I returned to the United States in May, after nine months in China, and my greatest enjoyment has been to breathe deeply, soak in the beautiful blue skies and fluffy white clouds, and walk around the clean water reservoirs and wooded parks in eastern Massachusetts.
Summer is glorious here. The population density in the United States is much, much less than in China…which makes me realize why we still have blue skies. If we had as many people per square mile as China has to feed, clothe, employ, and shelter in modern, industrialized, urban fashion, our skies would be grey, too.
The city infrastructure in America now seems antiquated to me. Our potholed roads, rumbling subways, dark and gritty transit stations, and aging buildings don’t compare to the futuristic cityscapes, swift subways, and brilliantly lit highways of China. I saw Beijing, Shanghai, and Chongqing last year, and they are spectacular at nighttime.
In Beijing I travelled primarily by subway—sleek new trains whoosh quietly into sparkling stations, and video screens in each car offer glimpses of national politics, the military, China’s advanced industries, cooking lessons, and exercise tips. Sure, there are huge crowds in long lines during rush hour, but the subways get tens of millions of people where they need to go, quickly and reliably. It’s an impressive feat of engineering, logistics, and manpower.
The traffic congestion above ground is another story…it could take an hour or two to get across the city in a taxi. Sometimes it takes 45 minutes just to get across a jammed intersection. Yet car ownership is popular because it’s the American way.
Unfortunately the American Dream inspires the China Dream. I keep thinking America needs to set a better example. Instead of promoting new cars for every adult, we should be refurbishing our public transportation systems and building more bicycle paths. Instead of selling super-size sodas, we should be installing water vending machines around town, like I saw in Japan. When other countries copy us, they get fatter people and dirtier air.
The speed at which China has grown its economy these few decades has made its environmental impact so obvious: skies are grey and rivers are brown everywhere, not just in the big cities. Producing all that steel and concrete, and everything else that makes economies grow, also produces greenhouse gases, air pollution, and water pollution.
It’s a huge contradiction, I know: on the one hand, I’m admiring the impressive city infrastructure in China, and on the other hand I’m being concerned about heavy pollution. I am actually questioning our idea of “progress” and whether all-out consumerism is appropriate anymore. Seeing China has raised these questions for me.
I looked up population densities in the world and found that in the United States we have 85 people per square mile. China has 370 people, India has 953 people, and Singapore has 18,513 people per square mile. The fact that our skies are still blue is due less to our better behavior than to our sparse population.
I’m breathing deep while I can. How we will be able to keep the skies blue is a problem most people won’t want to face: we need to stop consuming so much, and Americans need to set a better example even though our skies are still blue.