular in the United States during a time when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was enacting tougher clean air standards for factories and automobiles. Over the years, the strategy was a huge success in improving air quality which reduced related health hazards.
I recall the first day of my first visit to China in 2007. I was watching a deep red sun fade behind what I thought were approaching storm clouds in Shanghai. I braced for rain and thunder that evening, none of which materialized. The next day brought a similar scene, grey skies with a hazy sun not falling below the horizon, but simply fading out while up in the sky.
Several days during my five-week visit were gorgeous, with blue skies and bright sunshine. But the majority of the time was shrouded in various degrees of grey haze. One morning in Tianjin I awoke to open the drapes in my hotel room to a shocking sight out the window - nothing but white. The visibility was literally zero.
I returned to the United States and was amazed by the instant comparison in outdoor visual clarity. I didn’t feel well for a couple of weeks, and could only chalk it up to jet lag and just being tired from so much active travel. In the back of my mind I wondered if the air in China was partly to blame.
The images in the news and across social media in the past year have shown Chinese cities enveloped in a far more dense “soup” than I experienced. Reports of decreased life expectancy because of air pollution in China have been published. The government in Beijing right now is publically vowing to do something about the problem. President Xi Jinping just last week was reported to have “braved Beijing smog for a rare stroll in public.” Meanwhile a resident in Hebei province dared to file a lawsuit against the government because of the bad air.
In order for China to maintain its robust economic output, it has to keep its factories going. It needs to keep people employed, it wants to promote economic prosperity at home as part of maintaining “social harmony.” But the harmonious ideal may be slowly choked to death if the nation is not able to come to grips with pollution, and soon.
I saw firsthand China is an amazing and beautiful country, and I know the air pollution is not China’s problem alone. The United States realized the path it was on and was able to change course. Perhaps China will in some manner borrow a page from our history, or find success in its own way so it may again “see clearly now.”